Almost five months after a majority of the Minneapolis City Council stood on a stage with large letters in front of it spelling out “DEFUND POLICE,” some see the effort as a failure, blaming the sentiment for boosts in violent crime and the council for inaction.
While it remains to be seen where those efforts to vastly reimagine public safety will land, an MPR News survey of Minneapolis council members show that there’s still significant common ground among them for changing the city’s relationship with the Police Department, including transferring police responsibilities to social workers, leaving police to focus on responding to and investigating crime.
Whether Minneapolis was aiming to defund, reform or abolish the police has been an area of bewilderment for many city residents and the public at large. MPR News submitted a list of six questions about the issues around defunding the police to all 13 Minneapolis council members.
Two council members, Jeremiah Ellison and Lisa Goodman, declined to directly answer the survey. But the other 11 appeared to share similar perspectives on most survey questions.
When asked if they supported abolishing the Minneapolis Police Department, no members directly answered “yes.”
Council member Phillipe Cunningham answered “no” because he said people associate the word “abolish” with getting rid of all law enforcement. Instead, Cunningham said he favors building a new, standalone public safety system — which includes law enforcement — to replace MPD.
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Others said the term “abolish” altogether should be avoided in this situation. Council member Andrew Johnson said he never uses the word because it “comes with a lot of baggage, needlessly generates fear, and results in confusion by omitting important context.”
Still, Council member Alondra Cano, who in June was among the nine council members who publicly pledged to work to dismantle the police, said she remains undeterred on her push “to abolish our current policing system.”
That’s not to say that all council members agree on how to approach the issues of police reform. Council member Linea Palmisano said in her survey comments that she continues to stand with Chief Medaria Arradondo in his efforts to push for reform within the police department, although she says the department’s work should be paired with other violence prevention strategies.
“In many ways this will require more, not less resources,” Palmisano said.
Diverting MPD dollars
All council members who responded to the survey said they do believe that police officers are necessary to respond to violent incidents, which is in line with state statutes requiring licensed officers to respond to certain incidents.
No council members who responded to the survey directly opposed moving some services out of the Police Department and reallocating funds to other public safety services.
Council member Steve Fletcher said he’s not in favor of cutting the Police Department’s budget without a plan in place for who is going to take over the work.
“But if we are actually reducing the number of calls that we ask them to respond to and reducing the number of incidents that we asked them to participate in, I think it's totally appropriate to also reduce the funding that goes to that department,” Fletcher said. “We would do that with any other department.”
The concept of diverting dollars from the Police Department to social services is a popular sentiment citywide. Nearly three-quarters of voters agree with the redirecting of funds, according to an MPR News/Star Tribune and KARE 11 poll of Minneapolis voters in August. That same survey, however, found that a third of Minneapolis voters disapproved of the City Council’s actions following the unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.
At the time, Minneapolis resident Stephanie Erickson told MPR News that the council didn’t do a good job of explaining their vision of public safety, and that council members hadn’t considered the ramifications of their Powderhorn Park announcement.
"Using the term 'abolish the police,' I think, freaked out a lot of people,” she said. “And when you say that, you should have a plan in place as to what that would possibly look like.”
Vowing to defund and dismantle
There are signs that residents are confused about the meaning of terms like “defund” and “abolish.” The June 7 appearance in Powderhorn Park cemented in many people’s minds that the council had vowed to get rid of police. “Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis police department,” City Council President Lisa Bender told the crowd.
Cano went even further, telling the crowd she no longer believed in “reform.”
“Your consistency, your power and your strength allows me to be here today, showing up as a person who believes we should and can abolish our current Minneapolis police system,” Cano said at the time.
Minneapolis’ vow to “abolish” the Police Department made headlines from The Wall Street Journal to the New York Post. But from almost the beginning, away from the throngs and microphones, the council members involved in the effort openly admitted that the process wouldn’t be quick or even smooth.
The day after their appearance in the park, four of the council members participated in a press conference call sponsored by the Justice Collaborative, a nonprofit that works on criminal justice issues. Council member Ellison acknowledged that the process could take about a year, and that constituents wouldn’t be served well by the council members going into a back room and coming out with a full-fledged plan.
“You also have to understand that the Minneapolis Police Department has been around for 150 years,” Ellison said at the time. “Developing an entirely new apparatus for public safety, we’ve got to do our due diligence and communicate with the public about that.”
Delay and pushback
There have been obstacles for the council since they made their pledge in Powderhorn Park.
Less than a week later, on June 12, the council announced its intent to adjust the city charter to remove a minimum staffing level for the Minneapolis Police Department and create a new Community Safety and Violence Prevention department that the council would have more control over. Currently, the mayor is in charge of the Police Department, while the council is responsible for its budget.
Two weeks later, the council sent the language of the proposed charter amendment to the Charter Commission.
Mayor Jacob Frey opposed the charter change, arguing that it would be a blow to transparency and accountability within the department. “If there are still police, how will this proposal move us toward structural reform? How would renaming or rebranding policing advance those reforms?” Frey said on Twitter.
The commission is a 15-member body appointed by a judge whose role is to review the proposed language of changes to the charter and then vote to either accept, reject or offer a substitute.
According to the council’s accelerated timeline, approval by the commission would have allowed voters to have the opportunity to consider the charter changes on their ballots next month. But after expressing concerns about the charter change, the commission voted 10-5 to delay the amendment, effectively keeping it off the ballot this year. A similar effort to give the council more control over the Police Department was held up by the Charter Commission about two years earlier.
Despite the delay, council members vowed to move forward with community engagement on the issue. After months of delay, the City Council this month launched a series of meetings for community members to offer their input on the ideas.
But some members of the public were already worrying about the vow to abolish.
In late July, Jordan Area Community Council executive director Cathy Spann expressed her frustration that the council was considering dismantling the Police Department without presenting a detailed plan of the alternative — especially as violent crime soared in her neighborhood.
“Here’s the issue that I have,” Spann said. ”You have put my life at risk.”
Spann also announced that she and others were suing the city, arguing that the city has allowed the number of officers on the force to drop below the legal minimum. That lawsuit is still in the early stages.
Arradondo, the police chief, has said the ranks of the department have shrunk by 130 officers since this same period in 2019. Most of those police officers have left the force or been fired since George Floyd’s death, and the Star Tribune reports that officials expect the total number of officers to decline by a third by the end of the year.
While the department says the number of officers on the street hasn’t dropped dramatically, some members of the public have blamed efforts to defund the Police Department for an increase in violent crime.
Council member Cano, who several months earlier called for abolishing the current police system, told the chief that her community has been struggling with robberies and shootings.
“I acknowledge that the moment we’re in right now is not very ripe for success,” said Cano during a Sept. 15 meeting.
“So my question to you is more about what can we as a council do to help you become more successful in this work? And what can communities do to reduce that gun violence?”
Some council members, though, argue that police officers themselves are drawing back on their responsibilities, especially in areas around the site of Floyd’s killing, which has been closed to traffic since May.
Bender, the council president, said some of her constituents have told her that police officers were not responding to some calls. Other members suggested in recent interviews with MPR News that officers are staging a work slowdown in response to criticism.
“I think it is possible they are essentially campaigning, either politically because they don’t support the council member or in some cases the mayor or perhaps they think that they are making the case for more resources for the department,” said Bender.
Council member Goodman declined to fill out MPR’s survey, saying she has a policy of not taking pledges or filling out surveys on these sort of issues. In an interview with MPR News, she confirmed that she’s not in favor of activists’ calls for cuts of $45 million to the Police Department and that some of the activists’ demands wouldn’t be possible under state laws requiring certain responsibilities to be carried out by licensed police officers.
But Goodman said over the years she’s come around to the idea that people like mental health workers or social workers should be incorporated into some police responses.
“I do believe we should be looking at what the role and responsibilities of a police officer are, because I do believe that they are taxed with things that are not in their wheelhouse,” Goodman said. “I do believe strongly that we asked police officers to do too much, and there are things that could be better done with other kinds of responses.”
Where is Minneapolis going?
The City Council members surveyed by MPR News say their stance on police reform hasn’t changed in substance since the June 7 rally, and that they're still dedicated to reimagining the city’s relationship with the police. But that the issues will take time.
Although the plan was slightly delayed due to the pandemic, they approved a process to engage with city residents early this month.
The council members are gathering input from surveys and public forums. City staff will gather all the input together and report to the council members on the main takeaways in December. They plan to finalize recommendations for building a new public safety plan in midsummer.
Council members say they will push for their proposed charter amendment that would eliminate minimum staffing at the Police Department and give the council authority over a new department of public safety. This effort could go on the city residents’ ballots in 2021.
Meanwhile, the council voted a couple weeks ago to create a truth and reconciliation process in Minneapolis to address racial disparities and focus on solutions.
Do council members regret the words they used on that stage in Powderhorn Park, and some of the confusion their statements created for the public in the months after?
“Rhetoric and misinformation about what ‘defunding’ means has contributed to distrust and friction in our community,” said Council member Jeremy Schroeder, who was in the park that day.
Ellison, who declined to fill out the survey, told MPR News he doesn’t think appearing on stage with activists at Powderhorn Park, or even some of the rhetoric colleagues used, were mistakes. He said they came out of years of frustration over what council members saw as a lack of accountability from the Minneapolis Police Department.
“Should we constantly wait for guarantees before we assert what was the right thing? I don’t think that’s the way to govern,” he said.
Ellison said the way City Council members can contest what he says are misconceptions about their approach to reimagining policing is to continue to have deep one-on-one conversations with city residents about their visions for public safety over the next year and beyond.
“There are no shortcuts for that,” Ellison said.
Bender said council members were responding to years of outcry from their constituents, and that she’s comfortable with the words that she used regarding the issue. But she attributed some confusion from the public to the fact that the council’s proposals and actions afterwards got less attention than the vow to defund.
“This is the more boring work of making change through a system,” she said.