This piece was originally published by Scatterplot on May 24th, 2021.
Tomorrow marks one year since the murder of George Floyd at 38th and Chicago in South Minneapolis, sparking a rebellion that burned a police precinct and much of a nearby commercial strip. In the days that followed, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council declared their intention to “dismantle” the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). This declaration seemed to place the city at the forefront of a national conversation to reimagine public safety and redress racialized police violence. And yet, although the people of Minneapolis largely agree about the need for systematic changes in policing, residents, activists, and policymakers continue to disagree about the nature and scope of those transformations. These political struggles have complicated efforts to dismantle the MPD.
As I wrote on scatterplot last summer, periods of upheavalrarely produce total abandonment of the status quo, but political leaders, activists, and community members can use such openings to shift the direction of policies, practices, and institutional and cultural arrangements. Those words ring even truer today. Nearly a year following the declaration, the MPD remains standing, but changed, as the city continues to struggle over how to create “safety for all” in a starkly unequal society. Fights over public safety are central to the upcoming election, where city residents will vote on a new charter amendment to replace the MPD with a Department of Public Safety and re-elect or vote out of office the council members who have fought for (or resisted) these changes and the Mayor who has rebuffed calls to dismantle the MPD.
I started writing this post several weeks ago, trying to map out the many developments in public safety over the past year. But the details soon grew too long for the format, threatening to turn a blog post into the book I’m currently writing on policing in Minneapolis. Instead, here I’ll provide several links to local reporting on these issues and then focus on the charter amendment.
These changes include:
- Police reforms led by the Mayor and MPD’s Chief, in part through a court order imposed by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. These include a ban on chokeholds, a new “duty to intervene” requirement for officers, and ongoing reforms to training and misconduct policies and practices.
- Expanded violence interruption teams, including community patrols during the unrest, the Chauvin trial, and spikes in gun violence.
- A 5% cut to the MPD’s 2021 budget to fund violence prevention programs and a new mobile mental health crisis response program.
- The ousting of MPD from the city’s public schools and their replacement with civilian safety specialists (some of whom have a law enforcement background).
- The torching of the third precinct and successful resistanceto resiting the precinct within the ward.
- The “autonomous” George Floyd Square, which is still barricaded and managed by community members opposed to police presence in the neighborhood.
- State-level police reforms passed in 2020, which banned chokeholds (in most cases) and strengthened community involvement in Minnesota’s law enforcement licencing board. A new package of bills is currently under consideration in Minnesota (though is being blocked by Senate Republicans), which would eliminate most pretext vehicle stops by police and require the state licencing board to regulate officer support for white supremacist groups.
In addition, the events of this summer have pushed a cultural shift–prompting citizens, community leaders, and law enforcement to change. Residents have been increasingly drawn into the political struggles over public safety. Images of George Floyd and signs for “Justice for George” are ubiquitous across the city, even as residents and city leaders who support the MPD in the city have grown more organized. Officers have also left the force in record numbers, citing trauma from the unrest and frustration with elected officials, reducing the MPD’s size by 20% without any change in the charter. Indeed, it is this shrinking of the police force through attrition (not policy change) that has brought the number of MPD officers below the staffing levels required in the current city charter–opening the city up to a lawsuit filed by some community members who argue that the city has not adequately protected them. These safety concerns have been particularly acute in North Minneapolis, home to many Black residents, where gun violence has spiked since the start of the pandemic,* with community leaders demanding the city address these pressing safety concerns.
The city also agreed to a record-breaking $27 million civil settlement for George Floyd’s family, announced just weeks before Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder. (The city and state also spent millions rebuilding from the unrest and fortifying downtown during the trial.) State and federal criminal cases against both Chauvin and the three other involved officers continue. In addition, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are both continuing civil rights investigations into the MPD’s policies and practices. Both investigations could lead to additional consent decrees forcing the city to further reform the MPD. In some cities, DOJ consent decrees have mandated cities spend more on police training and staffing, changes that may contradict the proposed charter amendment.
Last summer, after the June declaration by a majority of Minneapolis City Councilmembers, the council put forward an initiative to replace the MPD in the city charter with a Community Safety and Violence Prevention department. This charter amendment represented the most concrete effort to dismantle the MPD in the wake of the June 2020 declaration, though not all the councilmembers who took to the stage emblazoned with “DEFUND POLICE” supported the proposal. By city governance rules, any changes to the charter must be reviewed by the city’s Charter Commission, an appointed board tasked with providing a recommendation to the city council. In August, the city’s charter commission ran out the clock on their review of the proposal, effectively blocking its appearance on the 2020 ballot.
This initiative, however, was re-proposed in 2021, supported by both several city council members and a popular ballot initiative organized by Yes 4 Minneapolis. In November, Minneapolis voters will decide whether they want to replace the MPD in the city charter with a new Department of Public Safety, an initiative that has so far polled favorably but remains deeply contested. The new department would include alternative first responders alongside law enforcement, though it is unclear what the numerical balance will be between the different units. (Under the language of the Yes 4 Minneapolis amendment, the department will include “licensed peace officers if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department.” State law requires the city to have police, making them “necessary” according to the language of the proposal.) It is also unclear how the shift from MPD to the new Public Safety department would impact ongoing negotiations with the police officers’ federation, with officers (and their contract) presumably shifting automatically to the new department if it passes. The amendment would also move power over the department from the Mayor to the City Council, a shift long supported by some councilmembers.
Supporters argue that the charter is the first step in reimagining policing and creating a structure for the city to develop holistic public safety interventions. The Mayor and many of his allies (including business leaders and some community leaders), however, have pushed back on these calls, arguing that it would defund (with the goal of ultimately abolishing) the MPD. They argue such moves would endanger public safety in a time of rising crime. The charter amendment also faces resistance from other activist groups, who argue that it may worsen the accountabilityproblem by shifting power to the council. One group of critics is working to propose an alternative charter amendment for community control of the police.
These divides–between more status-quo reform and radical transformations and among groups calling for radical changes vs. abolition–are part of a broader struggle in left-leaning cities in the U.S. Since the summer, a split has more publicly emerged between those who support police reform (or efforts to minimize certain kinds of police violence, particularly lethal killings of civilians, through policy and practice reforms), and abolitionists, who want to literally abolish the police (and, for many, abolish capitalism), reducing police violence by shrinking the number of police-civilian interactions. Even among activists who identify police abolition or radical transformations in public safety as the ultimate end-goal, however, tensions about how to start the journey toward that horizon remain.
Largely due to these struggles over public safety, the Mayor and the President of the City Council are no longer on speaking terms. The Mayor recently held a press conference about a spate of gun violence in North Minneapolis, which critically injured two children and killed 6-year-old Aniya Allen. Standing behind him were several of the community leaders and city councilmembers who have supported the Mayor’s plans; he did not invite the two Northside representatives who have championed the new models of violence prevention co-opted in the Mayor’s new safety plan. In November, Minneapolis residents will decide the fate of the public safety amendment, select a new Mayor or re-elect the incumbent, Jacob Frey, and vote for the full slate of city councilmembers (including one who will become the new City Council President). Residents will also vote on another charter amendment–the “strong mayor” proposal–which would give the Mayor more control over the operations of city departments (akin to the control he currently wields over the MPD).
In short, public safety in Minneapolis is changing quickly and in multiple, and at times contradictory, directions. It will likely shift even more after November and the conclusion of the DOJ investigation. While the June declaration to dismantle the MPD didn’t immediately “end” the MPD, it has dramatically altered local politics. It is unsurprising that crime–and gun violence in particular–has become a wedge issue in this struggle. Police represent, alternatively, the ideal of state protection and the threat of state violence, often to the same people, a tension legal scholar Monica Bell describes as the conundrum of Black security. Community members in the neighborhoods most impacted by over policing and under-protection often describe wanting both deep structural transformations in policing and more protection from exposure to violence in the community. While calls for more policing are a common response to rising violence, law enforcement is often a poor mechanism for producing the broader social fabric needed to prevent victimization. This means that “safety for all” cannot end with police reform–or even public safety transformations–but rather requires redressing the vastly unequal social conditions of residents in Minneapolis and across the country.
*Rises in some kinds of violent crime, including shootings, in 2021 and 2021 have often been attributed to changes in policing or criminal justice policies in the media. But police (and courts) are just one piece of a much bigger puzzle in society that drives crime up or down. There are lots of reasons to think that the pandemic, which disrupted so many parts of life, had a causal impact on crime. The pandemic pushed kids out of school buildings and adults out of employment and daily life on streets across the country. Abolitionists also note that the definition of crime is itself socially constructed and largely focuses on the kinds of harm committed by the least privileged in society. This framework argues we ought to treat deaths from preventable sickness (including COVID-19) and other kinds of structural violence with the same importance and urgency as homicides.
Thanks to Josh Page, Amber Joy Powell, and Christopher Robertson for their insightful suggestions.
Michelle Phelps is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research is in the sociology of punishment, focusing on mass probation, criminal justice transformation, and policing.