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Four Ideas Shaping the Conversation About Reimagining the Police

Minneapolis and cities around the country are rethinking public safety. Here’s what it could look like

Stacey Graham of Detroit holds her sign while marching down Michigan Ave. during the second consecutive day of protests against the death in Minneapolis police custody of African-American man George Floyd on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Detroit, Mich. On Friday night, protests escalated resulting in dozens of arrests and a shooting death of a 21-year old man. “We’re just so tired, we’re exhausted. I have a son and grandson fear for them all the time,” she said. “That’s no way to live…to live in fear.”

A protester in Detroit, May 30th.

Sylvia Jarrus

In 2015, 24-year-old Jamar Clark was shot in the head by a Minneapolis police officer. The officer said Clark grabbed for his partner’s gun; witnesses said he was handcuffed at the time. Black Lives Matter demonstrated outside the police precinct for 18 days, and the Hennepin County attorney announced with some fanfare that police shootings would no longer be put before grand juries, proceedings cloaked in secrecy that typically favor an officer’s version of events.

By then, it had become a familiar cycle in Minneapolis: an incident of police misconduct, followed by protests, followed by promises to do better next time. In the end, no charges were filed against the officers.

The predictability of it all might be why we are not hearing calls for reform from Minneapolis this time — why, instead, politicians in the city are promising nothing less than a radical reimagining of policing for their community.

By the time George Floyd was killed, the Minneapolis Police Department had already implemented many of the trendiest reforms: body cameras, de-escalation and crisis-intervention training, and mindfulness training. Consensus has started to build that none of it is enough. On June 7th, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council announced its intention to disband the MPD, pledging “to end policing as we know it and re-create systems that actually keep us safe.”

And over the course of just a few weeks in June, that sense has spread around the country. Public support for Black Lives Matter has surged, and ideas that would have once been dismissed as fringe are being considered in cities from New York to Albuquerque, from  L.A. to San Fransisco.

The movement in Minneapolis, though, was not as spontaneous as it looked: Activists there began laying the groundwork years ago, in the days immediately following Clark’s death, when they decided to write a performance review of the Minneapolis Police Department on its 150th anniversary. Published in 2017, the report, “MPD150,” sketches out a vision for a police-free Minneapolis including several ideas that have, overnight, become the catalyst for a national conversation.

“We’ve all known this moment was inevitable,” says Arianna Nason, one of the authors of the “MPD150” report. “We never really knew when it was going to happen, but we knew it was going to happen — like when an earthquake hits, and all of the pressure is built up along the fault line. You can do as much as you can to prepare for an earthquake, and then when it happens, you react. This is our earthquake moment.”

Here are four key ideas that are shaping the debate in Minneapolis — and the rest of the country — about the future of policing:

Defunding
Generally speaking, defunding the police does not mean stripping a department entirely of its budget, or abolishing it altogether — it’s about scaling back police budgets and reallocating those resources to other agencies, says Lynda Garcia, policing campaign director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington, D.C. “A lot of what we advocate for is investment in community services — education, medical access,” she says. “You can call it ‘defunding,’ but it’s just about balancing the budget in a different way.”

The concept is simple: When cities start investing in community services, they reduce the need to call police in the first place, especially when theirs is often not the skill set that’s required. “If someone is dealing with a mental-health crisis, or someone has a substance-abuse disorder, we are calling other entities that are better-equipped to help these folks,” Garcia says.

Police themselves will admit that they are being called to respond to situations beyond the scope of their job. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in 2016. “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. ‘Not enough mental-health funding, let the cops handle it. … Schools fail, give it to the cops.’ That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed announced non-violent emergency calls will be answered by unarmed workers — medics, mental health workers, homeless navigators — rather than police officers. In L.A., members of the Los Angeles City Council have introduced a motion calling for the same. L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti has promised to redirect $150 million from the LAPD’s budget to job programs, health initiatives, and services for L.A.’s black community.

In Minneapolis, the Black Visions Collective and its sister organization Reclaim the Block have been lobbying for $45 million of this year’s MPD budget to be put into violence-prevention programs, youth-homelessness programs, an opioid task force, and a mental-health response team. “A budget is a moral document, and where cities invest their money speaks to their values,” Garcia says. “People actually have a lot more power than they realize, and they can make a ton of change at the local level.”

Disbanding
Modern policing was compromised from its inception, activists say, because it evolved from runaway-slave patrols in the South and goon squads created to violently suppress labor organizing in the North. That’s part of the reason why advocates and a growing number of politicians, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, say the institution is beyond reform and are talking about disbanding their police forces — in part or in whole.

In New York, the police commissioner has announced the NYPD will disband its plainclothes anti-crime units — squads that have been involved in a disproportionate number of police shootings. In Minneapolis, the city council is contemplating a more comprehensive move — dismantling the entire police department. In theory, disbanding the MPD could offer two advantages: a chance to rebuild a department’s culture and mission from the ground up, and an opportunity to break the grip of the police union, which is often one of the biggest obstacles to reform.

Union contracts often shield officers from being held accountable for misconduct, contributing to a culture of impunity. When researchers at the University of Chicago examined a 2003 legal decision that allowed sheriff’s deputies in Florida to unionize, they found it led to a 40 percent increase in violent incidents of misconduct.

Camden, New Jersey dissolved its police department in 2013 when the city, reeling from accusations of corruption and a spike in murders, couldn’t afford to hire new officers because the union contract guaranteed higher salaries than the budget could absorb. The mayor and City Council disbanded the department, joining with the county to create a new, larger force. The decision allowed the city to implement more robust use-of-force guidelines and institute practices meant to build trust in the community.

In Minneapolis, that trust is seriously lacking. When Mayor Jacob Frey banned “warrior”-style police training, police union president Bob Kroll offered the training to officers free of charge. Kroll, himself the subject of at least 29 conduct complaints, has declared his intention to see the officers involved in Floyd’s death reinstated, and characterized the protests as a “terrorist movement.”

Minneapolis’ contract with the police union was up for renegotiation at the time of Floyd’s death, and mediation was taking place behind closed doors at the union’s request. The police chief has since suspended those negotiations, casting the union’s future into doubt.

But activists in Minneapolis insist they don’t want to see the department simply reconstituted with incrementalist changes sans the union — they see the union as a symptom, not the disease itself. “The whole system of policing we have in America and in Minneapolis is wrong and needs to be dismantled,” says Oluchi Omeoga of the Black Visions Collective in Minneapolis. “It’s not about, ‘Oh, we need to get rid of the police union.’ The entire system needs to be reworked and revitalized.”

Demilitarizing
As demonstrations have proliferated across the country, so have photos of heavily armed police facing off with unarmed protesters. “The military occupation of Minneapolis right now is real,” says Nason of MPD150. “There are other ways to think about public safety than armed paramilitary forces roaming our streets.

According to a tally by the New York Times, tear gas has been deployed in more than 98 American cities since demonstrations began, despite the fact that the chemical weapon’s use is banned in war. In Seattle, where the mayor and police chief instituted a 30-day ban on the use of tear gas, the city’s police officers used a loophole to continue to deploy it on protesters — along with pepper spray and blast-ball grenades — raising the troubling prospect that heavily armed police are not accountable to anyone at all.

These massive artilleries are largely the result of the 1033 Program, which allows military equipment — armored vehicles, helicopters, grenade launchers, bayonets, and more — to be transferred from the Pentagon to local police and even school districts. It was created during the War on Drugs in the 1990s, and was dramatically expanded after September 11th. President Obama limited the program after protests in Ferguson, Missouri, before it was re-expanded under President Trump.

In the wake of the Floyd protests, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has promised to introduce an amendment to end the 1033 Program. And in New York, state Sens. Jessica Ramos and Alessandra Biaggi have proposed legislation aimed at demilitarization that would ban the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray, and ban police from buying or receiving military equipment from the federal government. “The use of military equipment in U.S. localities does nothing to advance public safety or even protect police officers,” said Biaggi. “It only incites violence and terror in our neighborhoods.”

Decriminalizing
One way to change policing is to rethink both the laws officers are asked to enforce and the way infractions are punished. “George Floyd is the perfect case to look at,” says Garcia of the Leadership Conference. “What he was accused of — what the police were called for — was a nonviolent offense: trying to use a fake $20 bill. If we reduce the number of crimes that exist or repeal ordinances which are really bloated with nonviolent offenses, it will allow police to focus on violent crime — on the crimes where they are actually needed — instead of criminalizing the poor.”

The idea is to end the crackdown on minor crimes that began in the “Broken Windows”-era of policing, when the prevailing wisdom was that small visible crimes must be punished or they will beget larger crimes. In the decades since, laws against fare evasion, street vending, and sex work, and statutes that target the homeless, have pushed huge numbers of the poorest Americans into the criminal-justice system, often trapping them in cycles of poverty. Those police encounters, and countless others enabled by the failed War on Drugs, have frequently resulted in senseless acts of violence. It was because of a nonviolent drug offense committed by a long-ago boyfriend that cops burst into Breonna Taylor’s home on a “no knock” warrant and shot her eight times.

Advocates would like to see nonviolent offenses — and the way they are adjudicated — reconsidered. “Restorative justice,” a process in which the perpetrator of a crime recognizes and takes responsibility for any harm caused, and works to repair it, is one idea that advocates say should be considered before fines or jail time.

It’s a move that could also help put a stop to the financial harassment of low-income people who get caught up in the criminal-justice system. Among the many problems a Justice Department investigation found in Ferguson, where police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was the fact that the city relied on ticketing and court fees — to such an extent that the city finance director pressured the police chief to up enforcement of minor crimes to balance the city’s budget.

“Police tell us this story that they are protecting people against violent crime, but the vast majority of police arrests are not for violent crime,” says Alec Karakatsanis, founder of the Civil Rights Corps and author of Usual Cruelty. “The number-one arrest in most jurisdictions are things like marijuana possession or driving with a suspended license. There are 13 million suspended licenses in this country — not for driving-related reasons, but because people are too poor to pay debts.”

It’s a legacy of the 1980s, when the Reagan tax cuts left many towns with severe budget shortfalls, says Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University professor and the author of Not a Crime to Be Poor. To help cover their bills, cities began charging “users” of the courts. When people can’t pay those fees, fines, or tickets, most states will suspend their driver’s licenses — creating a new offense.

Philando Castile was pulled over by police 49 times in 13 years, and was issued more than 80 citations — almost all minor violations — resulting in his driver’s license being suspended multiple times. The last time he was pulled over, in 2016 in Falcon Heights, a suburb of Minneapolis, Castile was shot and killed by the officer. At the time of his death, he still owed more than $6,000 in fines and fees.

The Minneapolis City Council has said it will take the next year to solicit ideas for creating a new policing structure that would serve the community. But it will be no small task. “The system of policing has had hundreds of years to be implemented and protected,” says Omeoga of Black Visions Collective. “And once we want to get rid of that system that is killing our people, we have one year to think about it — what do you want to replace it?”

This article appears in the July print issue of Rolling Stone and is an expanded version of a story that ran earlier online.

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