“How Are We Supposed to Move Forward with THIS Police Force After This?”: The Stalled Reform Movement in Minneapolis
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. The horrifying incident, in which Floyd calls out for his mother and tells Chauvin and the other officers present that he can’t breathe, was caught on camera and broadcast widely. In the days and weeks that followed, residents of Minneapolis spilled into the streets in protest, inspiring a worldwide movement and a national reckoning with the role police play in society. In June, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council called to defund the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). Since then, little change has occurred in the city or within the MPD. Bureaucratic hurdles have stalled proposals, resulting in confusion and the proliferation of scare tactics about the vision for the future of public safety in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis is governed by a charter, which can be altered in several ways. Amendments can be approved unanimously by the City Council and the mayor. Alternatively, an amendment can be put on the ballot. In order to get on the ballot, the proposed amendment can either be approved by the Charter Commission, submitted by the City Council, or proposed by citizen petition. While the City Council must submit proposed amendments to the Charter Commission, they are free to ignore the recommendation of the Commission and submit an amendment to voters independently. Currently, the Minneapolis charter dictates minimum staffing levels for the MPD and gives the mayor control over the police. These requirements mean that any meaningful change to the MPD requires amendment of the charter. As of February 2021, several efforts to do so are underway:
Failed Charter Reform Efforts
Initially, the City Council’s goal was to put forth a proposed amendment for popular vote in the November 2020 election. In July 2020, the City Council submitted an amendment that would eliminate the minimum staffing requirement for the MPD, create a new “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention,” and shift some authority over public safety from the mayor to the City Council. In response, the Charter Commission proposed an alternative which eliminated the minimum staffing requirement but preserved both the MPD and the mayor’s authority over the department. After a public comment period in which the Charter Commission chafed against the outcry of support for the amendment, the Commission vetoed both amendments, preventing any change to the charter from reaching the ballot in 2020.
Proposed City Council Amendment
Despite the Commission’s rejection, the City Council can put their proposed amendment on the ballot in 2021. This amendment is substantially very similar to the one rejected by the Charter Commission in August, and would eliminate minimum staffing, restructure public safety in Minneapolis, and shift oversight from the mayor to the City Council.
Proposed Charter Commission Strong Mayor Amendment
The Charter Commission has proposed an amendment that would implement a “strong mayor” system, taking power away from the City Council. While not explicitly linked to public safety, this amendment is significant because, while many members of the City Council have been outspoken about wanting serious changes to policing, Mayor Jacob Frey has been largely unwilling to contemplate even small cuts to the MPD. Frey’s alignment with the MPD and Chief Arradondo has inspired protests.
“Yes 4 Minneapolis” Amendment
In February 2021, community organizations joined together to draft a charter amendment. This proposed amendment would strike the existing language regarding police from the charter and replace it with language creating a Department of Public Safety. City Councilmember Cam Gordon claims that the amendment achieves the same result as the City Council’s amendment, and the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition agrees. While the two amendments are not in conflict, Yes 4 Minneapolis stresses the importance of a “people’s petition,” and the organizing necessary to collect the 12,000 signatures necessary to get the amendment on the ballot would no doubt aid voter turnout in a non-presidential election year.
Radical change requires momentum. The multiracial protests this summer indicated that a substantial portion of Minneapolis residents were deeply dissatisfied with the MPD. Police action (and inaction) in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods made many White residents aware of the reality their BIPOC neighbors are familiar with—a police force that is out of control and unresponsive to the needs of the community. Despite high-profile incidents of police misconduct during the protests, including MPD officers pepper-spraying protestors seemingly at random both in downtown Minneapolis and as they fled I-35W after a semi-truck plowed through a crowd, and launching projectiles at people on their porch, not a single officer has been disciplined.
While over the summer change seemed almost inevitable, the tide may be turning. Mainstream media and apps like Nextdoor are filled with reports of increased crime. The confusion around the stalled reform measures causes many to think the rise in crime (mirrored in cities around the country) is a direct result of the Council’s actions. In reality, MPD has not been “defunded” in any sense. In December 2020, the City Council voted to shift $8 million from the MPD’s $179 million budget to “crime prevention programs.” The City Council rejected part of the budget that would have required a reduction in the force from 888 to 750 by 2022 after Mayor Frey threatened to veto the budget unless staffing levels remained the same. Officers are leaving in protest over the demands for accountability. The staffing numbers are a reflection of a department in crisis, an indication that the rot in the MPD runs deeper even than imagined.
Minneapolis has the opportunity to be a leader in reimagining public safety—it’s time to be bold, seize the moment, and make this city a safer, more equitable place for all. Adoption of the City Council or Yes 4 Minneapolis amendments is not the end goal of this movement—it’s only the beginning. The people of Minneapolis deserve a voice and an opportunity to shape the future of this city, and putting one of these amendments up for popular vote is the first step.
*University of Minnesota Law School, 2022 J.D. Candidate
[eds. note: for additional context and discussion over police reform both generally, and contextualized within the Minneapolis community, please see our Special Issue publication, specifically our JLI Editorial Board’s essay “Refunding the Community: What Defunding MPD Means and Why It Is Urgent and Realistic.”]