MPR News with Angela Davis

‘The Minneapolis Reckoning:’ New book traces the city’s journey to the brink of police reform

A women posing next to a book
Michelle Phelps, author of “The Minneapolis Reckoning: Race, Violence, and the Politics of Policing in America” and associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Minnesota, poses for a portrait in the Kling Public Media Center in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Nikhil Kumaran | MPR News

Four years ago this week, a movement to defund and abolish the Minneapolis Police Department ignited across the city and the world.  

George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man and St. Louis Park resident, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in the Powderhorn neighborhood of Minneapolis. 

In those four years since his murder, everything — and nothing — has changed. 

The Minneapolis Police Department was not defunded. And the city is still struggling to come to terms with what safety and accountability look like in the aftermath.

A new book traces how Minneapolis arrived at the brink of police abolition, and why true reform is so hard to come by.  

It’s called “The Minneapolis Reckoning: Race, Violence and the Politics of Policing in America.”

MPR News host Angela Davis talked with the book’s author, sociologist Michelle Phelps.

Two people posing for a photo
MPR News Host Angela Davis (left) talks with Michelle Phelps (right), author of “The Minneapolis Reckoning: Race, Violence, and the Politics of Policing in America” in an MPR News studio in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Nikhil Kumaran | MPR News

Below is an excerpt of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Michelle, I was thinking about where I was four years ago when I found out that something alarming was happening in Minneapolis. So I first want to know, what are your memories of that day four years ago? It was May 25, 2020. What were you doing?

Yeah, so at the time I was working in my garage, actually. It was the pandemic and my house was full of animals and children. I was actually working on this project. And I remember thinking, “Not again, here we go.” And, “Minneapolis isn’t ready for this moment.” And just the sense that the city was in the wake of this deep tragedy in the middle of the pandemic was a lot. It’s almost easier to block it out now, because that was such a hard time in so many ways.

What do you mean by ‘Minneapolis wasn’t ready for something like that to happen?’

We had seen with earlier police killings, the reaction of the folks at city hall, we’d seen the reaction of the city council members and the mayor, we’d seen the reaction of activist groups. And I think there was a sense that there had been kind of a lull in movement organizing during Donald Trump’s presidency, and a sense that there wasn’t sort of an answer to what was going to stop this police violence and the sense that the city was going to be on the forefront of asking that question in the midst of this moment of deep trauma and hurt.

Because we had been there before as a community. I understand the work on this book actually started for you years before George Floyd was killed. Tell us about the book’s origin story. What were you researching?

So I had started this project back in late 2016. And it was in the wake of the police killing in North Minneapolis of Jamar Clark in 2015, when we really saw the start of the [Black Lives Matter] movement in Minneapolis. I was coming off of my first book, “Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle over Criminal Justice.” And that book argues that in order to understand criminal justice practices and policies, we have to understand who are the actors on the ground who are fighting for change, and how do they understand what is crime and what we ought to do about it?

And so as BLM exploded into this national movement, at first in Ferguson, and then across the country, including in Minneapolis, I started to think about, sort of, who are the activists? Who are the city leaders? Who are the folks who are involved in trying to define what is this moment of crisis in policing? What are the problems that we’re seeing in policing? And what are their answers? And so I had started in 2017, to interview activist organizers, but also city leaders and folks involved in police reform.

And it was actually a student doing a summer project with me who said, I think we really ought to interview neighborhood residents and understand how folks in north Minneapolis, who are both most exposed to community violence and to police violence, how they’re understanding this moment, this moment in time of this scrutiny and focus on police violence. Between 2017 and 2019, we conducted over 100 interviews with folks in north Minneapolis, I conducted dozens of interviews with activists and organizers and reformers and city leaders. We attended a number of protests and vigils and city council meetings. And in 2019, we were writing up the project. And I have versions of these books that say, you know, this is why we ought to care about Minneapolis. And suddenly in May 2020, everybody cared about Minneapolis.

What were residents telling you?

We interviewed residents of all races and ethnicities. But it was particularly Black residents in north Minneapolis who told us, “My mother warned me about police violence,” right? We have this generational history and this generational trauma.

And so there was an appreciation that at least now we’re having this public conversation. But there was also a sense that we had to address police violence in tandem with violence in the community, something community members felt wasn’t being discussed as urgently as it needed to be discussed.

And of course, those concerns about victimization in the community would only grow stronger in 2020, as particularly homicide increased in the community during the pandemic.

Since George Floyd was killed, investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights both found a pattern of discriminatory policing, they revealed a history of excessive force and discrimination against Black people.

And many of our listeners might recall back in February, the City of Minneapolis and the state Human Rights department selected an independent group to oversee the federal and the state consent decrees these agreements to address the issues that that residents have been reporting for decades.

There’s a team of monitors that’s supposed to be out in communities, observing interactions, talking to community members and documenting what they find.

Michelle, do you think any of this, the investigations, the findings, the hiring of a group to put monitors out there, is that going to bring about meaningful change?

If you believe in the project of police reform, which of course not all folks in this space do. But I think if you believe in the power of the project of police reform, this kind of court-imposed reform is our best chance of making meaningful changes. And the reason is that in the previous periods, we would have these proclamations that something was going to change or the reforms that were going to be made. And then the department was largely left to implement those reforms on their own right, with some oversight from the mayor. And then we would see right whenever the next instance of lethal police violence happened, that that really the reforms hadn’t done much.

So the most horrific case of this is Mayor Frey’s promise that there was this ban on no-knock warrants. And then of course, we saw the killing of Amir Locke. And so, you know, I think what a court monitor does is it gives us some kind of guarantee that there is somebody who is watching what the department is doing, somebody who is whose entire task it is to make sure that the promises are followed through.

Now that said, the city is still in the process of negotiating what that consent decree will look like with the Department of Justice. They’ve negotiated the consent decree with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, but the second consent decree is still in the works. We also have a police department that’s more than one-third smaller than it was at the moment that George Floyd was murdered because they have been desperate to hire and retain officers. So even though their budget is higher than before, the number of officers is significantly less, and that’s no small thing.

And so when you think about how are we going to implement all of this training, when you think about who is in charge for making sure it happens, when you think about what is the time for officers to interact positively with residents and to address residents’ concerns? You know, the chief was recently reported saying, “we may not be investigating property crimes anymore, because we’re short staffed.”

I think the monitors have a really large task in front of them. And I think the folks at the police department have a large task in front of them. I think the mayor and city council have a large task from them. And my hope is that residents will continue to kind of put the pressure on this and make sure that changes do happen.

It’s very complicated. I think we’re also weary because of all that we’ve all been through in the last four years. Many of us don’t want to talk about it or think about it. And so I’m wondering for you, as a researcher and a book author, what has it been like to be so heavily invested in looking at all the changes and trying to come up with some theories of what could actually improve things for everybody?

I think it’s really important that we have a record of this history, it’s really important that we have something people can learn from and something really having that history, the present history written out. But there’s also pieces of hope here. And, I think, reasons for optimism.

And my theory is, you know, every year I’ve been working on this project since 2020, you could sort of feel the air getting sucked out of the room, like people were so dispirited. It had been so traumatizing that I think, yeah, a lot of folks don’t want to think about it.

And I don’t think we get to a solution unless all of us are willing to kind of do that work. And to be in that headspace to think about it.

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