Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey wrote recently that the Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that the city needed to hire additional police reaffirmed what he already knew: "Our city needs more police officers, and we need them to reflect the values of our city."
That last part is as important as the first. But it is also a tricky balancing act that the city has failed to get right in the past. The fact is, it can be hard to be a good cop in Minneapolis. Harder than it should be. A toxic culture, training officers that sometimes show recruits all the wrong ropes (Derek Chauvin, anyone?), and a union overly protective of those who go astray have all played a part.
Minneapolis took some necessary steps this week to change that. After months of work, a 22-member Community Safety Work Group composed of community members, city staff, public safety practitioners and others released its recommendations. Among these were that the mayor hire a public safety commissioner to oversee the Police Department, the Fire Department and other public safety programs, coordinate crisis response and act as a sounding board for the mayor. The Minneapolis City Council on Thursday voted to go ahead with that process.
Police are an integral part of any city's public safety approach but not the only part. We hope a skilled commissioner who represents more than the Police Department will be able to build a more multifaceted approach.
Make no mistake: The situation in Minneapolis is dire. According to the working group, as of June 9 the city was down to 575 sworn officers — far below the authorized level of 888. Of those, only 410 are available for patrol in a city of more than 400,000. Eighty-nine are in investigative units. This could explain why Minneapolis' clearance rate for homicides is among the lowest in the country, at just 38%.
Other recommendations from the working group include significantly stepping up the hiring process, with detailed proposals as to how. Improved compensation, a "workforce committed to serve with honor and distinction," and a clear line of responsibility that leads to the chief of police are all solid proposals.
The group calls for a substantial "cultural shift" within MPD that emphasizes aspirational goals such as strengthening police-community relations, providing unbiased service and operating with transparency and integrity. If these values are to mean anything, they must go beyond mere words and become embedded into the department's very fabric and in every recruit.
The group also recommends using non-police responders and co-responder teams that pair police with non-police professionals skilled in social and mental health work.
This is the level of detail and planning that was missing from last fall's failed "defund the police" referendum, which was overly clouded with anti-police rhetoric. Crafting a plan, building consensus, and getting community buy-in all take time and money.
Last week the Star Tribune Editorial Board was briefed on a report by People for the American Way (PFAW) titled "All Safe: Transforming Public Safety." It is the culmination of two years' work analyzing various approaches in cities from Boston to Los Angeles. The result is a comprehensive, unsparing look at what works and what could work.
PFAW President Ben Jealous, a renowned civil rights leader who previously led the NAACP, told the board that "phrases such as 'defund the police' or 'abolish police' strike fear in the hearts of people who need safety the most." His group, he said, wanted to bring reason, data and intelligent analysis to the issue.
"It's time," he said, "for our cities and localities to push pause and ask one question: 'What do we need now to be safe?' "
That one question should be the guiding principle as Minneapolis develops its model. It should be noted that even after two years of research, PFAW found that no city has gotten everything right, though many are trying and finding elements that work. PFAW's report notes that in Los Angeles and Boston, co-responder programs — in which police are paired with mental health experts — "can meaningfully reduce unnecessary police interactions." But, the report notes, they must be deployed at scale and supported by adequate resources.
Not all reform is about money, though. PFAW zeroes in on practical elements that could apply here and elsewhere. Union contract negotiations, it points out, can provide opportunities for serious reforms through eliminating provisions such as those that shield officers from immediate interviews following misconduct. The PFAW report also found that arrest and ticket quotas, whether formal or informal, can lead to overly aggressive policing.
The toxic culture in the Minneapolis Police Department was years, perhaps decades, in the making. Change will take time and hard work. Together, the community, city leaders and police must commit to working together on a model that provides justice for all.