What does public safety look like to you?
The heavy question hung on the airwaves of a Monday afternoon Zoom meeting. Members of the Sheridan Neighborhood Organization (SNO) and assembled community members discussed Aug. 24 what a Minneapolis with a reformed police force could look like, a hot topic since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on Memorial Day 2020.
“Crime happens because people don’t have opportunities,” said SNO member Joy Smallfield, who kicked off the conversation. The discussion started immediately on the heels of a meeting with Third Ward Council member Steve Fletcher regarding the homeless encampments that have popped up in parks throughout Northeast, so the idea of desperation was fresh in people’s minds. “If someone’s basic needs are met, then crime goes down.”
The consensus from the meeting was similar. To the Sheridan neighborhood attendees, public safety looks like accessible, responsive healthcare, access to good food, readily available jobs, safe infrastructure, etc. Public safety looks like a neighborhood where people are free to move about without fear.
Community member Mitchell Barr said that there are two sides to community safety: prevention (meeting the community’s needs so they don’t have to turn to crime), and response (what do you do when crime inevitably does come to the neighborhood). Right now, our city is dealing with the consequences of our current system of response, and in the wake of George Floyd’s death, some community members expressed that the presence of a heavily-armed police officer in their community does not make them feel safer.
“Less militarization, please!” said SNO president Carin Peterson, decrying that most day-to-day issues don’t need body armor and a gun to address. “It’s got to stop. We don’t need tanks…We’ve lost the neighborhood policeman feel. It used to be that the uniform made the man, as they say.”
Other participants agreed. More ideas were brought up, particularly that the police are necessary to address crime in the city, but as they exist today, they are overstretched. Police are expected to be social workers, traffic enforcers, security guards, conflict mediators, and over the course of the past few months, soldiers. SNO and the community talked about how they wish there were multiple divisions that could specialize in different kinds of responses, rather than requiring one generally-trained body to act as a catch-all. However, there are barriers preventing a change like that from happening.
“We have a group of workers who are showing us they are not interested in changing,” said Councilmember Fletcher. Currently, the contract between the Police Federation and the City of Minneapolis requires 70% of police rolls be granted by seniority, which makes assigning specialized divisions difficult. “The police chief can have all the ideas in the world, but they don’t fit the contract.”
Resources do exist to create the kind of police force SNO discussed, they just lack funding. Officer Colleen Ryan spoke at a forum hosted by First Ward City Council member Kevin Reich on August 10. She gave a short presentation on the co-responder pilot program, an initiative that pairs police officers with mental health care professionals.
Ryan is paired with a Hennepin County social worker who responds to calls with her. They drive an unmarked squad car, and she wears a casual uniform meant to be less intimidating then the standard blues and belt of weapons. The co-responder program has one unit in each precinct. Ryan and her partner are stationed in the 5th. Her unit has not made any arrests in the years it has existed. “That’s not what we’re here for,” she said. Her unit is meant to connect people with mental health services when they are in a crisis, and to establish a rapport with repeat clients to build trust and a safety net to keep them out of trouble.
Ryan has only had to employ use of force three times in as many years. “It’s really a de-escalated approach…We work without constraints on our time so we can serve a client as best we can,” she explained that because she and her partner are not on a beat where they constantly have to be on the move, they can take all the time they need to resolve a situation without resorting to the use of force quickly.
The co-responder program has been disbanded for the rest of the year due to budget and staffing constraints. Councilmember Reich said he is committed to getting them the funding they need to resume operations by next year.
One attendee at SNO’s discussion said that it’s important to look outside of the MPD for these kinds of resources as well. The City of Minneapolis’s Office for Violence Prevention offers services geared towards addressing crime by offering quality of life stability to potential offenders (the prevention side of public safety), and 311 is a good alternative for minor incidents like graffiti, stray animals, abandoned cars, etc. that may not require an immediate police or emergency response (the response side).
So, how can we build a safer community in the future?
In the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood, the community has been grappling with coming up with a clear solution. In the days following the death of George Floyd, the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA) wrote a self-described “strongly worded” letter to Council member Fletcher calling for the disbanding of the police department as it exists today. Fletcher has been very active in leading the charge to reform the Minneapolis Police Department, but on the ground level in the Ward 3 neighborhood, the MHNA is scrambling to come up with a community-led alternative to the MPD.
During the unrest following Floyd’s death, the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood banded together to keep their community safe, but association member Chris Lautenschlager said that neighbors trying to report to each other was challenging in the heat of the moment. A lot of people over-reported things; the association received a lot of notices of do-nothing incidents that incited confusion.
Lautenschlager said there have been several calls within the community for a neighborhood watch, but the association doesn’t want to get behind it because the notion raises too many questions around accountability and preparedness. Who would a neighborhood watch answer to? Who would be responsible for their actions if a watchman took a wrong course of action or was hurt? What would they do to de-escalate situations that call for it?
“I think there’s a lot of questions that need to get vetted out over the coming months,” said Lautenschlager. “We don’t want to put people in more danger than they already have.”
Marcy-Holmes does have a community safety committee, but because of COVID-19, they have been unable to meet. Additionally, the means to create a new community-led violence prevention initiative are very limited right now due to funding holdups. Despite there being a will, the way has been vexingly hard to find.
We are very interested in a different model, we just don’t have the capacity right now when we’re just trying to stay afloat,” said Lautenschlager.
The MHNA held an open forum to discuss ideas with their community on Zoom on September 3 that the Northeaster missed. We hope to catch up with them for a future edition.