Minneapolis’s Plan to Disband the Police Fails Its First Test

For a moment, Minneapolis had the most dramatic plan for police reform in the United States. In June, as the nation rose up in protest after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, the city council unanimously voted to disband the city’s police entirely and start anew.

To achieve such radical change, however, they’d first have to amend the city’s decades-old charter, which regulates how the police are governed. And to amend the charter, the council would first have to pass a ballot initiative. Momentum stalled this month when the city’s judge-appointed charter commission voted to delay approving the council’s proposed amendment, with the majority saying the legislation was rushed, ill-conceived, and could face legal challenges.

The vote all but assures that the council’s amendment won’t qualify for this year’s November ballot, meaning Minneapolis’s plan for transformative change will have to wait until at least 2021. It’s an early sign of the onerous challenges cities face to achieve the kind of overhaul to police departments some activists are demanding — even when policymakers support those changes.

The charter “is something that we’ve known is a barrier to a systemic change in any direction,” said Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison, whether the city wanted to institute more piecemeal legislative reform — or replace the department with a totally new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, as the amendment would have done.

Ellison says the council hopes to put a similar measure on the November 2021 ballot, and that in the meantime, members of the council will focus on debating Mayor Jacob Frey’s forthcoming budget proposal and passing other reforms.

Changing the charter is a prerequisite to any plan to dismantle — or even meaningfully defund — the police, organizers say. The charter, which is kind of like a local constitution for the city, specifically defines the department’s role, size, funding and oversight structure. Besides stipulating that a police department must exist, it gives the mayor “complete power over the establishment, maintenance, and command of the police department.” This means the mayor can do things like appoint police chiefs, and limits the council’s legislative authority over the department.

But even the mayor’s power to push forward changes or reform can be limited by structural forces. 

“Within the city charter, [police] do hold so much power and the city has so little power,” said JaNaé Bates, the director of communications for community organization ISAIAH. “That became really apparent after the murder of George Floyd when they were lambasting peaceful protesters with tear gas and flash grenades, and the mayor is pleading with them to stop, the governor is pleading with them to stop, and they don’t.”

The original city charter, adopted in 1920, wasn’t always this restrictive: Today’s hiring minimums of at least 1.7 police employees per 1,000 residents and the city’s authority to source salaries from property taxes were added in 1961, when voters agreed to revise the charter after citywide lobbying from the Minneapolis police union. In 2018, Minneapolis’s councilhad tried to amend the document to give the city council legislative control over the police, but was stalled by political disagreement.

When that last charter change came up, the chief argued that having one person in charge instead of 13 councilmembers helps the force make fast decisions, according to police department spokesperson John Elder. He declined to comment on this year’s proposed charter change.

The charter’s minimum staff requirements effectively create a monopoly on public safety, says Ellison: “In business, there’s a reason they have antitrust laws.” Breaking up that monopoly is a key part of community organizers’ demands in cities across the country. Minneapolis budgeted for as many as 888 police officers this year; the minimum as laid out by the charter is roughly 730. Like many police departments, MPD officers spend much of their time responding to non-violent incidents: Of the top five most time-consuming calls for service is “emotionally disturbed person,” Ellison said.

To replace the police department, the council’s charter amendment would have created a new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, which would prioritize a “holistic, public health-oriented approach” to public safety and tackle these non-violent incidents differently, and employ licensed “peace officers.” The department would be governed by a director nominated by the mayor and appointed by the City Council, who would have to have non-law enforcement background to be eligible for the role. 

Accountability over the existing police force would be strengthened under the proposed charter, too: The mayor would have retained executive authority over the police, managing the budget and working with the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention director, but the city council would have had more legislative authority to pass reform measures.

“As we continue to go through different iterations of reform, we try to get them to mold [the police] into what we want them to be, and we continue to depend on them for this idea of making us safe,” said Bates. “It’s clear that we need to use all the tools we can to regain control of an unaccountable agency, and the city charter is the first step to do that.”

Barry Clegg, the chair of the Minneapolis Charter Commission that voted to delay approving these amendments for the ballot, said the council acted too quickly to draft the measure, and that the plan was too unclear. Frey, the mayor,also expressed concern that measure was vague, and worried that it left the fate of the city’s first Black police chief, Medaria Arradondo, uncertain. Clegg said that if the commission were to draft a charter today, it wouldn’t have instituted such strict minimum requirements for police staffing, but he believes that the proposed legislation isn’t the way to undo them. 

Clegg and the charter commission also believed that the bill did not have adequate input from the public when being drafted, although the commission did hold several of its own public hearings after the amendment was submitted. Ellison points to the historic groundswell of protests calling for a radical reimagining of police as evidence of overwhelming support for the plan.

“It’s great to be informed by public protest and I applaud the council for doing that, but that’s not the only way to gather input and that sort of limits the scope of your input to people who are out protesting,” said Clegg.

Activists pointed to another metric to show that support was high for the changes. Though nationally,polls show the majority of people oppose the slogan of “defunding the police,” in Minneapolis, a poll of voters commissioned by the ACLU and The Fairness Project found that the majority of Minneapolis voters — 61% — had intended to vote affirmatively on the charter change, and that only 32% were prepared to vote against it. Black voters showed even more support, with 70% of respondents in favor of the measure. 

But Clegg worries that in the rush to break down the charter’s mandates, the council would take the power to build something new away from the voters. “By voting yes [voters] in essence cede those powers forever going forward to the city council,” he said. “It leaves a big blank space for the council to fill in.”

The haste speaks to the urgency of the moment, and the desire to capitalize on the wave of support for community-led public safety alternatives, organizers say. “We are in a constant state of fear,” said Oluchi Omeoga, an organizer with Black Visions Collective, a local group that helped the council develop the charter amendment. To the charter commission, which she derides as undemocratic and unelected, she had a message: “What does it take for you, who are coming from a place of safety, to understand and know that you have the power to change that in the situation? And what is your responsibility of doing that?”

Donald Crumbley, an organizer with ISAIAH, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the commission’s decision. “Now that the whole world is watching, these changes have to come and will come. Because enough is enough,” he said. “We’re tired of using the word tired.”

The charter amendment wasn’t viewed by all Minneapolitans as the right path to police reform. Nekima Levy Armstrong, a local attorney, toldthe Spokesman-Recorder that she, too, felt that the process was driven by the council, not the public. “This proposal to essentially push the chief out of a job, knowing he is the first Black chief, that is extremely problematic for me. It is racist from my perspective,” she said.

Even Bates, who says the charter amendment was “the most progressive and certainly concrete of any municipality,” warns that it “was also potentially incredibly symbolic”: Giving the city council the ability to hold the police accountable doesn’t mean that they’d be successful in doing so.

“It definitely was a step in the right direction. It wasn’t enough. And it wasn’t the end,” said Black Visions Collective’s Omeoga. “And I don’t think any practice that we’re seeing right now is the end.” 

Pushing a vote to next year doesn’t mean organizers are returning to the beginning, however. On Friday, 20 local community groups, including ISAIAH, will meet to discuss what kind of organizing can be done in advance of a charter change, and “add some more flesh to the bones of this agency” for public safety the city wants to create together, Bates says. This is the same day Frey will announce a proposed budget. 

But Bates does worry about how the police will repair the frayed relationships without an overhaul. “To go the next 16 months with this tension-filled relationship is certainly unfortunate,” she said. “Hopefully — prayerfully — we don’t end up witnessing more people get murdered by the police in that time.”

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