As I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend in solidarity with protests across the country, I found myself participating in many chants for peace and justice. Calls for action were everywhere — on signs, in voices and within our hearts. One in particular is stirring within as I see scenes play out across the country of police officers using excessive and unnecessary force on peaceful protesters, which is additional to the numerous videos like George Floyd that we’ve witnessed regularly over the last decade. It’s the call for abolishing and defunding the police. This notion has gained major traction since the protests started.
Last weekend, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey was booed and rebuked by protesters when he refused to make the commitment to defund and abolish the police. I must admit that I felt a sense of both sadness and understanding in his response. He was not willing to commit to something that seems untenable and unprecedented. However, members of the Minneapolis City Council took profound and striking action on Sunday by pledging, with a veto-proof majority, to dismantle the city’s Police Department, saying it could not be reformed.
This is leaving many wondering how a city can effectively abolish a police force. However, it’s not only possible, but it’s been done before. An important and viable example exists less than 100 miles from where I live in New York City. In 2013, Camden, N.J., disbanded its 141-year old police force in order to reimagine and build a new one. While it rehired many of its laid-off officers, salaries were lowered and the new force shifted to community policing, emphasizing different training and stressing the de-escalation of volatile situations without using force.
According to a recent Economist article, de-escalation and implicit-bias training are now regularly used and reinforced. Camden’s use-of-force policy requires officers to sit with their watch commander to review body-camera footage when force is used, discussing the footage together. In 2014, citizens filed 65 excessive-force complaints; in 2019, that number was three. But it’s not just about good cops and better policing; the city views public safety as about access to social services, good schools and economic opportunities. Workforce development and education have helped offenders better integrate into society.
Improved policies and relationships between the community and police has led to a safer city. In 2012, Camden had the country’s fifth-highest murder rate, but by 2018 it had fewer than one-third of those numbers. Like any city, Camden has more improvements to make, but it’s remarkable progress.
Minneapolis public officials are not entirely unaware of Camden’s example. The Guardian reported that Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, who oversees community policing, consulted with Camden about their police protocols.
The population of Camden is nearly 75,000, while New York City’s is 8.3 million. Scaling Camden to New York City would be extremely difficult. It doesn’t mean that New York shouldn’t reform and implement the lessons; it’s just a very big leap. However, Minneapolis’s population is 425,000 and a much easier steppingstone to scaling an example like Camden. Minneapolis is in a position to transform and reimagine not just its own police force but also those in medium-sized cities across the country.
I understand Mayor Frey’s hesitancy last weekend, but disbanding and transforming Minneapolis’s police force is possible and the Minneapolis City Council is now demanding it. No city knows as intimately the destruction that is caused when police officers are abusing and not properly serving their citizens. The actions of Minneapolis’s police force impacted a nation; now I am hoping that Minneapolis’s elected leaders will transform the nation by reimagining their police force, creating an example that bigger cities like New York can scale and follow.
Lynn Englum is a visiting fellow at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge, working on climate change. On the web: vanishingplaces.org.