She was 12 years old, the victim of a broken home. She heard about a man who could make her life better. Instead, he gave her drugs and alcohol, brutalized her and sold her to men for money.
Officers from different departments worked night and day to rescue her from her trafficker. While I served as U.S. Attorney, my office prosecuted him and she was the central witness. After she stood up to her trafficker, she left the witness stand and hugged those who had saved her.
I became a prosecutor in 1989, seeking justice on behalf of the community and victims of crime like that young girl. I worked with officers who prevented the bombing of a mosque, talked kids out of gangs and stopped heroin trafficking on the streets of Minneapolis. I have hundreds, if not thousands, of stories that begin with tragedy and end with the heroic efforts of law enforcement.
I have seen the best our police can do.
But I have also seen the worst. I investigated the Metro Gang Strike Force, and discovered an agency rife with corruption and a culture that trampled on civil rights. I have investigated heartbreaking officer-involved shootings of unarmed African American men, spending hours with their families and friends.
And then, like all of us, I watched the brutal killing of George Floyd. Right before our eyes.
The question before our city is what to do about it.
In the weeks since George Floyd’s death, civil rights leaders, protesters, business leaders, police officers and local and national policing experts have been saying the same thing: We need transformational change in the Minneapolis Police Department, change that takes systemic racism head-on, change that goes to the very culture of the department.
For the most part, they also agree that we need a Police Department. A department that keeps us and our neighbors safe from vicious hate crimes, traffickers and gun violence. But also a department that serves all of us with dignity and respect for human life. A department that reimagines what policing is in Minneapolis going forward; a department that reflects our progressive values of inclusion and equality.
We can have that department. First, given the broad consensus that now exists, we can take this on together as a community. Second, we are not alone. Communities around the U.S. have made great strides before us. And the people who have accomplished this progress, from Camden, N.J., to Eugene, Ore., are ready to help.
But we face a stark choice: Act on our unity now, or engage in a divisive battle over a ballot initiative that questions whether we need police at all, an initiative that will lead to bitterness and division.
Our City Council has pledged to do away with the police department. In order to do so, they need to pass a referendum removing the requirement that Minneapolis have a department. The Minneapolis Charter Commission should reject this gambit. It is ill-timed during a pandemic and national election, and it will divert us from the tough work we should focus on right now.
On these pages, the council has claimed that we cannot have systemic change without removing the charter provision that requires a Police Department; one overseen by the mayor (“Five City Council members: Our case for changing the charter,” July 16.)
But the support for this startling conclusion is lacking.
To the contrary: All of us, the council included, want to find ways to engage mental health professionals and others to respond to 911 calls. Nothing in the charter prevents us from doing this.
All of us, the council included, want to confront systemic racism and a culture that has allowed so many unarmed African American men to die at the hands of the police. We can accomplish this from the top down and the bottom up now without changing one word of the charter.
Indeed, through tragedy and suffering, we now have something few cities have ever seen — a consensus. If you listen, you will hear civil rights leaders, community members, business leaders and, yes, police officers say the same thing: They respect our chief, and want to make systemic change together. After days of protest, anger and frustration at the brutal killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis Police officers wrote a heartfelt letter telling the community: We are with you. Joining the chorus for change, the officers ended their letter with “We are with you moving forward. We want to work with you and for you to regain your trust.”
Imagine: Officers, civil rights leaders and activists and business leaders who all want the same thing while preserving the existence of the police department. And a City Council that says no.
This is a time to say yes, and to get to work. We should seize on this opportunity to bring about transformational change, building on the consensus that arose out of the tragic death of George Floyd. And we can do it now, without the distraction of a referendum that will needlessly divide us.
The Charter Commission should reject the distraction of the proposed referendum. Let’s build on our unprecedented consensus now, and get the police department we want and deserve.
Andrew M. Luger is a Minneapolis attorney and former U.S. attorney for Minnesota.