Minneapolis leaders must strike a deal this week about the future of policing in the city as they balance George Floyd’s legacy with a crime wave that has put residents on edge.
The City Council is scrambling to adopt its first budget since Floyd’s death after his arrest by Minneapolis police in May. Public comments have been pouring into City Hall about whether to redirect some of the Police Department’s funding.
Advocates for a smaller department see it as a crucial opportunity to divert police resources into mental health services and alternative responses to nonviolent emergency calls. Others say they support funding those initiatives, but will not sacrifice police spending amid a worrisome spike in carjackings, homicides and other crimes.
The issue of policing has opened a gaping divide on the City Council, and a vote could come as early as Monday, even as some members appear entrenched in their positions.
“I don’t know if the goal should be common ground,” Council Member Steve Fletcher said last week. “I think we might disagree on some things and it might be good to vote that way and just show people where we are.”
In recent days, Minneapolis’ elected leaders were consumed by the issue as they weighed competing public safety proposals and sat through nearly eight hours of emotional public testimony.
On Nov. 27, Fletcher, Council President Lisa Bender and Council Member Phillipe Cunningham previewed a plan to take nearly $8 million from Mayor Jacob Frey’s recommended 2021 budget for the Police Department and use it to pay for mental health crisis teams, violence prevention programs and other initiatives.
Frey called the proposal “irresponsible,” saying he supported the concepts, but that they should not be paid for from the Police Department’s already crimped budget.
The debate comes amid a national reckoning over racism and policing sparked by Floyd’s death in May. The City Council drew widespread attention when a majority of its members pledged this summer to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.”
“It’s hard for people to imagine something different beyond policing when all they know is the police state,” said Miski Noor of Black Visions, a driving force behind the push to reduce the department’s funding. “We do have the power to actually bring our own imaginings, our own conjurings to life, around structures that could fully keep all of us safe.”
Noor worries some of the city’s leaders are “feeding into the fearmongering and the outright lies and misinformation around increased violence.”
More than 500 people have been shot in Minneapolis this year, according to Police Department statistics. There were more than 125 carjackings in two months.
After 23 years living in north Minneapolis, Sondra Samuels says she has never experienced crime like she has this year. It’s spurred some of her neighbors to seek therapy or anti-anxiety medications, she said. Multiple shootings have directly affected people she knows.
“Policing is not going to solve all of our crime and safety issues. But we also know that without it, at the height of crime and safety issues, your citizens will remain unsafe,” said Samuels, who is president of the Northside Achievement Zone. “More are going to die, more are going to be carjacked.”
Samuels wants to see a “both-and” approach to the problem that funds the Police Department while providing more services like mental health and housing support. To help reform the department, she says the state must change arbitration rules so the chief can more easily terminate bad cops.
“What they’re trying to do is to dismantle the police. And in so doing they are dismantling the city,” Samuels said.
A Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 poll of Minneapolis residents this summer found that 40% of residents supported reducing the size of the city’s Police Department. But nearly two-thirds supported redirecting some department funding to social services. Since more than three-quarters of the department’s budget pays for salaries, wages and fringe benefits, however, it is challenging to redirect funding without reducing the size of the force.
Frey is pitching a roughly $1.5 billion spending plan for the city that includes $179 million for the Police Department. That’s about $14 million less than the city initially approved for 2020, in part because the city is trying to reduce spending amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The plan written by Bender, Fletcher and Cunningham would primarily use money earmarked for officer overtime to redirect an additional nearly $8 million. The details of these new mental health teams remain fuzzy. Some are advocating the creation of a fund to run public safety pilot programs, saying they wanted to have more detailed plans in place before launching efforts like new mental health crisis teams.
A slower approach with more planning is supported by some experts in the field.
“This vague language makes it really hard to understand,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota.
Her organization is encouraging city officials to expand mental health crisis teams that already exist, such as Hennepin County’s COPE program, as opposed to creating new ones.
Meanwhile on Thursday, Frey and local business leaders announced the creation of a new, private fund to help support efforts to change public safety. Frey described it as an effort to implement some of the council members’ ideas, without cutting police funding.
Bender said in a public meeting Friday that she also hopes they will make changes during the city’s budgeting process, and not rely solely on outside organizations.
“I would feel pretty heartbroken if we couldn’t find a way to increase our investments in gun violence prevention from city funds ... when we’re investing in so many other things,” she said.
So far, advocates on both sides are standing firm, and frustration abounds.
“This proposal is the bare minimum that council members should support after MPD murdered George Floyd and our city rose up,” Zola Richardson, of advocacy group Reclaim the Block, said in a statement. On the other side, the anti-crime group Operation Safety Now, says this is not the time to cut police funding. Eric Won, one of the group’s leaders, said a fundamental problem is that society hasn’t reviewed the role of police since the 1960s.
“I don’t think we have the capacity at this time to look at the problem in a more organic fashion, build it up from the beginning,” Won said. “One thing we can’t do is turn off the engine on this airplane, because we’re flying. There are people being shot.”