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Defund & dismantle: Minneapolis looks toward a police-free future

Artists Anna Barber and Connor Wright, with the help of the community, created the “Say Their Names Cemetery” at 37th and Park to memorialize those killed by police.

Artists Anna Barber and Connor Wright, with the help of the community, created the “Say Their Names Cemetery” at 37th and Park to memorialize those killed by police. Emily Utne

I. Beyond reform

Two weeks after a Minneapolis police officer crushed George Floyd to death with a knee to the neck, a crowd of hundreds gathered in Powderhorn Park to demand an end to policing.

The park, a rolling green hill on the banks of Powderhorn Lake, is the site of the progressive city’s annual May Day celebrations. It was June 7, the birthday of the late, great Prince. Young Black Visions Collective activists ascended a stage furbished with “DEFUND POLICE” spelled out in Hollywood letters, as members of the audience waved cardboard signs screaming “ABOLISH” in thick black marker. The mood was triumphant.

“We have never looked to the police for our safety,” said Kandace Montgomery, speaking for immigrants, Black, queer, trans, indigenous, disabled, and poor people. “We have looked to each other for protection from the police. It shouldn’t have taken us so much death to get there. George Floyd should not need to have been murdered for so many people to wake up.”

Abolishing the police, previously considered a radical leftist crusade, exploded into the mainstream after Floyd’s death. Incendiary protests left neighborhoods in flames while local police lost control of the city for several days. Their absence fueled the organic outgrowth of armed citizen patrols, ad hoc firefighting crews, and block donation drives. Once police reconvened with reinforcements from the State Patrol and the National Guard, attacks on peaceful, curfew-breaking protesters and arrests of press fed the perception that they’d squandered the last of their legitimacy.

The day before that Powderhorn rally, a march in protest of the Minneapolis police union passed by the northeast Minneapolis home of Mayor Jacob Frey, who quaveringly announced he did not want to abolish the police. A viral video of the incident showed Frey being jettisoned from the march to a chorus of “Shame, shame, shame!”

Emily Utne

Emily Utne

Activists laughed about that onstage at Powderhorn. At last, those who’d pushed for disbanding the MPD for years in the shadow of obscurity were being recognized around the country.

“If you’re here today, you probably already agree that we need to abolish the police,” said Arianna Nason of the activist group MPD150. “Our families, friends, and neighbors are going to have questions. Lots and lots of questions about what a police-free future can look like. What does that mean?”

“We absolutely do not want to just rebrand police, change the color of the uniform and call them something else. Nah, just no,” said Nason. “But we can think critically about what unarmed crisis response teams must be, what they might look like.”

Help would instead come in the form of neighbors, or government-certified social workers that residents could request by name, activists said. The MPD’s $193 million budget would be rationed into education, food, housing, and healthcare. Violence itself would be redefined as a result of trauma propelled by the presence of cops.

Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council—a veto-proof majority of 12 occupied seats—signed a pledge to dismantle the police department. They were cloudy on details of how that would be done or what could come after. But they did make a daring promise that whatever emerged out of a democratic reconstruction of public safety would be completely transformative.

“Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period,” said council president Lisa Bender. “Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it.”

“The Mpls Police Department is not reformable. Change is coming,” tweeted council member Alondra Cano.

National newspapers marveled at the stunning ambition of Minneapolis. At least one media outlet mistakenly reported that the department had already been disbanded.

In fact, no one knows yet what will come of the council members’ pledge to “defund,” “dismantle,” and “end the Minneapolis Police Department.” Not even the people on the stage.

II. From radical to reasonable

In 2015, Jamar Clark was shot and killed in a struggle with a pair of Minneapolis police officers who said the 24-year-old was going for one of their guns, sparking weeks of protests. Two years later, Justine Damond, 40, was shot and killed without warning after calling 911 to report a suspected sexual assault in the alley behind her house. Both cases made headlines around the world.

These shootings had strikingly different outcomes. The white cops who killed Clark—a Black man—were never charged. The Somali-American officer who shot Damond—a white woman—was convicted of murder and manslaughter, while her family ultimately received $20 million through a wrongful death lawsuit.

Yet these cases represent just a fraction of Minneapolis’s recent officer-involved killings.

In June 2018, MPD officers chased Thurman Blevins, 31, into an alley and shot him in the back. That November, police shot Travis Jordan after his girlfriend called them because he was threatening to kill himself. In each case, prosecutors determined the officers were authorized to use deadly force; Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman called Blevins, who was armed, “an immediate threat.” His dying words were: “Please don’t shoot me! Leave me alone!”

In December of 2019, Chiasher Fong Vue was killed in a barrage of gunfire by officers responding to a domestic violence call at his north Minneapolis home. He was the 14th person to die from an encounter with law enforcement officers in Minnesota last year. The list goes on.

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To “celebrate” the Minneapolis Police Department’s 150th anniversary in 2016, MPD150 published Enough is Enough, a detailed performance review of the department’s past and present. Their research paints a picture of a department that has become increasingly entrenched and brutal, and that has historically been at war against Minneapolis’s people of color. (An updated version of the report will be released in the coming weeks.)

Many of the MPD’s problems are systemic and well-documented, and have resurfaced since Floyd’s murder. There was the 2007 lawsuit in which Medaria Arradondo—now Minneapolis’s police chief—and four other plaintiffs alleged the department demoted Black male officers and tolerated known racists, including Lt. Bob Kroll, who would be elected to lead the police union eight years later. The New York Times used the department’s own statistics to show Minneapolis police are at least seven times more likely to use force against Black people than white people.

Roughly 92 percent of the force lives in a non-Minneapolis zip code, which activists say makes them less accountable to the community they police. That number makes the city an outlier; in 2010, a FiveThirtyEight investigation of the 75 American cities with the largest police forces found an average of 60 percent don’t live in the city they police.

Activists also argue that the department doesn’t effectively protect the community it serves. Their track record in solving serious crimes is consistently low—last year, Minneapolis police cleared 56 percent of cases in which a person was killed. In 2016, their clearance rate for rape cases was just 22 percent, and last year, the department announced they’d found 1,700 “misplaced” rape kits that had gone untested since as early as the 1990s.

Many attempts to reform the department have been stymied by the powerful police union, which council president Lisa Bender called a “a clear barrier to change.”

They’ve openly defied the mayor before. Last year, after Frey banned so-called “warrior-style” training—“fear-based” tactics that focus on confronting physical threats rather than de-escalation—the union started offering free warrior-style training of its own. Kroll has consistently butted heads with Minneapolis elected officials, including Frey, his predecessor Betsy Hodges, and the current council, whose “ultra-left agenda that the police are the problem” he railed against on Fox News.

The day George Floyd was killed, MPD spokesman John Elder claimed the 46-year-old died of a “medical incident.” His initial press release, which made no mention of any use of force, quickly crumbled under the weight of cell phone video.

All of which led to the protests, the riots, and the burning of a police precinct—an event unprecedented in U.S. history.

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III. Uncharted territory

In a Zoom call with reporters the day after declaring policing irreparably broken, council members’ tone took a conciliatory turn.

Council member Alondra Cano, the council’s chair of public safety, said she sympathizes with the complex situations police officers respond to while navigating a rigid workplace.

“Imagine the two officers who had just completed their cadet course a week before, and were put in a position where they were saying, ‘Hey you might consider putting Mr. Floyd on his side,’ and were shut down by a veteran of 15 or 20 years on the force,” she said in defense of fired MPD rookies Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Keung. “Those officers also don’t want to be in that broken system.”

Cano said she knows compassionate cops. Her constituents in Little Earth—America’s largest urban housing project for American Indians—consider police officers mentors, feminist leaders, and role models for kids. Many minority cops went into policing strictly because they wanted to wear the badge better than the ones they saw growing up.

“In the process I would like to see us take on, this truth and reconciliation summer, those officers would be a part of that,” she said.

In its first concrete response to the death of George Floyd, the City Council approved a temporary restraining order from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, banning chokeholds and requiring police to physically intervene when they see another officer using one. The state is probing the MPD for patterns of discrimination.

Backing off bullish statements to end the MPD with or without the mayor’s support, council president Lisa Bender said she hoped the state civil rights investigation would offer the city tools to “reform” policing.

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Defunding the MPD would also take time and process, Cano clarified. Mayor Jacob Frey would have to present an amended city budget before the end of July. Only then could they target the MPD for incisive cuts and funnel the savings into policing alternatives.

The city’s Group Violence Intervention initiative, in which community members help gang-affiliated teenagers settle conflict without police intervention, could use more funding to expand, said council member Phillipe Cunningham.

He credited GVI’s implementation in 2017 with a precipitous drop in shootings. Around the same time, domestic assault began to emerge as the number-one reason for 911 calls across the city.

“But yet as the budget came around and we were doing negotiations, I had to fight tooth and nail to be able to get $50,000 for an evidence-based, intimate partner violence intervention system,” said Cunningham, referring to a new initiative diverting perpetrators of less serious domestic crimes to therapy instead of the criminal justice system. “When we were battling millions of dollars not only going into the police budget but also coming out of taxpayer dollars for settlements.”

But what of mass shootings, drive-bys, and hostage standoffs?

None of the council members would offer examples of what could replace armed police in an active shooter situation, saying they expected copious ideas to come from the public.

“I don’t think the challenge is going to be, ‘Who’s going to respond to a fatal shooting?’ I think the challenge is gonna be, ‘We have so many ideas and strategies, how do we prioritize which strategy?’” said Cano.

Council member Andrew Johnson, who signed the pledge to dismantle the MPD but did not join the Zoom call, answered the question more directly.

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“No, the City Council did not vote to abolish the police department,” he wrote in a statement to constituents. “No, there have not been any decisions made on budget cuts. No, we cannot have lawlessness or anarchy. And yes, there are still emergency calls which will require armed law enforcement to respond.”

A few days later, MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo announced the city would immediately withdraw from ongoing negotiations with the police union over its contract, which was due to be renewed at the end of 2019. Instead, the chief said he would bring in experts to diagnose parts of the contract that make it virtually impossible to permanently fire a bad cop for misconduct.

In his first extended public address following the City Council’s declaration of dismantling his department, Arradondo apologized to Minneapolis residents for the trauma they endured over the preceding weeks, starting with the slaying of George Floyd.

“I wish that I could carry those burdens on my shoulders alone so you did not have to,” Arradondo said. “Over the past several days I’ve heard from families and individuals who are concerned that if they were in need of a police response, they would not get one. I’m also here to tell you, we will be here for you.”

As a child growing up in Minneapolis, he didn’t see a lot of cops who looked like him, the city’s first Black police chief said. The ones who did were his heroes. Speaking in reference to his discrimination lawsuit, Arradondo said he “did not abandon this department then, and will not abandon this department now.”

Several more hurdles stand in the way of dismantling the MPD. The city charter mandates a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident. Changing it would require a popular referendum this November. Federal labor laws also insist contract negotiations continue.

Some of the first community members to voice opposition to outright police abolition include those who live in and work most deeply in minority communities, including the principals of both North Side high schools and the Urban League Twin Cities.

To begin, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution to engage in a year-long process of community engagement and research. Promising to engage with every willing resident while prioritizing the voices of people of color, the council ordered staff to produce regular reports as a new model of public safety takes form.

IV. Abolition elsewhere

Nelson Linder, president of the Austin, Texas NAACP, says the mood in his city matches what he’s seen in Minneapolis, and all over the country, for that matter.

“We’ve had enormous protests here,” he says—diverse and relentless. Some reforms have resulted, quickly followed by distressing relapses. Earlier this month, the City Council banned chokehold maneuvers like the one used to suffocate George Floyd, only to have an Austin police officer filmed kneeling on a protester’s neck a day later.

The city’s hungry for permanent change, Linder says.

In June, Austin’s City Council voted unanimously to partially defund the city’s police department—as have over a dozen other cities across the nation. He believes that was only possible because in 2013, the council went from seven at-large members to having representatives from 10 discrete districts. Ever since, he says, council members have been more accountable to their constituents and less easily swayed by the police union.

Yet council members didn’t specify how much money they wanted to cut from the department, or where those resources would be redirected. Already residents suspect walk-backs and compromises. Mayor Steve Adler is hesitant to sign a proposition to reduce the police budget by $100 million, demanding a detailed budget proposal while maintaining police perform “a really important function in the community.”

“We will neither abolish nor defund the police,” he said in a tweet on June 11. “We will not compromise the safety of our community. Period. But re-imagining policing and investing in people and the community hold the promise of making us even more safe.”

Residents have complained about city leadership sending “mixed signals” online.

When discussions of disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department arose, many national news outlets trotted out Camden, New Jersey as a handy precedent.

In 2013, Camden, a city awash in violent crime and excessive force complaints, fired its existing police force, tore up the old union contracts, and ceded law enforcement to the county. The new Camden County Police Department rehired only half of the old officers after making them fill out 50-page applications and re-evaluating their psychological muster.

The results were remarkable. Homicides declined from 67 in 2012—the last year of the old police department—to 25 in 2019. Over the same period, excessive force complaints narrowed from 65 to just three. But according to residents, there’s more to the story of the Camden police.

The new force is larger, whiter, and less local. Suddenly, law enforcement looked a lot less like the overwhelmingly Black and brown people being policed. Crime did go down, but on average, crime in America has been on the decline since the mid-1990s.

Camden activists kept pushing the department to tamp down use of force. In the new department’s first year, excessive force complaints nearly doubled before eventually dropping off. In 2015, a report from the American Civil Liberties Union gave Camden a nod for its efforts at cleaning shop, but noted a “significant increase in low-level arrests and summonses.”

NJ Advance Media, a Pulitzer-winning local news agency, scoured Camden County Police data between 2012 and 2016 and found that Black Camdenites were 447 percent more likely to have force used on them than white residents.

Another example comes from the Eugene-Springfield metro in Oregon, where 911 calls route to police, fire, or a third option—a 24/7 mobile crisis intervention team consisting of a nurse or EMT and a mental health specialist. These teams end up taking some 20 percent of the area’s 911 calls, according to an NPR interview. Those numbered 24,000 last year. Only 150 of them needed additional police backup.

If you ask Linder, Minneapolis—and Austin—are part of a “historical moment” on the crux of real, meaningful change.

“You can’t predict what happens with George Floyd,” he says. “When people see things like that it’s like seeing Emmett Till’s body in 1955.”

But if there’s anything Minneapolis can learn from other cities’ experiments with law enforcement, it’s that no change is perfect on the first pass.

V. Baby steps

For now, Minneapolis is suspended in a moment of uncertainty. Though the Minneapolis police budget has not parted with a single dollar, officers across the city are more reluctant to respond aggressively to 911 calls in a time of intense scrutiny and low approval. Nearly 120 people have been injured by gunfire since George Floyd’s death. Homicides are double this time last year.

Floyd’s memorial at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, a verdant and joyful site of communal cookouts for several weeks, began to devolve after dark, according to council member Andrea Jenkins.

“There are reports of gunshots, drug use, illegal alcohol service to minors, and numerous mental health concerns,” she wrote to constituents. “In short, the activities are becoming a public health and community safety issue. It will require all of us to come together and restore our neighborhood livability while honoring the memory, history, and the humanity of George Floyd.”

Mayor Jacob Frey’s impulse was to call in reinforcements from surrounding law enforcement agencies, including the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, Metro Transit, the FBI, ATF, and Secret Service.
In contrast, council member Phillipe Cunningham turned to the city’s Group Violence Intervention program to broker meetings between gang members.

“The aim is to reduce peer dynamics in the group that promote violence by creating collective accountability, to foster internal social pressure that deters violence, to establish clear community standards against violence, to offer group members an ‘honorable exit’ from committing acts of violence, and to provide a supported path for those who want to change,” he tweeted.

Cunningham didn’t respond to interview requests about how it’s going.

One month after George Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis City Council took its first step toward dismantling the police department.

Together, they authored a proposed amendment to the city charter that would replace the MPD with a new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention that would provide “public safety services prioritizing a holistic, public health-oriented approach,” and answer directly to the City Council. A cop may be tapped to lead the new department, which may also include a division of licensed police officers.

The council then voted unanimously to advance a ballot question to voters this November, asking, “Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to provide for the establishment of a new Community Safety & Violence Prevention Department and to remove the Police Department?”

If the amendment is approved by voters, the MPD would cease to be a chartered department on May 1, 2021, allowing for its eventual disbanding. MPD’s replacement may not fully materialize by the November election, but council members believe a democratic reinvention of policing can dovetail with the charter amendment process.

While a timeline for official public engagement is forthcoming, community responses to the council’s nascent post-MPD vision varied widely in a preview of what’s sure to become a feast of contending opinions. In a joint statement representing the city’s business interests, the Downtown Council, Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Minneapolis came out decisively against efforts to dismantle the department.

Corporate leaders want to keep police under the mayor’s purview instead of the council’s, arguing management by a group of people would muddle accountability. They also urged the city to “support the Chief of Police more visibly than before,” and affirm that sworn police must be available 24/7 to address threats to people and commerce.

“Without a clear understanding that policing services will be reinvented but not eliminated in our City, we can anticipate the desirability of Minneapolis as a community to live, visit, invest, and create/maintain jobs within will diminish,” the group said.

At the same time, the Twin Cities Coalition 4 Justice 4 Jamar (Clark), which advocates for direct community control of the police, lambasted elected officials for merely renaming the MPD and paying lip service to the public “without doing the hard work of getting rid of violent cops.”

“The City Council’s proposal does not spell out any new disciplinary measures or oversight of the police, nor does it spell out what community involvement will look like beyond a vague ‘consistently engaging the public,’” Justice 4 Jamar said in a statement.

Still, Black Visions Collective’s Miski Noor commended council members for passing an amendment that, while imperfect, took Minneapolis “closer than any time in history, and anywhere else in the country, to a safe, thriving city without police.”

Black Visions Collective had wanted law enforcement explicitly disqualified from leading the city’s new public safety department. Under the council’s proposed charter amendment, the director could very well be a cop.

“We know that police will be fighting hard to influence this process, and we need our city leaders to do everything they can to make sure they don’t hijack our new safety infrastructure from the beginning,” said collective director Kandace Montgomery. “We will fight until we see a new department that fully lives up to our expectations of a new path towards public safety, with a clear break from MPD’s ugly history.”