Promises to dismantle the police department, root-and-branch, have come to little in Minneapolis.
In the immediate wake of the homicide of George Floyd under the knee of a city cop, a veto-proof majority of the city council vowed to disband the Minneapolis PD and to replace it with new systems for public safety. Instead, the city council has now voted to trim just 4.5 percent from the police budget in 2021, a move that will not change the number of cops on the street.
It’s difficult to overstate the collapse in the city council’s appetite for reform. With protesters in the streets after Floyd’s killing, Minneapolis leaders pledged to upend their institution of policing, appearing eager to put the weight of government behind slogans like “Defund the Police.” “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed. Period,” Lisa Bender, the city council president, said in early June. Writing a Time piece headlined, “I’m a Minneapolis City Council Member. We Must Disband the Police — Here’s What Could Come Next” Steve Fletcher argued it was time to “declare policing as we know it a thing of the past.” Fellow council member Jeremiah Ellison tweeted: “We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department. And when we’re done, we’re not simply gonna glue it back together. We are going to dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response.”
The city council did follow through, initially, in June by proposing a measure for the November ballot that would ask voters to approve replacing the police with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. But this ambition was halted in August when the Minneapolis Charter Commission (an offshoot of state government that provides oversight to the city) blocked the measure from appearing on the fall ballot, and then voted in November to scuttle it.
In the meantime, a nearly 25 percent spike in violent crime this year complicated reality on the ground — particularly in communities of color — as calls for enhanced police enforcement arose in conflict with demands to disband the force. Even so, the police department remains widely distrusted. In a new survey, 75 percent of black respondents said they do not believe MPD officers are held accountable for misconduct, and 80 percent who’d interacted with MPD officers during a mental health crisis found the police unhelpful. Conducted by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the survey concluded that “MPD does not respect the community, is not culturally competent, is not part of or from the community, is racist, rude, lacks compassion, and uses excessive force that has resulted in general mistrust.”
Yet by last week, the city council’s once sweeping ambitions had given way, once again, to incremental change. In a 2021 budget vote on December 9th, the council voted to cut just $8 million from the $179 million MPD budget. In the face of a veto threat from Mayor Jacob Frey, the council even voted against a measure that would have reduced the size of the city’s authorized police force from 888 to 750 officers.
City Council president Bender blamed Mayor Frey for the muted response: “He fought us every step of the way,” she tweeted.
Despite the shrunken scope of reform, a number of progressives have hailed the budget cuts as an important win, including Minnesota’s “squad” member in Congress, Ilhan Omar:
So proud of @lisabendermpls @CunninghamMPLS @FletcherMpls @jeremiah4north for their bold leadership. Transformative change happens when we listen to those most impacted by failed policies in our community. S/o to the rest of the city council that worked in support of this effort. https://t.co/ofAP9DezWw
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) December 10, 2020
The cuts will be reinvested in public-safety measures, including funding for mental health training for the city’s emergency call centers, the creation of mental health crisis teams that will respond to some 911 calls, and a boost in funding for violence-prevention programs outside of the police department.
Yet the Minneapolis reforms now look timid, even in comparison to other mid-sized cities with similar police-brutality problems. At the time Minneapolis was promising to disband its force in June, for example, Portland, Oregon, cut its Police Bureau’s funding by 6 percent, or $15 million. That move failed to mollify activists there, giving rise to months of nightly protests met by brutal crackdowns from both the local police and federal law enforcement.
Activists on the ground in Minnesota are nonetheless expressing excitement with the concrete progress. “To answer your question very bluntly, yes it’s a victory,” says Oluchi Omeoga, a co-founder of Black Visions Collective, a prominent Twin Cities group dedicated to police reform. “There’s a clear disinvestment that’s happening because of the organizing on the ground, and that happened because of the constant pressure that was happening these last few months. Is it as big a win as we wanted to see? No, but it never will be.”
On the gap between what the city council pledged and what it delivered, Omeoga calls out council members for “showboating” in June with a “performative” pledge to disband the MPD. But Omeoga says the “narrative victory” of city government adopting the rhetoric of organizers helped bring a lot of activists into the fold, paving the path to the substantive victory that’s just been achieved.
Omeoga also vows that the city council’s achievement gap be highlighted as members seek re-election next year. “What does it look like to re-interrogate the promise that happened this summer,” Omeoga says, “and actually be able to hold them accountable?”