On Friday the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to propose an amendment to the city charter. It would remove the requirement for the city to maintain a police department. The proposed amendment would create a new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, within which the city could include licensed police officers, though it would not be required to do so.
The City Council has recently drawn a lot of flak from Minneapolis citizens with legitimate public safety concerns, particularly on the North Side. I’m glad those people are speaking out. But others, who don’t live here, and/or like policing just as it is, have demagogued the issue. To them, the council consists of a bunch of wild-eyed radicals bent on eliminating policing, not just police.
These people add nothing to the discussion, except their deliberate misunderstanding of what the council is trying to do. Among other things, they demand that the council come up with a full-blown plan, right this minute, and claim that the supposed failure to do so just proves how woefully unequipped council members are to accomplish anything.
People making such demands should think again. It took 400 years for the builders of the present system of white supremacy, of which the Minneapolis Police Department is just a small part, to bring it to its present level of perfection. Is it all that much to ask that the reformers in City Hall, who are trying for something new and better, should have until the November election to try to correct one big part of it?
The City Council’s vote Friday got things exactly right. The present city charter language serves as a mortal lock to any meaningful effort at police reform. It requires Minneapolis to maintain a police department, which in turn leaves the police union and those opposed to reform to stand on their contract rights and continue to avoid meaningful discipline or dismissal for their unwanted acts. If a reimagined police force is ever to be achieved, this chokehold must be removed.
As for the council’s proposed new charter language, it’s not a liability or a failing — it’s an asset. Its lack of specificity leaves room for the city and its residents to have a debate about what should replace the MPD, and to bring all their creativity, wisdom and talents to bear. We are embarking on a new exercise in democratic governance here in Minneapolis, one in which literally no idea is off the table. That’s not a thing to fear — it’s a thing to give us hope.
I can imagine a police force that operates very differently in north Minneapolis than it does in, say, Prospect Park. The needs and wants of the citizens in one part of the city aren’t necessarily the same as those in another. Maybe community policing will turn out to require the input of the individual community being policed more than a top-down system imposed on the entire city from above and responsive only to the dictates of policing strategy and tactics.
There is another set of factors to keep in mind for those worried that change and disaster might be the same things. The City Council has no power to change the city charter on its own. The mayor has a veto. Assuming both the council and the mayor are on board, the charter proposal goes to the city’s Charter Commission, which has the sole authority to put it before the voters. If Minneapolis voters don’t like it, they can vote it down.
It’s my belief that the best course for Minneapolis is to amend the charter, so that at least the discussion can continue and lead to real change. I also believe that all the hoops I have just described will need to be jumped through in time for the charter amendment to be put on the ballot this November. I say this because I have lived my whole life in Minneapolis. After all the scandals and outrages perpetrated on nonwhites and poor people in my city, decade after decade, I have very little faith that we white people will stay in this for the long haul. We certainly haven’t done so in the past. Instead we’ve wrung our hands, offered thoughts and prayers, wondered aloud why somebody doesn’t do something, and commissioned study after study to gather dust.
For the foreseeable future, nothing will get done in Minneapolis unless we white people want it to. We appear to want it now, but will we want it two years from now? Or in 2022 will we have moved on to building a new sports stadium for the Medica company softball team, or five-lane bike paths?
So for now, bravo to the City Council. My council member, Andrea Jenkins, has got my vote in the next election. As for Mayor Jacob Frey, who to me is starting to look like a backslider? He’ll still have to earn it.
Richard G. Carlson, of Minneapolis, is a retired public defender.