On June 7, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council said they will “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.” What that means, and when it will happen remain open questions.
The Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) is not going to disappear overnight, or even after the next city council meeting. The process will take time and community involvement and will be strenuously resisted by the police. The council members suggested a vague but ambitious timetable of “over the next year,” and pledged, “We’ll be taking intermediate steps towards ending the MPD through the budget process and other policy and budget decisions over the coming weeks and months.”
Originally published in Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder on June 8, 2020, updated with additional information June 9, 2020.
At least two U.S. cities—Camden, New Jersey and Compton, California—have abolished their police departments. In both cases, they moved responsibility for policing to the county level. That does not sound like an attractive option for Minneapolis.
A strong community movement to abolish the MPD existed long before the police killing of George Floyd on May 25. The roots of that movement are described in a 2017 report by MPD150, which details the corrupt and racist 150-year history of the department. “Promises to reform MPD through culture and policy changes are not new but they are futile,” their report said. “Trying to reform MPD makes about as much sense as trying to reform, rather than abolish, the institution of slavery in the 1800’s.”
Previous efforts at reforming the Minneapolis Police Department have failed. Civilian review and oversight have been ignored, sabotaged, and overridden. The Minneapolis Police Federation head continues to spew racist and violent rhetoric and the city council cannot remove him, because he is elected by federation members. Police officers engage in so many forms of misconduct that discipline is a farcical and ineffective game of whack-a-mole.
The Minneapolis City Council members’ prepared statement echoed that conclusion: “Decades of police reform efforts have proved that the Minneapolis Police Department cannot be reformed and will never be accountable for its actions.”
The Minneapolis City Council has already taken one step forward, voting on Friday, June 5 for an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to ban chokeholds and strengthen the mandate for officers to act if they see a fellow officer using inappropriate force. That agreement has to be approved by a judge before it becomes law.
The MPD150 report, Council Member Steve Fletcher’s op/ed in Time, a Reclaim the Block web post, and Javier Morillo’s article for the Minnesota Reformer all offer insights on how the gradual process of defunding and ending the Minneapolis Police Department could roll out.
The MPD 150 report calls for “envisioning a different world,” and starts with an analysis of what police do now, and how those functions could shift to other parts of the community.
“Why not have mental health professionals, social workers, domestic violence advocates, and other responders who could be dispatched to the scene depending on the situation? Or, to put it differently, how many 9-1-1 calls actually require the involvement of people with guns?” Enough is Enough, p. 26
“Traffic stops don’t make sense as a community safety practice. What little good they do is outweighed by the harassment and violence they inflict on marginalized communities. Those that investigate “suspicious” people or vehicles should be eliminated entirely: no one should have to be harassed or searched by the police just because of their appearance. There are better ways we could handle traffic violations, too: if someone has a broken taillight, for example, a warning in the mail would not only be as effective as a traffic stop, but a safer way to let them know.” Enough is Enough, p. 28
Overall, MPD150 insists, ” There are viable existing and potential alternatives to policing for every area in which police engage.”
Even with the most difficult emergency response aspect of policing, Minneapolis has examples of community response and responsibility. As police refused or failed to respond to calls over the past two weeks, communities organized their own teams for public safety, such as the Lake Street business people who defended their community and council member Jeremiah Ellison’s fire patrol on the North Side.
The City Council members who pledged to end the Minneapolis Police Department are Lisa Bender, Alondra Cano, Phillippe Cunningham, Jeremiah Ellison, Steve Fletcher, Cam Gordon, Andrea Jenkins, Andrew Johnson, and Jeremy Schroeder.
The success of that pledge depends not on the city council, but on strong and continuing pressure from and involvement by the community. If community involvement fades, this effort will not succeed.
UPDATE 6/9/2020: The nitty-gritty details of ‘ending’ Minneapolis police
While many people seem to think that the Minneapolis City Council has already taken action to defund the police, it has not. What kind of action council members will take to implement their pledge remains not only an open question but a complicated one. Among the complicating factors:
1) The Minneapolis city charter gives the mayor, not the city council, “compete power over the establishment, maintenance, and command of the police department” The charter also requires that “The City Council must fund a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident”; So abolishing the police department or reducing its size substantially, would require amending the city charter, which requires either a unanimous vote of the city council and approval by the mayor or a ballot question put to the city’s voters.
2) Then there’s the city contract with the police union. That contract expired in 2019, and negotiations for a new contract have not concluded—which leaves an opening for change.
3) Communities United Against Policy Brutality, the Minnesota Council on American-Islamic Relations (MN CAIR), two Black Lives Matters chapters, and several other community organizations presented 40 specific recommendations for reining in the police on Monday. The city council could begin with these recommendations. Will it?
4) Mayor Jacob Frey said he does not want to defund the police. Would he support or veto measures to reduce the size of the police force or to partially defund it? Would he support or veto other police accountability measures?
5) Finally, it’s worth noting that the Minneapolis City Council has failed to use even the limited and ineffective oversight mechanisms currently in place. The Facebook observations of long-time police oversight activist Chuck Turchick should be required reading. Here’s part of his June 3 post:
“We have a civilian oversight body in Minneapolis. It’s called the Police Conduct Oversight Commission. By City ordinance, it is required to meet monthly.
“In 2019, its July, September, and November meetings were canceled, its January
meeting doesn’t even appear on the City calendar, and there are no minutes posted for its February, March, and April meetings. That’s seven of the twelve months in 2019.
“In 2020, its January meeting was canceled, it did meet in February and March, and its April and May meetings were canceled.
“Now I see its June meeting, scheduled for June 9, has also been canceled. No meeting, not even remotely by telephone or by other technological means. I guess they figured they didn’t have anything important to talk about.
“Did I mention the Commission is required by law to meet monthly?”