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A veto-proof majority of the municipal legislative body said that they will dismantle the police department and reinvest their budget into community-led public safety programs. But many key details have yet to emerge.
Nine of the 13 Minneapolis City Council members, who together make up a veto-proof majority, vowed on Sunday to dismantle the city’s police department.
"We are here because here in Minneapolis and in cities across the United States it is clear that our existing system of policing and public safety is not keeping our communities safe," said City Council President Lisa Bender. "Our efforts at incremental reform have failed. Period."
The move is the most radical action taken by a city council in response to the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd, a black man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Other cities, most prominently New York and Los Angeles, have proposed significant cuts to police budgets, but none have gone so far as to call for disbanding.
In a rally at one of the city’s parks, council members announced that they would begin the process of defunding the police department during budget negotiations over the next few weeks and would find a suitable replacement—likely a combination of community-led public safety programs—within a year.
Mayor Jacob Frey said he does not support the proposal and plans to push for reforms instead. "I'll work relentlessly with Chief [Medaria] Arradondo and alongside [the] community toward deep, structural reform and addressing systemic racism in police culture," he said. "We're ready to dig in and enact more community-led, public safety strategies on behalf of our city. But I do not support abolishing the Minneapolis Police Department."
The council members’ pledge comes at a time when activists across the country have rallied around the slogan to “defund the police,” which some have underscored envisions some kind of police agency still being maintained, albeit one that is much smaller and has a more limited scope. (Some organizers say that a new “specialized class of public servants who respond to violent crimes” could handle serious cases like robberies and murders). Community organizations in Minneapolis said that they don't intend for the city to “abolish help,” but instead shift police funding into social services that they believe are better suited to handle most of the duties now undertaken by the police.
City council members said they still need to work on the details of what comes next. In their prepared statement, the city council members said that they “recognize that we don’t have all the answers about what a police-free future looks like, but … we’re committing to engaging with every willing community member in the City of Minneapolis over the next year.”
Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison told local news outlet KARE on Sunday that they were just at the beginning of the process. “We’re obviously not going to hit the eject button without a plan,” he said.
Part of that plan will be figuring what is next for public safety, he emphasized. "Defunding MPD, by the time we’re ready to do that, we will have a fully formed new public safety strategy in place," Ellison said.
Advocates in Minneapolis say they want the $189 million police budget to fund non-police solutions to problems that frequently cause people to call 911, like counselors who could respond to mental health crises, violence interrupters who could approach situations involving gangs, and addiction experts who could address concerns about drug abuse. They also want more support for social services programs like domestic abuse crisis centers, homeless shelters, and public housing.
The announcement came at a community meeting held by two grassroots organizations based in the Twin Cities, Black Visions and Reclaim the Block, which have lobbied the city council to defund the police for years. The organizations released a joint statement saying that “decades of police reform efforts have proved that the Minneapolis Police Department cannot be reformed” and that the time has come for “a new transformative model for cultivating safety in our city.”
Recent protests have once again shown a light on the many police shootings in the Twin Cities in the past few years, including those of Terrence Franklin, Philando Castile, and Jamar Clark, all of whom were black men. Community leaders say that despite repeated attempts at reform, the pattern has continued, and must now be met with alternatives.
“It shouldn’t have taken so much death to get us here,” said Kandace Montgomery, director of Black Visions. “George Floyd should not have been murdered for so many people to wake up. It shouldn’t have taken young Black folks risking their lives in these streets, over and over. I want to honor all of the organizers and communities who—for generations—have dreamed and worked to make this day happen.”
But other community groups in Minneapolis, including Communities United Against Police Brutality, denounced the move as “nothing but happy talk” by a city council that has failed to reform the department in the past. “They don't actually have the authority to gut the MPD, which is hardwired into the city charter,” the group said in a statement. “It would require a charter change to disband the MPD.”
They also note that disbanding the MPD still leaves in place other types of law enforcement—particularly Hennepin County sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, and those from federal law enforcement agencies. “Unless we do some real work on policies and statutes, we'll just have police violence from other cop agencies,” the group said.
Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office did not return a request for comment, nor did the Minneapolis Police Department or police union, but the sheriff in neighboring Anoka County, which has sent officers to the city in recent weeks to assist in crowd control at protests, said in a statement that he would have “no appetite” for returning to the city should they dismantle the local police department. “If they choose to eliminate their police department through defunding operations without a realistic plan, they must also choose to live with the consequences of their decisions,” said Sheriff James Stewart.
Though the changes proposed in Minneapolis would represent a significant shift for the city, they aren’t entirely without precedent. In 2013, Camden, New Jersey, disbanded its police department, nullified the police union contract, and hired a squadron of new officers to focus on community policing.
The department established new policies for transparency and excessive force, stopped evaluating officers by their number of arrests or tickets, and reassigned many officers to foot patrol so that they could have non-crisis interactions with civilians and build community trust. Though the overhaul was controversial at the time, violent crime has dropped significantly and the clearance rate for murder cases has nearly tripled.
But as Bloomberg Businessweek recently pointed out, the Camden plan didn’t actually eliminate, or even reduce, police on the streets. The law enforcement presence in the city is now twice as much as what existed before.
Minneapolis Councilmember Steve Fletcher, in an op-ed published by TIME, said that it will be hard work to “envision and make real” the changes they are proposing. “We can reimagine what public safety means, what skills we recruit for, and what tools we do and do not need,” he said. “The whole world is watching. We can declare policing as we know it a thing of the past, and create a compassionate, non-violent future.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.