Minnesota and the entire world watched in horror last May as George Floyd, a resident of my congressional district, had his life taken from him by the very officers who had sworn an oath to protect him. One of those officers is now in prison. But as Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said at the time, that verdict represented accountability, not justice, because justice implies restoration. "Now," he told us, "the cause of justice is in our hands."
What many don't know is that the murder of George Floyd was not a one-off event. I remember witnessing my first police shooting as a teenager, where the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) put nearly 38 bullets into the body of a mentally ill man who was just released from an institution, didn't speak a word of English, couldn't respond to commands and was not of any imminent threat. Many of us, particularly people of color, have witnessed those kinds of killings in front of civilians far too often.
The truth is the current system hasn't been serving our city for a long time. Right now, we expect the MPD to respond to all types of emergencies, from mental health crises, to domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and simple noise complaints and traffic stops. But the department simply is not equipped to deal with all these issues, which can lead to escalating tensions and even violence at the hands of police.
One of the biggest impediments to change is the Minneapolis Police Federation. Led by far-right Donald Trump supporter Bob Kroll until recently, the union routinely shields bad cops from any discipline. A recent Reuters investigation found that 9 out of 10 accusations of misconduct resulted in no punishment or intervention aimed at changing the officers' behavior. The union also openly championed violent "warrior-style policing," which treats any interactions with civilians like a war zone. These were the very tactics used against protesters in the wake of Floyd's murder.
I have long said we need a public safety system that is actually rooted in people's basic human needs. That means having qualified experts, such as mental health workers and social workers, work alongside officers to give people the help they need and make our communities safer. That means providing the services and responding to the types of crises that the MPD is not designed, equipped nor trained to handle. That is what the Minneapolis charter amendment on the ballot in November gives us the opportunity to do.
The charter amendment will give Minneapolitans the power to make that decision for the first time in 60 years, outside of an unelected Charter Commission or police union that block grassroots change. The applicable part of the City Charter was written in 1961, under pressure from the police union. And unlike almost every other city in the country, it mandates how the city funds its police forces with no flexibility over what types of personnel it can employ or the number of officers on the job. The constraints and failures of the current city charter led us to this moment. Leaders and unelected commissions who have failed Minneapolis shouldn't be given a voice over residents of Minneapolis. The charter amendment would allow the people of Minneapolis to deploy qualified professionals to serve the city we live in today, not 60 years ago.
There is currently a well-funded campaign trying to mislead voters about this initiative, so let's be clear about what the amendment is not: It has nothing to do with funding levels, much less "defunding" public safety in Minneapolis. There are no financial components of this amendment. Nor is it about the leadership of the department. The new department would still have a commissioner, and the city could choose to keep the current police chief, Medaria Arradondo, on in the commissioner role.
There is also nothing radical about this amendment. The state of Minnesota already has a Department of Public Safety, and municipalities around the world have built public safety systems that prioritize community relations. What is radical is a campaign to block city residents from determining how public safety is administered in their city and then misrepresenting the contents of the amendment to the public.
For decades, those opposed to change and civil rights have used fear and invocations of "law and order" to keep people from reimagining a more humane system. We have a chance in this moment to reject that. We have an opportunity, once and for all, to listen to those most impacted by police brutality and the communities who have been demanding change for decades. We have a mandate, in the wake of George Floyd's murder, to deliver a public safety system rooted in compassion, humanity and love, and to deliver true justice. I hope we fulfill it.
Ilhan Omar, a Democrat, represents Minnesota's Fifth District in the U.S. House.