Some Minneapolis activists doubt disbanding police will work

Minneapolis City Council members discuss defunding police department
Nine Minneapolis City Council members declare their commitment to defunding and dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department alongside community groups Black Visions and Reclaim The Block, during a gathering that drew a crowd at Powderhorn Park on Sunday afternoon.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

Updated: 5:21 p.m.

George Floyd’s death was the breaking point for some Minneapolis civic leaders, who now say the only way to fix the city’s embattled police department is to take it apart. But it’s not clear how they would do that, and groups that have spent years shining a light on police brutality aren’t even sure it's the answer.

“We're dismantling our Police Department,” City Council member Jeremiah Ellison tweeted on Sunday, the same day he and a majority of the council proclaimed support to disband the force to cheering protesters at a Minneapolis park. "And we won’t be silent. We’ll be loud. We’ll fight. We’ll win.”

Gov. Tim Walz said Monday that he supports the conversation started by Minneapolis City Council members about defunding the city's police department, saying that “the current situation is not working.”

As he met with people whose businesses on University Avenue in St. Paul were damaged by looting and rioting, Walz was asked about the push to end the department.

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A person wearing a face mask.
Gov. Tim Walz spoke Monday with University Avenue business owners, who told Walz about the challenges of coming back after nights of unrest led to widespread damage.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

“If we can close that achievement gap, if we can make sure the economics start to close, that reduces why some of those problems are,” he said.

“I think right now this conversation is kind of falling into the simplistic this or that. It's much more complex than that. I do support the changes communities are asking for because it's not working now."

Dismantling an entire department, however, is exceedingly rare. It was done in Camden, N.J. and was talked about — though ultimately discarded — in Ferguson, Mo., after the death of Michael Brown. Such a move comes with legal issues, including a city charter that stipulates a police force, plus a union-protected workforce.

“Saying that they’re going to defund the police or that they’re going to ban the police or whatever they’re talking about, that was optics, guys," said Michelle Gross, president of the Minneapolis chapter of Communities United Against Police Brutality. "Just plain optics.”

Sam Martinez, an activist with Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar, a group formed after the 2015 death of Jamar Clark in a confrontation with police, said just getting rid of a police department doesn't solve the problem.

“If they attempted to defund the police or reduce the police force, we know they can’t do it, and what comes after that? Will they turn over the power to the [Hennepin County] sheriff ... who has had no accountability either?” Martinez said.

Community activists have criticized the Minneapolis department for years for what they say is a racist and brutal culture that resists change. The state of Minnesota launched a civil rights investigation of the department last week, and the first concrete changes came Friday in a stipulated agreement in which the city agreed to ban chokeholds and neck restraints.

Steve Cramer, a former City Council member who now serves as president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, called rhetoric about ending policing as the city knows it “exhilarating to some but terrifying to others.”

Steve Cramer on calls to dismantle Minneapolis police
by Cathy Wurzer

“Until we really understand how this kind of evaluation and planning process is going to move forward, there’s this vacuum that people are going to fill with their own thoughts," he said. " ... I think that’s just a hard place that some of our elected officials have put our community in at a very vulnerable time.”

Protesters nationwide are demanding police reforms, and calls to “defund the police” over the death of Floyd and other black Americans killed by law enforcement have become a rallying cry. Supporters say the movement isn’t about eliminating police departments or stripping agencies of all of their money. Instead, they say it is time for the country to address systemic problems in policing in America and spend more on what communities across the U.S. need, such as housing and education.

Gross' group, along with others including Minnesota’s Council on American-Islamic Relations and two Black Lives Matter chapters, presented their own 40 recommendations for police reform on Monday. They gathered at the remnants of the 3rd Precinct station, which was set ablaze by protesters at the height of violence following Floyd's death.

Under the list of recommendations, officers would be required to carry their own professional liability insurance, an idea that aims to hike out-of-pocket insurance rates for officers who engage in high-risk conduct. Some of the worst offenders would become uninsurable and forbidden from working as a police officer.

The groups also are seeking an independent agency to investigate and prosecute critical incidents involving police; mandatory psychological testing for officers; and community participation in negotiating police union contracts. They would end so-called “warrior” training for officers and the use of no-knock warrants, while banning military equipment in community policing as well as neck restraints and chokeholds.

“We’re going to be out demanding that these politicians enact these common sense, evidence-based implementable solutions now,” said Gross. “They have no further excuses.”

The groups' recommendations came a day after nine of the 12 members on the Minneapolis City Council said they back disbanding the department. The groups say abolishing one department without reforming police practices won't be enough.

The groups call on state lawmakers, city officials, prosecutors and the state’s police licensing board to institute the changes at varying levels of government to end police brutality.

“Many of these recommendations are not new,” the report read. “Our organization has presented them many times over the years. Prior failures by leaders at the city, county and state level to adopt these evidence-based solutions are what brought us to this place.”

It added: “Every recommendation on this list is readily able to be implemented,” the report added. “All that is required is the will.”

The groups list police-community relations, residency requirements and implicit bias training as methods that do not adequately address the issue of violence by law enforcement.

Alondra Cano, one of the nine council members who said they support disbanding, called impending change “a process" that is just beginning. She invited community input.

“Nobody is saying we want to abolish health or safety,” Cano said Monday in an interview with WCCO radio. “What we are saying is we have a broken system that is not producing the outcomes we want.”

Mayor Jacob Frey, who was booed at a rally Saturday outside his house when he said he does not support abolishing the department, repeated that stance Monday. Frey said that the department is necessary and can’t be simply eliminated and that he would press for police reform on his own.

Mpls. Mayor Frey says he does not support abolishing police department
by Tim Nelson

In an interview with MPR News, Frey said that as much as policy or training, the makeup of the department's ranks of nearly 900 officers have to change.

"Knowing that when you are not abiding by the procedural justice initiatives that that the chief’s put in place that you will be disciplined and that you will be terminated. It's making sure that the police department actually reflects the community at large,” he said. “So, that means that we have diversity within our department and were able to hire more black and brown officers."

Frey also said that he will ask the state Legislature when it meets in special session on Friday for changes in law to facilitate changes in the city’s relationship with its police and the union that represents its officers.

"If we fail to tackle the elephant in the room, which is the police union contract, the arbitration provisions, the collective bargaining agreement,” Frey said, “then we can't see that full transformative change that I feel we all want and need."

Frey also announced formation of a community panel to help the city recover from recent rioting, as well as a commission on African American economic inclusion.

The state last week launched a civil rights investigation of the department. On Friday, the council approved a stipulated agreement that immediately banned the use of chokeholds and neck restraints and included several other changes. That investigation is ongoing.