Momentum slows in Minneapolis City Council's plan to remake police

Some council members have softened their rhetoric, saying now that they do envision officers as part of any revamping of public safety


By Liz Navratil
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

The Minneapolis City Council’s resolve to end the city’s police department has lost momentum, the result of the failure to get the question before voters in November and council members’ diverging ideas on the role of sworn officers in the future.

In the three months since nine council members pledged to end the department following George Floyd’s killing, the city has experienced a surge in violent crime, another night of unrest and blowback from residents who felt they had been left out of the initial conversations about change.

A Minneapolis police promotion ceremony in 2019. (Photo/Star Tribune)
A Minneapolis police promotion ceremony in 2019. (Photo/Star Tribune)

Some council members have remained consistent in their statements about policing, while others have softened their rhetoric, saying now that they do envision officers as part of any revamping of public safety.

“I think when you take a statement and then move into policy work, it gets more complicated,” said City Council President Lisa Bender. In the coming weeks, she said, the council will work with city staffers to create a more robust plan for getting feedback from residents on what changes they want to see — and when.

“We have to make big changes in Minneapolis,” she said.

Others wonder if the council already squandered the moment, by taking such a drastic stance that it alienated some who would otherwise support substantial reform.

“They really did miss the opportunity to create actual change,” said Michelle Gross, of Communities United Against Police Brutality. “It’s almost as if changing the police is a bad word, and you’re supposed to be talking instead about getting rid of police.”

In the days following Floyd’s death, council members fielded a flood of messages from constituents, some demanding they abolish police and others wondering why their 911 calls were going unanswered.

Black Visions, formerly known as the Black Visions Collective, organized social media campaigns asking city officials to cut the department’s budget and vow never to increase it again.

Frustrated with the lack of response, they eventually placed mock tombstones in some council members’ yards. Some had a picture of Floyd with flowers and angel wings. Others had messages about defunding the MPD.

“The reason behind it was that we saw that Minneapolis was a graveyard, and it was really symbolic of the death of George Floyd,” said Oluchi Omeoga, a co-founder of Black Visions. “People have to be accountable to that. Where is your accountability to the reason why George Floyd was murdered?”

City Council Member Alondra Cano was the first to reach out, Omeoga recalled. They talked about the need to do something bold.

Soon afterward, Black Visions and its partner organization, Reclaim the Block, connected with other council members and began discussing what promises they might feel comfortable making.

Privately, some council members wrestled over whether it was appropriate to make a pledge. One day before the event in Powderhorn Park, Black Visions led a protest that stopped outside Mayor Jacob Frey’s home. They called for him to come outside, asked whether he would abolish the police department and, when he declined, shouted, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

There was intense pressure to join the pledge, said Council Member Linea Palmisano, who declined to participate, along with Council Members Lisa Goodman and Kevin Reich. Palmisano decided instead to watch from the crowd. Some people tried to talk her out of attending, saying it would be her “shame moment.”

“The pledge meant very specific things, and I was told in no uncertain terms that it was a very literal pledge,” Palmisano said.

By the time they took the stage, nine council members had agreed to participate: Bender, Vice President Andrea Jenkins and council members Cano, Phillipe Cunningham, Jeremiah Ellison, Steve Fletcher, Cam Gordon, Andrew Johnson and Jeremy Schroeder.

They took turns reading from a joint statement that asserted the Police Department could not be reformed. “We are here today to begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department and creating [a] new transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis,” they said.

They added that they didn’t have “all the answers about what a police-free future looks like” but promised to spend a year engaging with “every willing community member.”

Without a detailed plan to accompany their pledge, some people turned to statements from individual council members for help interpreting what it meant. Some had promised to dismantle the department, while others focused on boosting funding for violence prevention programs.

When they crafted the pledge, they tried to write a statement that was specific enough to start a conversation, but open-ended enough that people could still bring their own suggestions, Fletcher said.

“It felt important to me to not come forward with a lot of my own specifics. In retrospect, I think I might have gone too far,” he said, adding that he hopes to provide a “skeleton” for a plan in the coming weeks.

The pledge was warmly received by the crowd. Almost immediately, though, others in the city began contacting council members to express their alarm.

The next day, Johnson sent an e-mail to his constituents assuring them armed officers will still respond to some calls.

Cunningham, meanwhile, said he would not support merely replacing the existing police department with another one.

Three days after the pledge, Bender sent an e-mail to council members suggesting they work on a resolution “to help create some concrete next steps after a couple weeks of various statements from council members to our constituents and the public.”

In the following weeks, a smaller group of council members — Bender, Cano, Ellison, Fletcher, and Gordon — wrote a proposal that would clear the way for ending the Minneapolis Police Department.

It would remove from the city charter, which serves as its constitution, the requirement to keep a police department with a minimum force based on the city’s population. Instead, the city could have a community safety department in which police would be optional.

Facing a skeptical Charter Commission, hours before a crucial vote, Bender, Jenkins, Cunningham, Ellison and Fletcher sent a letter, saying they were “not asking you to put police abolition on the ballot.” Current council members, they wrote, “envision a public safety system that includes law enforcement.”

The commission wasn’t persuaded, and voted to block the proposal from this year’s ballot. While it could appear next year, the decision was a serious blow to the council’s police agenda.

With the centerpiece of their plan delayed in government processes, some council members had to rethink their strategy.

In public meetings, some pressed Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and the mayor for specifics on police operations and plans for change.

In mid-August, local media organizations, including the Star Tribune, released poll results that showed the plan to reduce the police department lacked majority support. While two-thirds of voters had an unfavorable opinion of the department, more than 60% had a favorable opinion of Arradondo.

In a public meeting days afterward, Cano noted that she feared the chief would be “recruited away.” Cunningham said law enforcement “plays a role”in a new public safety system.

The 2021 budget process, which will wrap late this year, will provide council members with their next major opportunity to push through substantial changes.

In the interim, they are seeking a better plan for soliciting feedback from residents.

There aren’t any more public hearings scheduled. There aren’t any imminent votes on the framework for changing policing.

Instead, council members are relying on the city’s staff to help them create a plan.

“There is such a sense of urgency around trying to start some sort of … community engagement process that is staff-led and better embedded in the [city] enterprise,” Bender said in a recent council meeting, “so that it isn’t just policymakers having these separate conversations in our wards that aren’t recorded or captured anywhere, so that we can help to build confidence in our community that we are moving forward in a way that reflects the complexity of the multiple layers of crisis.”

©2020 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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