A united message — a rarity for the group — emerged from the Minneapolis City Council in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death: It’s time to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.
It’s a powerful statement. For many, it’s also unclear exactly what it means.
Uncertainty, argue some council members, is baked into the proposition of creating a new public safety system. Even so, during its June 26 meeting, the council voted to send a proposal to the Minneapolis Charter Commission that would amend the city’s charter — essentially, its constitution — to allow for the dismantling of the police department.
It’s the first step in the process of giving Minneapolis voters a say by putting the amendment on the ballot this November, a timetable that would hurry the usual process for amending the city charter. And on Wednesday, the desire to move quickly was greeted with intense questioning during a meeting of the city’s charter commission, with commissioners echoing Mayor Jacob Frey’s concern that the plan is too vague about what comes next.
But if the meeting served as an opportunity for charter commissioners to ask council members questions about the proposal, it also allowed the council members who wrote the amendment to further explain why they think their plan is necessary — and how it might work. Here, then, is everything we do (and don’t) know about the city council’s proposal so far:
First, what does it mean when city council members say they want to “dismantle” the police department?
The Minneapolis city charter requires that there be a police department and that it is funded and staffed based on population figures. The charter also currently says the mayor has the authority “to make all rules and regulations” for police. Under the current system, a key aspect of police reform efforts — disciplinary matters — are handled by the police chief, a position hired by the mayor that’s approved by the council every three years. Yet disciplinary decisions are finalized after binding arbitration, which regularly reverses firings and other punishment.
The new proposal would amend the charter to allow the city to disband the police department, do away with other charter mandates regarding city policing (like the funding requirement), and put a new public safety department under the supervision of the city council. If the amendment goes on the ballot and passes, changes would go into effect on May 1, 2021, giving the council time to consider community input and data in order to start the process of creating a new public safety system. As written, the proposal allows the new department to include a division of licensed, traditional peace officers.
Minneapolis council members say they don’t know, exactly, what that new department will look like, though members say they are committed to a detailed, year-long engagement tour to determine the most equitable way to create a new public safety department.
The city council proposal says the new department will be charged with providing safety services but will be public health oriented. And that the head of the department will have “non-law enforcement experience in community safety services.”
Council members say amending the charter, and thus establishing a new public safety system, is necessary to enact wholesale change in city policing. “We can’t continue to tinker,” said council member Alondra Cano during Wednesday’s meeting. She added that city leaders “must change the charter in order to give life to all the ideas our community residents believe make a difference.”
The five Minneapolis City Council members who wrote the charter amendment proposal — Council President Lisa Bender, Alondra Cano, Steve Fletcher, Jeremiah Ellison and Cam Gordon — point out that no American police department has ever been razed with the explicit intention of rebuilding a new public safety division in its stead. “We want to take a department that is an anomaly and bring it under city council control with mayor and charter cooperation,” said Gordon.
Ellison said putting public safety decisions through the city council is a more transparent process, which he said is better for clarifying reporting and accountability, even while council members are not interested in the day-to-day management of police. “We’re interested in passing policies that police have to follow.”
Why is the charter commission involved?
In order for the city council to put something on the ballot, state law requires that ballot language is reviewed by the Minneapolis Charter Commission, a 15-member body of volunteers appointed by the Hennepin County Courts and charged with providing the council with recommendations. The charter commission can take up to 150 days to review the proposal, which would eclipse the Aug. 21 deadline for placing items on the November ballot, but it’s trying to move quickly. The commission will hold two public meetings on July 15 and July 21 to give the public a chance to offer feedback on the measure.
Where did the idea to dismantle the police come from?
Police abolition has been prevalent in and a consistent part of various civil rights movements for decades. During an early effort to end Jim Crow in the late 1940s, the idea of abolishing prisons and police gradually became central to desegregation campaigns across the south. At the height of the civil rights era, as television footage showed police beating Black civil rights protesters, calls to disband police altogether grew louder still.
The abolish movement was carried into modern-day by Angela Davis, a prominent radical philosopher and activist, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a prison scholar at the City University of New York, while police abolitionist scholars trace the exact origin of the chant-ready, not-always-literal catchphrases “dismantle police” and “defund police” to the late 1980s.
Who in Minneapolis supports it?
Last month, nine of the 12 Minneapolis council members pledged to dismantle the police department: Bender, Andrea Jenkins, Cano, Phillipe Cunningham, Ellison, Fletcher, Gordon, Andrew Johnson and Jeremy Schroeder. (The June 26 vote to send the language to the charter commission was unanimous.)
There are also several groups like Black Visions Collective, a local advocacy group that is committed to “dismantling systems of oppression and violence,” and Reclaim the Block, an organization that has been inundated with donations and support since Floyd’s death. Both organizations say they want the city to use money that currently goes to the police to fund other public services.
Another effort is MPD150, a group of local organizers, artists, activists and researchers that started in 2017 — the 150 year anniversary of Minneapolis police — and strives for the “devolution” of the Minneapolis Police Department and a “police-free” future.
But there isn’t a clear sense of how much support there is in the general Minneapolis public.
Public opinion is shifting on police nationally and locally, with national polls showing a sizable dip the level of trust people place in law enforcement. A recent Guardian/Opinium Research poll found nine out of ten Americans say racism and police brutality are problems, and nearly 70 percent of respondents over 55 see racism as a serious problem. But that shift hasn’t translated into widespread support for dismantling police departments. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll analyzed by FiveThirtyEight, for example, found 58 percent of respondents opposed dismantling police.
Who doesn’t support it?
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, for one. Frey would lose power over city policing should the council create new public safety services, at least as the amendment is now proposed, and the mayor has criticized plans to dismantle the MPD as shortsighted and ill-prepared.
Also expressing reservations about the plan are several members of the Charter Commission, who echoed some of Frey’s concerns on Wednesday. Commissioner Gregory Abbott suggested a slowed-down alternative to the council proposal in which the city could undertake a two-year pilot program so it has enough time to generate information on the best way to form a new public safety plan — or on more effective ways of reforming the existing police department.
Abbott added that making changes to the charter is an arduous process. At the end of it, the city could have a rushed charter amendment that it’s stuck with for some time. He also noted that the council proposal strips the mayor of power over police and places it with the council, which he didn’t see as a necessarily better alternative.
Outside of city officials, there have also been prominent civil rights activists who have expressed reservations. Law professor-turned-activist Nekima Levy Armstrong expressed weariness at the thought of completely breaking-up Minneapolis police. “If they want to disband the police,” she told the New York Times, “they need to come up with ways and methods to keep our people safe.”
Minneapolis has seen a spate of shootings in the weeks since Floyd’s death, spurring community members to speak against the police force, as they know it, disappearing. “We cannot have bullets continue to fly in our community,” Lisa Clemon, a former law enforcement officer and currently an activist with the Minneapolis-based A Mother’s Love initiative, told WCCO.
Steven Belton, president and CEO of the Urban League Twin Cities, has also questioned the timing of the council’s proposal, telling the Star Tribune: “Why now, when you have an African American chief who is highly regarded and trusted in the Black community?”
Has this been tried anywhere else?
There aren’t any examples of an American city rebooting its police department in the name of justice. The most often cited example is the city of Camden, New Jersey, which dismantled its department in 2012 and built a new one. But that was done to address reports of corruption and high crime rates. And though crime is down in Camden, Black, native and other communities of color say the issue of systemic racism and police violence were not priorities in forming the new department. One lifelong Camden resident, minister Ojii BaBa Madi, told CNN that he feels his relationship with police has not changed.
Minneapolis leaders are well aware of the Camden experiment and don’t want Minneapolis to replicate that model. “It’s not an example I would go to prop up,” said Fletcher, noting reports of Camden’s still ongoing issues with systemic racism.
But there are examples in other countries where police have lost standing with civilians, often after those departments have been enlisted to enforce the will of a dictator or of a powerful minority over an oppressed people. “The police can very quickly lose legitimacy,” said Christopher Rickard, a researcher on policing and politics in Northern Ireland, to the New York Times. “It’s very hard to regain it.”
Minneapolis police probably don’t like being compared to police state regimes of South Africa and Myanmar. But researchers say Minneapolis and American police have dug themselves a similar hole in the eyes of many residents. In fact, in order to study life in a heavily policed American city, researchers from Johns Hopkins and Yale Universities set up large containers, or portals, in six cities where people could talk about their experiences. By listening to people’s experiences and analyzing data, the Portals Policing Project found that heavily policed American cities resemble an “authoritarian enclave.”
Next steps for the Charter Commission are the two public hearings, on July 15 and 21. Due to the sped-up process, fueled by the desire to get the charter amendment on the ballot this fall, the two meetings may be the only opportunity for residents to provide city leaders with feedback on the measure.
If the proposed amendment makes the ballot and passes, the department can be dissolved. From there, the council says it will begin the process of replacing MPD with a new department, starting with thorough community engagement. Changes to the charter would take effect on May 21, 2021.
If the amendment proposal goes on the ballot and fails, or if the proposal never makes it to the ballot, many advocates and city leaders say they will continue to work on police reform. “I am not afraid of the question not passing in November,” said council member Cano during the charter meeting. “That is a communal decision as a community. If that is the answer, we’ll make a separate set of decisions.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that nine of the 12 Minneapolis City council members pledged to dismantle the police department in early June, and that proposed charter language allows but does not require the new department to include licensed, traditional peace officers.