Minneapolis residents made impassioned and often conflicting pleas Wednesday night for changes to the Police Department and public safety following George Floyd’s death and an increase in violent crime.
Just like the elected leaders who represent them, the people who spoke during an especially long public hearing were divided. Some begged elected officials not to cut police staffing, while others urged them to trim the department and fund other services instead.
The 2021 budget, which city leaders will approve next week, has drawn immense public scrutiny and will provide the next major test of the city’s appetite for changing policing and public safety following Floyd’s death.
More than 400 people signed up to dial into the livestreamed meeting, a showing unlike any other in recent city memory. Residents were still speaking late into the night.
Some said their homes had been pierced by gunfire. More than 500 people have been killed or wounded by gunshots this year, according to police statistics. Others said carjackings and robberies have prompted them to rethink daily routines like grocery shopping and walking the dog.
“I have just never felt so unsafe recently. This isn’t the Minneapolis I know,” said Brent Johnson, of Whittier, who attributed some of the violence to discussions about defunding the Police Department.
Others said the department, which has in the past disproportionately used force on Black residents, made them fear for their safety. They said they worry about being killed, shot or harassed by police.
“I don’t feel safe, so who’s more important?” asked Vineetha Adams. “Clearly, white people walking their dogs is more important than Black people feeling safe and colored people feeling safe and Indigenous people feeling honored for a country that was stolen from them. It does not make any sense, and it is disheartening and is frustrating.”
Daniel Mendez, meanwhile, rejected the notion that calling police comes from a place of privilege and argued that conversations about defunding police had disproportionately harmed people of color.
“I live in fear for my own children being targeted for looking white. They are half white, half Mexican, which makes this whole racial issue a joke,” said Mendez, who identified as Mexican American.
Other speakers said they worried that people were falsely equating a larger police force with a guarantee that the city could ensure their safety. Some of them noted the current department hasn’t been able to prevent the uptick in violent crime.
“If we keep using the same broken strategy, we will get the same results: dead citizens and a city righteously burned to the ground,” said Max Friedman, who said he lives near the former Third Precinct site.
Former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton also spoke, urging City Council members to cooperate with the mayor, and to do more methodical reviews before implementing new proposals.
“When it comes to public safety we cannot be a city divided,” she said.
The large turnout was in part a reflection of increased community activism following Floyd’s death and an especially violent summer.
Black Visions and Reclaim the Block are encouraging council members to fulfill a promise nine of them made to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department” following Floyd’s death.
They want city leaders to reduce the department’s budget and instead boost funding for mental health crisis workers, violence prevention, housing and other causes. They have persuaded dozens of other groups in the city to advocate for those changes as well, calling the proposal “The People’s Budget.”
Meanwhile, other groups are trying to persuade city leaders to maintain or increase funding for the police department while reforming it. Some of that builds off a grassroots effort, Operation Safety Now, which asked elected leaders to provide a clearer plan for approaching public safety and to treat it like an emergency.
Some residents and activists on the city’s North Side have also filed a lawsuit questioning whether the city was maintaining enough police officers.
Police staffing and funding are expected to be key points of discussion as city leaders wrap up budget negotiations.
Mayor Jacob Frey made his pitch earlier this fall for a roughly $1.5 billion budget for 2021 that includes some increases for violence prevention and housing.
It includes $179 million for the Police Department, an amount that would allow for three additional recruit classes to help amid an officer shortage.
Council members will get a chance to propose their budget amendments Thursday, and the process could extend into Friday.
Already, three council members — President Lisa Bender and public safety committee leaders Phillipe Cunningham and Steve Fletcher — have previewed their own proposal.
That would seek to cut nearly $8 million from the department and use that money to fund violence prevention, a mental health crisis team, a more robust civilian oversight effort, and efforts to have other city departments process property damage and parking violation reports.
Both plans would approve three additional recruit classes — leaving the city with a monthly average of 770 working officers in 2021.
The two plans have very different implications for future years, though. Frey’s proposal would seek to keep 888, the original number of officers authorized for this year, listed as the “target level.” That would make it easier to continue hiring in future years.
The three council members have said they hope to reduce the authorized force size to 750 in coming years.
The Police Department had 874 officers at the beginning of the year, though it was authorized for 888.
As of early November, it had 834, with 121 on leave.
While the current debate is technically over funding for 2021, it will have implications for future years as well. Under Minneapolis’ financial policies, the city uses the prior year’s funding levels as a starting point for any new budget.
The city’s budgeting process became a focal point for police and public safety changes after a council-led effort to replace the police department stalled in the city’s Charter Commission earlier this year.
That plan, if ultimately approved by voters, would have allowed the city to replace the department with a wider community safety department, in which police would theoretically be optional. That required a change to the city’s charter, which requires a minimum police force based on the city’s population.
The Charter Commission earlier Wednesday signed off on a report rejecting that proposal. Commissioners argued, among other things, that it required more public input, wasn’t clear enough, might be inconsistent with state law and wasn’t necessary to accomplishing the goal of reimagining public safety.