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Dismantling the police, reimagining public safety

To achieve justice, we must get creative and learn from alternative systems past and present. Most of all, we must listen to the communities that have been most subject to militarized control and systemic neglect.

Minneapolis Police Department, 1st Precinct, downtown Minneapolis
Minneapolis Police Department, 1st Precinct, downtown Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Power, hope, and imagination are, now as ever, central to the struggle to create a more just society. People outraged by the police killing of George Floyd are demanding justice, and widespread protests have upended local politics seemingly overnight. Changes recently considered unthinkable, dismissed as too radical or utopian, suddenly feel possible.

Joshua Page
Joshua Page
Hope is in the air, even among those who know how often we’ve been here before. Freedom movements of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color have repeatedly made police central to their cries for justice, only to be ignored or offered pale reform agendas. This time feels different.

“Dismantle the police” has emerged as a vital campaign, dramatically joined by a majority of the Minneapolis City Council. A demand to end the status quo, the slogan is also a clarion call to civic imagination. Do we have the courage and creativity to reinvent public safety? Can we reimagine whom it is for — and how and by whom it is best achieved?

Minneapolis has come to exemplify the failures of progressive police reform. For decades, reformers here have tried to make law enforcement less aggressive and alienating and more accountable. The Minneapolis Police Department has embraced some reforms. But the hard work of real change and accountability has been stymied, partly by state laws that enable police violence and partly by staunch resistance from the officers’ Federation, led by a champion of warrior-style policing, Bob Kroll.

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Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color in Minneapolis point to a long history of police racism and brutality to explain their well-founded distrust of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). Statistics support them. Roughly 19% of the city’s population is classified as Black, yet 63% of MPD’s use-of-force incidents since 2008 have involved Black people. Arrest data confirm huge racial disparities in policing low-level crimes, from loitering to marijuana.

Michelle Phelps
Michelle Phelps
Worse still, over-policed communities also bear the greatest share of the MPD’s failure to prevent and address violent crime. In 2019, the MPD solved only 56% of murders and just 22% of rapes. As it aggressively monitors and controls targeted neighborhoods, the MPD has failed to protect and serve the entire city.

Unjust and ineffective policing persists, in part, because of the difficulty of imagining alternatives. Predictably, critics of dismantling have stoked fears of the unknown: Defund the police and you’ll get lawless chaos and violence. It sounds like a risky gamble, especially to people who are not subject to the chaotic and lawless violence of American policing as it stands.

In truth, the consequences of dismantling will depend entirely on what we invest in next. To achieve justice, we must get creative and learn from alternative systems past and present. Most of all, we must listen to the communities that have been most subject to militarized control and systemic neglect. Yet as council members rightly suggest, sound ideas supported by experts and evidence are not in short supply.

Joe Soss
Joe Soss
Relative to police officers, health professionals and social workers are far better trained for responding to emergencies involving addiction, domestic disputes, lack of housing, and mental health. Many nonviolent drug, sex, and nuisance behaviors need not be criminalized to be effectively handled. Traffic control and many business violations can be handled by administrative agencies instead of armed officers.

Funds currently spent on the MPD can be invested in education, health, housing, and other services that prevent crime and strengthen community capacity to promote safety and wellbeing. Equally important, newly available funds can be directed to community-based anti-violence programs and emergency-intervention teams, many of which have already proven effective at reducing violent crime.

These are but a few of the alternatives already on the rack.

Ultimately, the call to dismantle the police demands we take responsibility for systems that have failed, and embrace the creative work of policy innovation. Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color have long demanded greater public safety and championed alternative approaches to this goal. Over the past several weeks, protesters have moved these visions to centerstage, and people working to protect their neighborhoods have sent a clear message that “the safest system is one grounded in and accountable to an organized community.” Finally, local politicians seem to be listening.

Joshua Page and Michelle Phelps are associate professors of sociology at the University of Minnesota. Joe Soss is Cowles Professor for the Study of Public Service, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

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