Brooklyn Center mayor hopes early steps bring bigger change in policing

A man stands next to a collection of microphones.
Brooklyn Center, Minn., Mayor Mike Elliott addresses the media during a press conference in April at the site where Daunte Wright was killed.
Nicole Neri for MPR News file

After a Brooklyn Center police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright in April during a traffic stop, the city committed to reshaping its entire public safety structure, including lowering the profile of the Police Department.

But Brooklyn Center has not moved forward on any of those big changes, at least not yet.

So far, the mayor said the city is in the process of enacting a new citations and summons policy. The new policy will prohibit custodial arrests for low-level offenses like nonmoving traffic infractions and nonfelony warrants. The changes are meant to discourage traffic stops that could escalate. 

“What we set up is going to be a system in the long-run that keeps our community safe and we are doing that in collaboration with law enforcement and community leading effort,” Elliott said.

For days after Wright, 20, was killed, protesters gathered by the hundreds outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department and law enforcement guarded the fenced-off building.

Elliott said it was his job to listen to the protesters, who condemned the killing of a Black man by a white police officer, which also happened just as Derek Chauvin was on trial in the killing of George Floyd. Chauvin was convicted of murder and is currently serving a prison sentence.

“Enough is enough, it is time for change,” Elliott said. “Meaningful change and a transformative system that is safe for everyone.”

A vigil and march in honor of Daunte Wright
Katie Wright (second from left), mother of Daunte Wright, speaks while flanked by family members outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department on May 2.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News file

What followed was the departure of the police chief and city manager, hours of public testimony, and then City Council approval in May to pursue an overhaul of  public safety in the Minneapolis suburb.

Elliott’s plan would create a new department of community safety and violence prevention that would oversee the police and fire departments. He also wants to create two new departments to respond to lower level infractions and mental health calls which are separate from the police department.

Jim Mortenson, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, declined interview requests. His is among the largest public safety labor unions in the state. 

Mortenson directed MPR News to a letter he and two other union leaders sent to the city in May asking them to vote no on the resolution for change. 

It questioned the feasibility and legality of the city’s proposed changes, especially the part of the city’s resolution that discussed unarmed civilians responding to minor traffic violations. The letter also said the proposal could give responsibilities to people without experience in police process and endanger the public.

“The proposed resolution prohibiting custodial arrests or consent searches for non-felony offenses would prevent arrests for driving while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance and careless, reckless or other dangerous driving conduct. This is contrary to reason, state law and public safety,” the letter read.

“Likewise, officers called to a domestic assault are required by Minnesota law to arrest and detain the assailant. However, the resolution, as drafted, would conflict with state law and, importantly, increase the danger to the victim of that assault. Further, delegating responsibilities to committees comprised of individuals without experience concerning police process, procedure, response or collective bargaining issues and terms is problematic.”

A demonstrator holds a sign.
Demonstrators face off with police outside of the Brooklyn Center police station on April 12.
Scott Olson | Getty Images file

Elliott said the city spends 43 percent of its budget on policing, which he believes is partly due to the country’s history around over-policing communities of color.

In neighboring Minneapolis, voters will have a chance to decide in November whether to remove the Police Department from the city’s charter.  At the state level, the Legislature passed modest reforms, leaving many activists and loved ones of those killed by police disappointed.

State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of the judiciary public safety finance and policy committee, said he may not agree with some of the policies the city is exploring, but he is glad to see Brooklyn Center taking measures based on what is best for their community. Limmer said while the state did pass some key reforms, there were some areas where he didn’t feel the state should take a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Limmer also noted violent crime is up.

According to data released last week by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, violent crime surged nearly 17 percent across Minnesota last year, including a record number of murders.

”That gives me pause to not go whole hog on police reform,” Limmer said. “This is a time where we have to give police every legal means to control the crimes and provide public safety for its citizens.”

One of the difficulties in trying to change the reach of police departments is lack of transparency surrounding police budgets.

“A lot of jurisdictions are choosing a number out of the blue, without taking time to study how officers currently spend their time,” said Nancy La Vigne, executive director of the Council on Criminal Justice’s task force on policing, which studies ways to reduce violent encounters between the public and police.

Elliott’s plan has drawn praise from activists that advocate for reimagining public safety and police reform. CAIR-Minnesota executive director Jaylani Hussein says reform has to start somewhere, and Brooklyn Center seems to be making a real commitment to structural change.

Air fresheners hang from a fence.
Air fresheners hang from a fence during a protest outside of the police station on April 15 in Brooklyn Center.
Stephen Maturen | Getty Images file

“Every decision they are going to make is going to make their city do less harm,” Hussein said.

Mayor Elliott says he is assembling a committee in the coming weeks made up of various community stakeholders to examine the proposed changes, including costs, and oversee the entire public safety operation in Brooklyn Center. Elliott said the goal of the committee is also to improve transparency and accountability within the department.

Elliott aims to have the overhaul completed by April 2022 on the anniversary of Wright’s killing. Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter said she meant to use her Taser when she pulled her handgun instead. It happened while Potter and another officer attempted to arrest Wright in connection with an active warrant. She is charged with second-degree manslaughter. Her trial is scheduled for early December.

The public safety overhaul in the city was named for Wright and Kobe Dimock-Heisler, whose family says he was on the autism spectrum when he was killed by Brooklyn Center police in 2019. There were no criminal charges in the Dimock-Heisler case.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.