With its City Council pledging to disband the Police Department and replace it with a new system of public safety, Minneapolis charts a new course. The idea of community control of police, however, is not a new idea. It is an old idea with which the times perhaps have finally caught up.
The summer of 1969 had many parallels to today. Racial unrest, uprisings from communities sick and tired of being oppressed, reprisals and violence from the police and the federal government. In response to a police killing of a white activist, the Black Panther Party helped convene a remarkable gathering called the United Front Against Fascism Conference from July 18-20 in Oakland, Calif. The conference’s goals were to develop a political program for all “poor, black, oppressed workers and people of America.” At least 4,000 young radicals from more than 300 organizations representing black, Latinx, Asian-American and other people of color attended, with the majority of delegates being white. As whites today join communities of color across the nation in protest following George Floyd’s death, the cross-racial example provided by the conference provides a powerful historical precedent.
One of the sessions led by a Bay Area lawyer, Peter Frank, laid out a road map to confront police brutality by instituting community control of police. In his opening comments to the conference, Bobby Seale explained that to give the power to the people, police departments would have to be decentralized and police officers would need to live in the community and be a part of the people.
The content of the proposed city charter amendment Frank explained would have five parts. First, the police department would be decentralized, meaning it would be a separate department for each community. Second, each of those departments would be run by more than one commissioner, so there would be no police chief. Third, each of those commissioners would be selected by a division council. These commissioners would be full-time and paid so that it wouldn’t be necessary to be rich to hold the position. Fourth, the division council would be made up of 15 people elected from local precincts. Fifth, the division council would have the power to discipline the cops who worked for it; it would not be a police review board with recommendations from somebody up high.
The conference sparked a movement for community control over police. Andrew Witt, a professor of 20th-century African-American history, notes that roughly 40 branches of the National Committee to Combat Fascism sprouted up throughout the United States. While many of these efforts achieved some level of police reform, the country was not yet ready for these reforms, and the efforts were largely unsuccessful. It is not clear more than 50 years later if we are now ready, but Minneapolis charts a new path building on an idea that might finally have its day.
Michael J. Illuzzi is an associate professor of political science at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. He received his doctoral degree in political science from the University of Minnesota.