Last week, the mayor of Minneapolis and the Police Department updated the city’s policy on body cameras. I support this change — I have long advocated that the cameras be on by default. However, cameras are only helpful in providing evidence of wrongdoing, not preventing it. Accountability is not the same as safety; we must approach this like other public health crises to truly enact reform.
Criminal justice reform is my life’s work — I understand the issue from nearly all perspectives: the representative of a district with high rates of reported crime; an organizer for policy change; an incarcerated person. In the Legislature, I have served on the House public safety committee for three terms, working across the aisle and authoring bipartisan bills with the Republican chair of the committee, Rep. Tony Cornish. Tony is a former police officer, and while we often disagree, we are able to work together.
As an organizer, elected representative and private citizen, I maintain that crime is not a product of individual morality, but a consequence of scarcity in our society. The best deterrent to crime is providing people with affordable housing, healthy food, clean air and water, accessible education, and quality health care. I have long advocated for a more compassionate approach to public safety — including my approach to policing.
Seventy-one percent of black Americans do not have confidence in police, compared with 42 percent of white Americans who feel the same. Sixty-seven percent of blacks believe they are treated less fairly by police. When governing, I will value the opinions of those most affected by overpolicing and mass incarceration.
To begin, we must change the Minneapolis Police Department culture. Immediately, this means focusing on providing services, developing community-based solutions and removing military equipment from the department.
In 2017, the department will receive 35.8 percent of Minneapolis’ $438.4 million general fund budget, while workforce development programs, affordable housing development and homeownership support will receive a combined 8.4 percent. For every dollar Minneapolis spends on police, we spend 9 cents on affordable housing, 4 cents on adult workforce development, and 4 cents on youth development and violence prevention. Under our current leadership, the police budget has increased 16 percent, hiring 27 new officers over four years. Without civilian input on our budget priorities, we have reached a conundrum of overpolicing.
We can combat crime and improve safety by reinvesting resources in housing, education and health care. Year after year, one-quarter of the incidents ending in fatal force are mental-health related — incidents the police should not be handling. The city should work with Hennepin County to expand the scope of its Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies (COPE) program. Trained mental-health professionals and social workers would be first responders to mental-health crises.
This year at the Legislature, I helped pass permanent, ongoing funding to train officers in de-escalation, cultural competency and identifying mental-health crises. An important aspect of de-escalation is relying on empathy while limiting the use of deadly weapons. In Salt Lake City, these tactics have led to nearly 40 de-escalated scenarios with no dead civilians since 2015.
I support rethinking whether every officer needs to have a gun. I understand there are times officers will need to carry a firearm. I have never said otherwise. However, if we truly support full-scale demilitarization and reducing abuse of force, we need to reduce the number of weapons — military grade or not — in use by our force. In 2016 alone, nearly 1,000 civilians were shot and killed by police. At least 64 officers were shot and killed by civilians in the same year. The public endures a great risk of life-threatening violence at the hands of police.
My positions have been categorized as “radical” my entire career. I have a reputation of supporting progressive solutions early. I called for a $15 minimum wage in 2013, before my current opponents found it expedient. I fought to fund universal prekindergarten at the Legislature before it was mainstream. I was one of the first elected officials to advocate for restoring felons’ voting rights — an issue that is now bipartisan. I will continue to advocate for a more compassionate criminal justice system.
Our vision for Minneapolis must be bold. Serious reform will take decades, but the daunting reality should not deter us from taking steps in the right direction.
Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota House and a candidate for Minneapolis mayor.