Minneapolis Charter Commission members on Wednesday began unveiling their proposals for overhauling public safety, as they grilled a small group of City Council members about their controversial plan to remake the police department.
Unlike the warm reception they received at a rally organized by activists, the council members faced tough — and at times tense — questioning from volunteers entrusted with overseeing the city’s constitution.
Looming before them all now is a question of whether the city should rush its normal processes and allow voters to decide in November whether to do away with the requirement to maintain a police department. Some in the city have called for police to be abolished following George Floyd’s killing, while others have said they want to maintain a force, especially for help responding to violent incidents.
The Charter Commission, a normally low-profile group of court-appointed volunteers, plays a key role in determining whether — and when — the proposal could go to the ballot.
Commissioner Andrea Rubenstein, asking questions compiled with input from colleagues, noted that they have heard the “pain and grief” that exists in the community.
“But we’ve also gotten hundreds of communications on both sides, and many people have felt … very concerned that this process is rushed, that it lacks sufficient detail and plan for voters to make an informed decision and, most of all, that they’re afraid,” she said.
She added later in the meeting that she was particularly concerned about the most vulnerable communities in Minneapolis.
“They are very, very divided,” she said. “I fear that if they remain divided, this amendment as it’s structured now may fail. And we want a change in the culture, and the way we do things in this city, as much as you do, but we want to make sure we’re doing what’s right.”
The city charter currently requires maintaining a police department and funding a force at a certain level, based on the population.
Before the Charter Commission is a proposal written by five Minneapolis City Council Members: Jeremiah Ellison, Alondra Cano, Steve Fletcher, Cam Gordon and Council President Lisa Bender.
Their measure would eliminate the requirement for the city to maintain a police department and would instead create a public safety department — which could include licensed peace officers, but wouldn’t be required to do so.
Opponents, including Mayor Jacob Frey, have blasted the proposal, saying they feel it is too vague for voters to make an informed decision.
Council members, during Wednesday’s meeting, said that was intentional, because they wanted to gather more input from the public and wanted to make it easier for future generations of leaders to make changes to public safety.
Gordon said they needed to “start imagining the possibilities” for revamping public safety. If another agency finds a solution that eliminates systemic racism and future leaders want to contract with them, “wouldn’t that be nice if we had a charter that allowed us to do that,” he said.
In an effort to start finding middle ground, some Charter Commission members on Wednesday unveiled their own proposals or offered suggestions for changes.
Commissioner Greg Abbott suggested running a two-year pilot program before switching to a wider public safety department. Commissioner Al Giraud-Isaacson suggested creating one community safety department and a separate law enforcement department, with a minimum staffing requirement set at roughly half the current level.
To actually get on the ballot, any of the measures would have to go through a labyrinth of bureaucratic steps that include multiple checks and balances.
The wording of any items currently proposed by charter commissioners would ultimately need to be voted on by the City Council before heading to the voters.
The Charter Commission could, if it wanted, choose to take up to 150 days to review the council members’ proposal, overshooting an Aug. 21 deadline for adding items to the November ballot. At the end of the review process, City Council members are not required to comply with the commissioners’ recommendations.
The council members who wrote the current proposal have said repeatedly that they want it to appear on the November ballot, because they believe the charter currently prohibits them from making some major changes to policing in the city.
Some Charter Commission members pushed back on that notion Wednesday night, asking why they hadn’t already dropped the police force to its minimum levels or why they hadn’t already further boosted additional funding for violence prevention efforts. The Minneapolis Police Department had 892 sworn officers as of June 1, while the charter requires closer to 730, based on the latest census data.
Council members said the budget process has its limitations.
“The constitution of our city must change in order for us to really address that funding issue that we are currently being forced to govern under,” Cano said.
Tucked within the proposal is language that would eliminate the mayor’s “complete power” over the police department, renewing an old debate about whether the council should have more oversight of officers. The City Council proposed a similar measure in 2018, but it didn’t make it to the ballot.
The Charter Commission will hold a virtual public hearing to get comments from residents at 5 p.m. Wednesday.