With press helicopters circling over people chanting in the streets, Northeast Minneapolis witnessed two protests in recent weeks focusing on the Minneapolis Police Department. The demonstration on June 6 called for defunding of the department, and some speakers, including U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, demanded its complete dismantlement.
Mayor Jacob Frey, sitting on the curb watching the protest in front of his home block, was called to front by organizers from Black Visions Collective. Frey told the crowd that he could not support the full abolition of the police but supported systemic reform. “Go home, Jacob, go home,” and “Shame!” was the crowd’s response.
The next day at a community meeting at Powderhorn Park, the crowd and Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block organizers cheered as nine City Council members took turns reading from an affirmation that said they were committed to the creation of “a new transformative model for cultivating safety.” Six days later the Council unanimously passed a resolution starting that process.
We turned to the two City Council members serving Northeast Minneapolis and the organization MPD 150 to learn what “abolish” and “defund” the police means to them. What drives the call for this, how might it come about, and what are their visions for new models of public safety?
History and impetus
Although the death of George Floyd after being pinned with a knee on his neck by now-former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was the immediate catalyst for the resolution by Council members, the call for the abolition of the police department is not new. Locally, we heard the demand in protests responding to the killing of Terrance Franklin, Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, and elsewhere nationally when black people have been killed by the police.
In 2017 a collective of researchers, activists, and artists evaluated the 150-year history of policing in Minneapolis and produced the report “Enough is Enough: a 150-year performance review of the Minneapolis Police Department” (see mpd150.com) They interviewed hundreds of community members belonging to one of two groups: those likely to come in contact with police either through their businesses or professions such as social work and mental health care; and those likely to come in contact with police due to their skin color, social or economic status.
One person in the first group shared this: “We don’t call the cops if we can help it. Because we don’t trust that they’re gonna show up in a way that actually de-escalates the situation.” Another, talking about clients who have been victims of sexual assault, said: “It wouldn’t occur to them to turn to the police when violence has happened to them, because the police are not safe people to them and they never have been. The police are agents of violence to them.”
From an individual: “When you see the cops, you’re always on your guard … Something small I do might be able to set them off. If I have my hands in my pocket, or if I’m reaching for my wallet, if I’m checking my timer or watch. Just being conscious of any kind of action, any small action, could have a drastic impact or it could be the last thing I do.”
Not only do we need to take into account current fears of the police, but the historical context also needs to be kept in mind, said Molly Glasgow, an organizer and spokesperson for MPD 150. The group’s report described U.S. police forces as modeled after forces in London created to control property crime stemming from urban poverty. The model was adapted in this country first as slave patrols in the South, which forced escaped slaves back into bondage and enforced curfews against black and Native people and eventually evolved into formal police departments.
“What’s happening now, even though there have been reforms that have been tried, even though there may be those in the police department who are trying to change things, it will always be rooted in that history,” said Glasgow.
Council members’ views
“It’s time to make a dramatic change,” said Council Member Steve Fletcher. He serves five Northeast neighborhoods: Beltrami, St. Anthony East, St. Anthony West, Sheridan, and Bottineau.
Fletcher, vice-chair of the Council’s standing committee on Public Safety and Emergency Management, listed some of the reform efforts in which the city has invested: training, body cameras, community policing strategies, psychological evaluation of recruits. “All the reform strategies that are recommended by national experts … we have those things in place.”
“We are kind of getting to the outer limit of good ideas for reform, frankly, and what we have seen is a police federation that has really resisted any of these changes and made it very hard for us to get anything implemented in a way that would actually work,” Fletcher said. He cited the arbitration process that resulted in Officer Peter Brazeau’s October 2019 return to the force; he was fired in February 2019 for beating a handcuffed man in 2016.
With respect to the power of the police union to resist change, Fletcher said, “The limited avenues that we have available is a part of why I don’t think the department can be reformed.”
Council Member Kevin Reich, who represents the Marshall Terrace, Columbia Park, Holland, Logan Park, Waite Park, Audubon Park, Windom Park, Northeast Park, and Mid-City Industrial neighborhoods, didn’t attend the June 7 community meeting at Powderhorn Park because of previously planned personal engagements, he said.
Reich sent Ward 1 constituents an email message the evening of June 8 in which he said “all potential avenues are on the table because change is imperative” and that he agreed with “the call for viable alternative means of providing peace and security.” Reich said he was “fully committed to implementing many of the insights discussed … in a timely and strategic manner,” and supported “millions of dollars going from policing to more proactive community based public safety initiatives.”
The message also said the efforts need to be driven and measured by “how the work centers those communities that have been most negatively impacted with a central consideration to those most vulnerable to harm.”
In an interview, Reich said he thought that all possibilities, including “a reboot,” should be on the table and that the efforts toward change should include input from the “accountable professionals who really want to be a positive element of safety in the community.” He clarified that he was talking about the police. He mentioned that in the Second Precinct, there had been a shift for the better in community-police relations when a series of inspectors who had been “deeply committed to their version of community-based policing,” came on board.
He called it a “telling example” as they look to citywide change, but also acknowledged that it was an example in just one neighborhood. “Let’s not get distracted by our successes. … I also don’t want to dismiss our successes and pretend they don’t exist,” he said, adding that strength, resources and assets could be drawn from those successes.
Reich commended Police Chief Medaria Arradondo for welcoming the investigation by the state Human Rights Department, announced by Governor Tim Walz and characterized by Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero as an effort that would involve working short term with the Council to affect immediate changes and long term to produce a court-enforceable consent decree.
The resolution passed unanimously by the Council June 12 declared “the intent to create a transformative new model for cultivating safety in our city,” beginning with “a year-long process of community engagement, research, and structural change … centering the voices of Black people, American Indian people, people of color, immigrants, victims of harm … and other historically marginalized or underserved” people.
Molly Glasgow spoke about what abolishing the police means to her group: “What we’re talking about is uplifting and resourcing community-based initiatives. We’re talking about establishing networks of community safety, collecting the people around us that we would hail if and when something happens,” she said.
“That’s going to take building trust with people around us. But it’s also going to take being discerning. We are not calling for a dismantling of necessary medical and other emergency services, like fire services … This involves divesting from the police and investing in those communities to strengthen initiatives, the programs and the resources,” Glasgow said.
Defunding could mean diverting resources from the almost $200 million police budget plus the funds that go to settle police-related lawsuits to other services such as mental health crisis responders, people trained in de-escalation, conflict resolution, and crisis support who would respond to calls instead of police.
Some groups, and the MPD 150 report, advocate for the community not having police in any form, instead relying on community members committed to protecting community members and using the community as a resource.
There’s an even broader angle here, said Glasgow. “What is considered crime today, a big part of that stems from people not having what they need, both in terms of support but also in terms of housing, access to food, access to good transportation. So making sure that people’s needs are met are a big part of what abolition means,” she said.
Although Council members have committed to a new “transformative model,” the exact plan for that still needs to be figured out, Fletcher said. “The only way that a real public safety vision develops is for the whole community that needs to feel safe is to have a chance to be part of that process, so it’s by design not fully cooked in terms of what comes next.”
Reich said collaboration is important. “We’ve got to have open minds. We’ve got to respect everyone’s point of view.” He said talks need to include the input of professionals, such as social workers and mental health professionals, people “who can bring some sort of technical or professional insight.”
To completely overhaul the city’s public safety structure would require a change in the Minneapolis City Charter, which requires a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident. Fletcher explained that although the charter could be changed by unanimous vote of the Council and Charter Commission plus approval of the Mayor, in general they have used that power only for technical changes for which community input isn’t needed. Fletcher, elected under the current charter, said he would want people to have a chance to vote on any change to the public safety framework. The Council needs to figure out whether it would make sense to rush such a change to get it on the 2020 ballot or wait until 2021, Fletcher said.
Any new system would still need to address the fact that some citizens are armed, but the ways in which police use their firearms could be changed, said Glasgow. “As long as weapons and weapon-based violence exists in our country, that’s going to be something that as a city we have to grapple with. There is a way to responsibly protect people while armed that focuses on protection and defense. And that is very different … than being armed offensively,” she said.
Fletcher addressed the issue of both short-term safety and long-term safety. “I think it’s very important that people know that we’re also taking seriously who answers 911 in the meantime, and that there’s never a moment of unsafety in the process in getting to a better safety,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher envisions “an emergency response when there are dangerous situations; we have to have ways to respond in those cases. We are also going to have much better responses when there are health care emergencies … mental health emergencies … conflict resolution emergencies, where we could do much more to disrupt violence … much more to disrupt anger … much more to keep people safe in a constructive way that connects people to resources and prevents people from having to be arrested.”
“Our future could actually be so much brighter if we do this right, and I think we have the skills and the resources as a city to do that,” Fletcher said.
Below: Scenes from the June 6 protest. (Photos by Karen Kraco)