Council wants voters to decide policing future

Charter amendment could replace the MPD

Protesters gather outside City Council Member Linea Palmisano’s Linden Hills home
Protesters gather outside City Council Member Linea Palmisano’s Linden Hills home on June 25, asking for her support in advancing a proposed charter amendment that would replace the police force with a “department of public safety and violence prevention.” Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Minneapolis residents may decide this fall whether to maintain the current police force or transition to a new community safety model.

The City Council voted unanimously to put the question of public safety on the ballot in November in the form of a charter amendment that will replace current requirements for a municipal police force with a department of “community safety and violence prevention.”

“I certainly believe the public deserves to take this issue up,” Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) said.

But to ensure that voters can decide this year, typically slow governmental processes would need to move quickly. State law requires the Minneapolis Charter Commission review the ballot language and submit recommendations to the City Council.

Typically, Council President Lisa Bender (Ward 10) said, there would be a longer back and forth between the council and Charter Commission about a proposed change, but City Council members want to expedite that process to make the Nov. 3 ballot. State law gives the Charter Commission 150 days, starting July 1, to submit its required report. But the law also requires all measures on the ballot be finalized 74 days before the election, setting a deadline of Aug. 21 this year. The City Council hopes to be able to vote to finalize the ballot language on Aug. 14.

The Charter Commission — a board consisting of 15 members appointed by the Hennepin County District Court’s chief judge — has scheduled two public hearings on the amendment, at 5 p.m. on July 15 and at 6 p.m. on July 21. Members of the City Council and Mayor Jacob Frey are also scheduled to address the Charter Commission about the amendment on July 8, shortly after this paper goes to press.

The charter serves as the city’s constitution. Currently the document requires the city maintain a police department and that the department have the equivalent of 1.7 officers for every 1,000 residents.

The proposed amendment would replace the police department with a department of community safety and crime prevention that provides safety through strategies that prioritize public health. That could mean more mental health professionals, addiction specialists and other non-armed employees responding to non-violent situations, council members say. The head of the department would be nominated by the mayor and appointed by the City Council. Eligible candidates would have experience in non-law enforcement community safety, like public health.

The amendment also requires the department contain a “division of law enforcement services” that would retain traditional state-licensed peace officers.

The amendment would also give the City Council significantly more power over the new public safety department than it has over the Minneapolis Police Department. Today, the MPD is the only charter department the mayor has “complete power” over, though the City Council does have influence over the MPD by controlling the budget.

“I’ve seen time and time again how the lack of the council to have any policy making authority over the police department has made it very difficult and challenging to make the changes people want,” Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2) said.

Frey, in a press conference, said he feared the council having more policy control over law enforcement could result in there being too many bosses directing the department and variations in how community safety worked ward to ward.

If voters approve the measure, the MPD would not immediately disband. The charter change itself would go into effect on May 1, 2021, and would allow the City Council and mayor to begin implementing public safety changes. The council has committed to a year-long public engagement process to shape the new department.

“It’s a structural change that allows us to invest in a holistic approach to safety,” Bender said.

Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins said while the ordinance is important, even if voters approve the measure in November, and the council does ultimately replace the police with a new department, there will still be a need to root out systemic racism.

“We’re going to have a new name with a new public safety measure with the same underlying racist foundations that has been involved in the formulation of this country forever, so we must be dealing with both those issues simultaneously,” Jenkins said.

Protesters outside City Council Member Linea Palmisano’s Linden Hills home

Some Southwest Minneapolis activists have pushed for the measure to be placed on the ballot.

Over 25 supporters of the amendment showed up at the Linden Hills home of Ward 13 City Council Member Linea Palmisano on June 25, asking her to vote to advance the proposal.

“I think this is the City Council that could pave the way not only for deep, deep change in Minneapolis but could help create a model for other towns and cities to use,” said Laurie Bushbaum, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister who organized the group. “I think this is the moment where it’s suddenly possible.”

The South Uptown Neighborhood Association voted to submit a letter to Bender last month calling for budget reductions to MPD and redirecting funding into public-health based safety strategies.

Nate Gotlieb contributed reporting to this story.