The latest gauge of public opinion over a plan to replace the Minneapolis Police Department revealed a deeply divided city, with nearly 100 speakers at a public hearing Thursday offering passionate and competing views.
The City Council invited the public to sound off on its latest plan to ask voters in November whether they want to create a new public safety department. But the beginning of the three-hour hearing was dominated by opponents, who said the proposed charter amendment was vague and didn't do enough to fix the problems that led to the killing of George Floyd last May.
"This is nothing more than a power grab," said Brandi Bennett, who called in to the virtual hearing Thursday afternoon. "This reeks of activism and not good governance."
As the hearing progressed, more people began speaking in favor of the new proposal, saying past efforts to change the department haven't done enough to stop police from using force on people of color or protesters raising concerns about brutality. They argue the city desperately needs a system that helps people get quick access to mental health and social services.
"It's no secret that the MPD has failed. An MPD training officer murdered George Floyd," said another caller, Khadar Muhumed, who added that he doesn't want to fear that police will target him because of the color of his skin. "The police are expected to protect and enforce the laws equally. … The MPD has broken the social contract."
Minneapolis has become a testing ground for proposals that would put an overhaul of the city's approach to public safety on the November ballot. In addition to the council's plan, a privately funded effort to gather signatures for a charter change kicked off last weekend.
As they debate the best ways to change the police force, city leaders are also facing pressure to combat an increase in violent crime and provide a sense of safety as the first trial in Floyd's death approaches.
The proposal, written by Council Members Phillipe Cunningham, Steve Fletcher and Jeremy Schroeder, calls for the city to create a new Department of Public Safety that "provides a comprehensive approach designed to address the connection between public safety and health by integrating various public safety functions of the city."
The proposal would change the city charter, removing the requirements to keep a minimum number of police based on the city's population and removing the mayor's "complete power" over officers' operations.
The latest version, revised after feedback from the city attorney, says the new department would be led by a commissioner appointed by the city's elected leaders. The department must include a division with police, but it could have other divisions as well.
Community groups on both sides of the debate have been organizing intensely, and many of their talking points were repeated in Thursday's hearing.
Many people who spoke against the plan said they didn't trust the City Council and feared requiring the department to report to "14 bosses" would weaken accountability and prevent the department from responding quickly in a crisis. Some said they felt council members were giving too much attention to well-funded activists who support their agenda and hadn't done enough to fulfill their promise to spend a full year talking to residents.
"The promise of 12 months of community engagement, there's been very limited opportunity for us to provide that, and yet it appears that you have decided on a path," said one caller, Al Giesen.
Many supporters of the charter amendments argue that the best way to solicit people's opinions about the future of the Police Department is to allow them to vote on it.
Another caller, Abdifitah Abdi, said, "We all deserve to have our voice heard on the issues that directly impact us. … Let the people decide."
City Council members are expected to discuss the proposal at the March 4 meeting of the Public Health and Safety Committee. After that, it would have many more steps before it lands on the November ballot.