When a majority of Minneapolis City Council members pledged to “begin the process of ending” the police department, they underplayed the difficulties ahead, including a lack of consensus on how far to go and a city charter that guarantees a minimum police force.
In the two weeks since George Floyd’s death drew condemnation of police brutality and racism from around the world, council members have used the terms “dismantle” and “defund” in different ways.
While some have spoken about a future without police, others have talked about reducing the force and supplementing police with additional mental health or social service workers, who could respond to some types of calls.
Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, in a call with reporters Monday, said he would not support merely replacing the existing police department with another one.
“As a council member, I do not have any interest in rehiring the police department, even if it’s under different rules. That, fundamentally, still does not change the system of policing and public safety,” he said. Asserting that policing was rooted in white supremacy, Cunningham added, “We can completely change out every single person in the police department and we can put in new rules, but the system is the system and the culture is the culture, and it will come back.”
Council Member Andrew Johnson e-mailed his constituents outlining a different view of sending workers to take a report and do home security audits after break-ins, while there may still be some calls that “require armed law enforcement to respond.”
“To be clear: no one has been advocating that we simply end MPD without an alternative public safety department to replace it. We cannot have a vacuum where there is no law enforcement. ... We cannot allow anarchy or a Wild West situation.”
As the council debates its next steps, a decision Monday may have granted it some leeway. A Hennepin County judge approved a state Department of Human Rights court order for the MPD to make immediate changes to protect Minneapolis communities’ “longstanding problems in policing.”
Council members have promised there will be ample opportunities for public comment before they make major changes, which they expect to happen over the course of months or even a year.
Developments in other cities could provide some models. In Camden, N.J., the local police department was disbanded, and a county police force took over its responsibilities.
If and when the Minneapolis council members decide to drastically reduce or eliminate the police department, they will need to work with others to amend the City Charter.
Minneapolis’ charter now states that the council “must fund a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident, and provide for those employees’ compensation.” Based on the latest census data, that amounts to roughly 730 police employees. The department had 892 sworn officers and 175 non-sworn employees as of June 1, according to spokesman John Elder.
There are four ways to amend a city charter.
The council can try to pass an ordinance changing the charter, but that option is generally reserved for “noncontroversial or housekeeping amendments.” To go that route, the council would need to vote 13-0, then receive approval from the mayor.
The council now has 12 members while it awaits an Aug. 11 special election to replace Abdi Warsame, who resigned to head the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.
Mayor Jacob Frey has indicated he does not support the full abolishment of the police department.
The remaining scenarios would all require approval from voters. Residents could petition to get an item on the ballot. They would need at least 10,356 signatures to get that process started. The Charter Commission could propose a charter amendment.
But many in city government expect it would likely unfold another way.
The City Council could introduce an ordinance that would seek to amend the City Charter. Voters would have to approve the charter change.