More than a year after the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the city is putting its issues with police brutality in the spotlight once again.
This time, the power is in the hands of voters, who will take to the ballot box in November to decide whether to replace the existing Minneapolis Police Department.
The vote would be on whether to change the city charter and implement a department of public safety instead, which activists say would take on a public-health approach to policing — opting for social workers and violence interrupters over the police-only model that the city has now.
Advocates have said that many cases in which police are called can often be resolved by others. Detractors say the move will undermine public safety. In either case, police reform has been a fraught issue, especially in the wake of Floyd’s death, with deep divisions forming over whether to “defund” the police or change the way departments operate.
“We want to do something different, to actually make real concrete changes, so that we don’t have to revisit this feeling of powerlessness, hopelessness, helplessness — so that we don’t have to continue to bury people year after year,” said JaNaé Bates, the communications director at Yes 4 Minneapolis, a leading coalition of activists in the effort to replace the police department.
The charter change would also put the city council in charge of the department, instead of the mayor, and remove requirements to hire police based on the city’s population size.
Activists say this effort is inspired by other policies and practices from across the country — and that they’ve taken into consideration what has worked and what has failed.
Local opponents believe the charter change has the potential to rid the city of police altogether, due to language that says police officers will respond to calls “when necessary.”
“These are trojan horses backed by radicals to achieve their goal of police defunding and abolition,” said a statement on the Operation Safety Now website. Operation Safety Now is a local pro-police political advocacy group.
The organization stated: “We are against police defunding – and the “police-less society” envisioned by some council members and their radical supporters. We need more cops, not fewer.”
Mayor Jacob Frey, a member of the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party, also rejects the effort.
“My primary reason for opposing this charter amendment comes down to accountability,” Frey said in a statement to ABC News. “If passed, this proposal will dilute accountability by diffusing responsibility for public safety across 14 policymakers. The result would likely leave voters – and the department – uncertain of who among the 13 council members and mayor’s office is actually directing, and responsible for, the department’s activity.
Frey believes that if the city council is in charge of the department, it could lead to a major setback for “accountability and good governance.”
Residents like Bates and city council members like Steve Fletcher say that Minneapolis has struggled with racist policing for decades.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that in the past 20 years, more than 200 people have been killed in “a physical confrontation with law enforcement” in Minnesota. Only 7% of Minnesotans are Black, but Black victims accounted for 26% of these deaths.
At least 36 of these deaths occurred in Minneapolis. And last year, Black youths were disproportionately incarcerated — making up 55% of the youth incarceration population.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department also opened a pattern or practice investigation into the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department earlier this year.
“We have had a long history of producing racially unjust outcomes in our overall system and policing,” Fletcher said. “We can’t continue to operate this way.”
Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo was among several other Black officers who sued MPD for racial discrimination in 2007, MPR News reported, which was settled for almost $1 million.
To solve these issues, community leaders involved in Yes 4 Minneapolis have adopted the tactics to amend the charter in ways that have proven to work.
One of the programs that inspired this public health approach was the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Oregon, which started in 1969. The program sends out two-person teams, including a medic and a crisis worker with training in the mental health field, to crises involving mental illness, homelessness, and addiction instead of policing.
Out of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls in 2019, police backup was requested only 150 times, according to the organization’s website.
The Support Team Assisted Response program in Denver started in 2020, and it similarly sends pairs of mental health and medical professionals to respond to low-level calls instead of sending law enforcement.
And disbanding efforts are nothing new either — Camden, New Jersey successfully disbanded its police department in 2013 and rebuilt the police department from the ground up, with new trainings, new officers, and a new department culture against brutality.
“We’re integrating our police officers with other services that we know, allow qualified professionals to handle things that they’re prepared and trained to handle,” Bates said. “Having mental health responders, social workers, violence interrupters different interventions for folks experiencing homelessness, and drug crisis — those things are things that should be happening within fully integrated departments that include police.”
More than 20,000 signatures gave the proposed Minneapolis charter change measure a spot on the ballot, according to Bates, and roughly $1 million was raised for the effort.
Like many states, cities, and counties across the nation, some reform efforts have already been in the works in Minneapolis — like banning chokeholds and neck restraints and requiring officers to intervene in excessive uses of force.
The city council also cut $8 million from the mayor’s proposed police budget and diverted to mental health and violence prevention units in the department.
Shortly after Floyd’s murder, City Council members tried to implement the charter change, but the council failed to meet the deadlines necessary to get it on the November 2020 ballot.
Now, they hope to set an example for policing efforts nationwide, as the country continues to confront police brutality.
“Every city is facing some version of this,” Fletcher said about the efforts to reimagine policing. “I really believe that this Minneapolis is going to rise to the occasion and create a system that is far more compassionate, far more equitable, and far more effective than the old system of policing that we’ve inherited.”