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Reimagining public safety: From Ithaca to Minneapolis

Following the nationwide protests and demands for change that resulted from the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daunte Wright and more, calls came to create a plan to reduce police violence. 

A protester holding up a sign in front of police officers outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department a day after Daunte Wright was shot and killed by police officer Kim Potter in 2021.
A protester holding up a sign in front of police officers outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department a day after Daunte Wright was shot and killed by police officer Kim Potter in 2021.
REUTERS/Leah Millis

A new report offers solutions to reduce police violence and examines the United States’ long history of police misconduct and violence that disproportionately impacts Black people.  

In 2021, police killed at least 1,134 people, 23 percent of those were Black, despite Black people making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit group that tracks police shootings. 

The “All Safe: Transforming Public Safety” report highlights a set of recommendations for policing and public safety in metro areas to reduce police violence among all populations. The plan looks at specific cities, like Ithaca, N.Y., and Brooklyn Center, and draws recommendations for cities. 

“I think what we saw after the murder of George Floyd was something new. There was a level of awareness by the general public and a level of seeming commitment by elected officials to really do something about this issue that’s been plaguing this country since its inception, really,” said Niaz Kasravi, the editor of the report and founder and director of the Avalan Institute, a data-driven social justice institute. 

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Following the nationwide protests and demands for change that resulted from the police killings of Breonna Taylor, killed in her bed in Louisville, George Floyd, murdered by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, Tony McDade, shot in Tallahassee Florida, Rayshard Brooks shot in Atlanta and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, People For the American Way, along with other partners, began to create a plan to reduce police violence. 

People For the American Way pulled together a group of experts, advocates, elected officials and former law enforcement to contribute to a report, which would become a “handbook” for elected officials giving guidance on addressing police accountability and stopping police violence. 

“It’s a difficult issue to get public consensus on. It’s a difficult issue to move; across the range of a lot of criminal justice issues that I’ve worked on, I find policing to be the most difficult to move, and the one that requires the most long-term strategy and investment and commitment,” Kasravi said. 

Recommendations

The report offered a four-pronged approach to reducing police violence, focusing on restructuring, holding responsible, removing and recruiting.

Brooklyn Center, one of the cities mentioned in the report, is in the process of restructuring its police department.

Following the manslaughter killing of Daunte Wright in 2021, the City Council passed the Daunte Wright and Kobe Dimock-Heisler Community Safety and Violence Prevention Resolution Act. The act creates a community oversight board and a civilian complaint review board to examine complaints around policing, Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott said.  

In addition to the oversight and complaint review boards, Brooklyn Center is adding more unarmed responders as a part of a community response team. Since the act passed in May of 2021, the city has hired staff to lead the program and secured funding, including the funds for hiring the responders. 

According to an analysis by the Brooklyn Center Police Department, just 22% of its 911 calls have to do with crime, Elliott said. Consultants and the implementation committee for the program found 30 categories of 911 calls where police are unnecessary and could be met with a member of the community response team. 

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“The approach that we’re taking in Brooklyn Center is about expanding the options that are available to the community when they call, and they say that they’re in need,” Elliott said. 

Elliott predicts hiring for those positions will take place the program will begin in the fall. 

Ithaca public safety model 

In Ithaca, a new public safety model has been brought forward by former Mayor Svante Myrick. This model, which Kasravi says is ideal, replaces the police force with a Department of Public Safety. 

The restructuring splits the department into two groups, a team of unarmed responders and a team of armed responders. The unarmed responders would respond to nonviolent mental health issues, nonviolent issues concerning homelessness and nonviolent domestic disputes, Kasravi said. 

The report found that in Ithaca, around one-third to one-half of all 911 calls could be handled by unarmed responders. 

“When examining it, they realized that it’s really a win on all fronts (using unarmed responders) because it reduces the risk of harm from armed encounters with police,” Kasravi said. “It treats residents more humanely by addressing their medical thought and psychological needs. It reduces the stress really on police officers, so they can focus on the things that they were trained to do, and it builds trust with residents and communities, and it saves money and resources. And spends those resources more effectively.”

The recommendations were informed by data on policing practices, like the use of force, statistics on police accountability, and demographic data on the victims of police violence. 

While there is some data there, there’s a need to collect more data on police killings, according to Kasravi. 

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“It’s a mixed bag because, at some point, you’re like, ‘We know this is happening.’ But I think it’s important for the public to have better numbers on the breadth and the depth of this situation,” Kasravi said. 

The Ithaca Public Safety Model would cost an additional $1.15 million on top of the police department’s current cost of $12.5 million. It is in the process of getting funding approval and getting a budget for the unarmed response. The Common Council will vote on the plan for the Department of Community Safety in July, the Ithaca Journal reported. 

The unarmed responders would be people with expertise in social work or mental health and backgrounds in de-escalation. 

Looking past Ithaca

Kasravi feels the Ithaca model is likely to be the real deal.

“I, myself, who’s been doing this for a long time, it’s the most promising thing I’ve seen in a very long time,” Kasravi said. “Now we realize this might not be politically feasible, to start with in every city because every city has different political realities and needs and demands from the community.” 

Cities that aren’t ready for the Ithaca model can focus on the other recommendations, like accountability, removing unfit officers, and recruiting better and more fit officers, she said. 

Other cities, like Berkeley, California, and Eugene, Oregon, have taken steps on the recommendations by creating community responder programs and separate departments for different low-level traffic offenses.

In Minneapolis, there was a push to restructure the Police Department, which aimed to replace it with a Department of Public safety. 

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“The Minneapolis effort was valiant, and it was timely and it was good,” Kasravi said. “I think when we look at a place like Ithaca versus Minneapolis, we can probably draw some sort of lessons learned and things that could help the next round.”

She says that a more specific plan detailing what the public safety department would look like and how it would operate would have benefited the effort. Misinformation and unknowns among the push to restructure in Minneapolis may have prevented many people from voting for it, she said. 

“In Ithaca, they spent a very long time building those foundations,” Kasravi said. “They also didn’t have the reality of the high profile shootings and murders that Minneapolis did to respond to. So I think they were in a different moment. They were in the same national moment, but their local moment was very different, and their political sensibilities are a little bit different too.” 

For such efforts to be successful, there has to be a strategy against misinformation that focuses on data, Kasravi said. 

“The opposition often says, ‘crime is up because people were talking about defund the police and restructuring and this and that.’ Where they don’t really uplift the fact that there’s for sure places across the U.S., such as Sacramento, for example, who have elected officials who are law and order and tough on crime, and they did not defund, they did not restructure and crime over there is still rising,” Kasravi said.

How can it be applied to the Twin Cities? 

Policing in the Twin Cities has been the center of much public debate. Over the past two years, there have been multiple instances captured on camera, which received national attention. “Yet, so much more happens that doesn’t get documented,” Kasravi said. 

While Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center have made progress in holding officers accountable, for example with the trials of Derek Chauvin and Kim Potter, there’s still room for more accountability. Many police misconduct incidents are not captured on camera, which means they don’t get the same attention. But there’s still a need for accountability in those cases, Kasravi said.

“I think it’s (progress in accountability) been a little bit of a two steps forward, one step back in many ways,” she said. “Because it’s been so in the spotlight, we have seen more officers who engage in misconduct be held accountable than before. I don’t think it really matches the level of how grave this problem is.” 

Things like the police union contracts have specific laws that shield officers from accountability, Kasravi said. 

“They limit the time frame by which a claim can be made. They provide unfair access to officers to information about the claims and the evidence before they give their testimony or their version of events,” Kasravi said. “There’s a lot of barriers that still exist from where we are to where we need to be with regards to accountability.” 

Despite the national attention Brooklyn Center and Minneapolis received in the past couple of years, and the accountability that arose, Elliott says true accountability throughout the public safety systems has not yet been reached. 

“The report deals with the issues of body camera footage, it talks about accountability. It deals with the issue of removing officers that are not holding up their oath to protect and serve the community,” Elliott said.