The Minneapolis City Council’s proposal to eliminate the Police Department has moved to an obscure commission that has shown no urgency in the past to move forward on police reforms.
With 15 volunteer members appointed by a Hennepin County district judge, the Minneapolis Charter Commission plays a crucial role in determining whether the city can change its constitution, which requires minimum staffing for police based on the city’s population.
In the coming weeks, many will be watching to see whether the commission uses its procedures to prevent the City Council’s proposal from fast-tracking its way onto the November ballot. It did that two years ago, when the council tried to increase its oversight of the department.
A public meeting Wednesday provided the first hints as to what the commissioners might do, with a tight deadline looming.
“I’m not as concerned about meeting the council’s timeline as I am about getting this right,” said Commissioner Matt Perry. He added: “If that pushes the timeline out, so be it.”
A few commissioners echoed his thoughts, while others seemed optimistic about the possibility of quickly scheduling hearings.
Five Minneapolis City Council members — Jeremiah Ellison, Alondra Cano, Cam Gordon, Steve Fletcher and President Lisa Bender — want voters to decide whether to replace the Police Department with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. Within that department, the city could create a division that includes “licensed peace officers,” but it would not be required to do so.
Mayor Jacob Frey blasted the proposal when it was presented, saying that it left basic questions unanswered and that voters deserved more clarity.
The proposal is drawing intense public interest as residents and business owners wait to see how Minneapolis will redefine public safety following George Floyd’s death. Charter Commissioner Jana Metge said she has been inundated with messages and has already spent 11 hours reading through them.
Before the change can make it on the ballot, the Charter Commission can take up to 150 days to review it. If their deliberations stretch beyond Aug. 21, the measure will not make it onto the November ballot.
During a roughly 45-minute meeting Wednesday, the commission outlined the first steps for how it will proceed. The commission will invite Frey and the council members who wrote the proposal to their July 8 virtual meeting.
The commission will then hold public hearings on July 15 and a date to be determined.
Then, on Aug. 5, it will face its toughest decision. The commission could approve or reject the proposal or offer one of its own. The City Council would not be bound by its recommendation, but would have to hold its own vote to decide whether to send the item to the ballot. Frey would then approve or veto that effort.
Two years ago, the City Council asked the Charter Commission to fast-track a different proposal that would have increased the amount of influence the council has over the Police Department.
The commission declined, saying more research was needed. The proposal didn’t make it on the ballot that year. Discussion languished.
The current reforms also revive the City Council’s bid to take more control of police. The council members want to eliminate the mayor’s “complete power” over the Police Department and add language that says the council “may maintain a division of law enforcement services” within the new department.
Frey has said he fears the proposal would weaken accountability and oversight of police, forcing any version of a department to respond to direction from 14 people instead of one.
“I’m about accountability here,” Frey said Friday, when the measure was presented. “If this is about me, well, there’s an election next year.”
Gordon, one of the authors of the amendment, pushed back on that idea, saying that any officers who are employed would report to one person: the department head. The head of the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention would be nominated by the mayor and approved by the council.
The Charter Commission is accepting public comment on the new proposal. People can submit comments at minneapolismn.gov, by calling 311 and by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.