What City Council members are talking about when they talk about defunding the Minneapolis Police Department

A veto-proof majority of City Council members declared their intent to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department during a June 7 rally in Powderhorn Park. Photo by Tony Webster

On a sunny Sunday two weeks after George Floyd was killed, a supermajority of the City Council took the stage with community activists and announced their intent to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.

“Our efforts at incremental reform have failed. Period,” Council President Lisa Bender (Ward 10) bluntly told a crowd at Powderhorn Park. “Our commitment is to do what’s necessary to keep every member of our community safe, and to tell the truth, the Minneapolis police are not doing that. Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”

Nine council members stood with activists from Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block in what has been the most concrete sign that Floyd’s death under the knee of then-officer Derek Chauvin will result in major changes in Minneapolis, even if it is unclear exactly how those changes will take place.

“We are here to rebuild our city on a different foundation,” said Miski Noor of Black Visions, an organization founded in 2017 to advocate for increased investment in the state’s black communities and to create a community-led public safety alternative to traditional policing.

Bender was joined by Alondra Cano (Ward 9), Phillipe Cunningham (Ward 4), Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5), Steve Fletcher (Ward 3), Cam Gordon (Ward 2), Andrea Jenkins (Ward 8), Andrew Johnson (Ward 12) and Jeremy Schroeder (Ward 11) in taking a pledge to “begin the process of ending the MPD.” The group was inundated with praise and cheers from rally attendees — a stark contrast to the way Mayor Jacob Frey was received the day before, when he told protesters he favored major reforms but would not commit to abolishing the MPD and was sent away with chants of “shame.”

There are hints of a long process to come. The pledge contained a section stating council members would take the next year to hear from residents about what they think public safety should look like in the future. The council members also committed to “taking intermediate steps towards ending the MPD through the budget process and other policy and budget decisions over the coming weeks and months.”

“We need everybody’s manpower to reshape what public safety looks like in our community,” Jenkins said.

The pledge “was clearly a long-term commitment,” Bender told CNN during a June 8 interview in which she called fully eliminating the need for police an “aspirational” goal.

After the City of Minneapolis updated its use-of-force policy to emphasize de-escalation in 2016, incidents involving use of force declined nearly 11% in 2017, dropped an additional 8% in 2018 and held steady in 2019, according to MPD data. Since January 2017, bodily force has been the most common type of force used, consisting, most often, of body weight pins, followed by “takedowns” and chemical irritants. According to the data, 60% of use-of-force incidents have involved a black individual since the beginning of 2017, a statistic largely unchanged over the past decade.

For some council members, Floyd’s death is a clear signal that those measures haven’t worked and more significant changes are needed.

“I am no longer a reformist,” Cano told the crowd.

Defunding police 

Calls for defunding the police in Minneapolis are not new.

Community groups like Reclaim the Block and related policy organization MPD150 have been advocating for and publishing literature related to police defunding and abolition since 2017. The high-profile police shootings that killed Jamar Clark and Justine Damond have spurred department reforms and conversations over serious changes to policing in recent years.

But Floyd’s death has launched a movement that has expanded across the nation and world, and activists think it has more potential to be a spark for change.

“This moment definitely feels different than other moments have,” said Jae Hyun Shim of Reclaim the Block.

The current system of law enforcement doesn’t result in safety, especially for black residents and other people of color, Shim said, and anything different has “an opportunity to be safer.” Conversations about what public safety should look like in the future should try to center the people who have felt victimized by traditional policing, Shim said.

But Reclaim the Block and MPD150 know that if MPD goes away, crime won’t.

“If the City Council disbands the Minneapolis Police Department, it won’t be a period absent of violence, and it’s naive to pretend that it will be,” Shim said.

The group believes funding that supports MPD — for 2020, the department received $193 million, 11% of the city’s total budget — should be redirected into housing, recovery programs and resources for residents to meet basic needs, and that by doing so, the city will become safer. The council passed an $8.3 million budget increase for police for 2020, with some MPD funds redirected into violence protection projects.

“Police abolition work is not about snapping our fingers and magically defunding every department in the world instantly,” MPD150 states on its website. “Rather, we’re talking about a gradual process of strategically reallocating resources, funding and responsibility away from police and toward community-based models of safety, support and prevention.”

In 2017, MPD150 released a 36-page report detailing a history of policing in Minneapolis that outlined its vision for a police-free future. The report calls for a “resilience-based” city with more resources for people to see trained, unarmed professionals for mental health, domestic violence crises, investment in violence prevention programs and restorative justice models for property crimes.

Reclaim the Block has a four-point petition it wants City Council members to sign that promises to: 1) never again vote to increase police funding or the police department budget; 2) vote to cut $45 million from MPD’s budget in response to the city’s projected COVID-19-related funding shortfall; 3) expand current investments in community-led health and safety strategies; and 4) do everything in their power to compel MPD and other law enforcement to stop using violence on residents.

So far, no council members have actually signed that petition, but the group believes the pledge council members took committed them to go further than the petition’s demands. While Shim said seeing more commitment to defunding from elected officials has felt “surreal,” groups like Reclaim the Block know there is a long road ahead of debate and problem solving that won’t be perfect.

“I feel really hopeful and really afraid at this moment, because for us to move away from a system that’s so entrenched in our society will be really different,” Shim said.

Debate ahead

It’s not clear what actions the City Council will take next or if the nine members who took the public pledge have the same vision for the future.

There are structural and legal barriers to dismantling the department, even if a supermajority of the council is in favor of such action. The city charter requires a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident (about 720 officers based on recent population estimates) and changing the charter requires a unanimous council vote with mayoral approval. There are currently 892 officers on the force.

The nine council members who took the stage acknowledge they don’t know exactly how public safety should look in the future, but they wanted to show their intent to significantly change the current system.

“We’re serious,” Schroeder told the Southwest Journal.

Residents are open to the idea of dismantling the police department, Schroeder said, but they still want to know they have someone to call in an emergency or if they are a victim of a crime. Figuring that out, he said, is when things get scary for people.

“We know the system wasn’t working,” Schroeder said. “We know we can do better.”

There are two areas where Schroeder believes the council can immediately change policing in the city: the 2021 budget and the pending police union contract (MPD’s last contract expired in 2019 and a new deal still needs to be negotiated). Reducing MPD funding to invest in other social programs and writing a new contract that is flexible to community needs are new things he believes the city must try.

Many advocates and council members pointed to the way neighborhoods had formed their own security in the unrest that swept over Minneapolis after Floyd was killed as a rough model for communities keeping themselves safe.

Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13) did not join her colleagues in their pledge but did attend the June 7 rally. She said she wanted to attend the meeting because residents in Southwest believe everyone in the city deserves to feel safe and that it’s clear that many city residents do not. Palmisano, who chairs the council’s budget committee, said she is open to reinvesting in community-led safety practices but feels the council should embrace the state’s human rights lawsuit against the department as a tool for transformative change.

“I could not sign that pledge,” she said. “I need to be clear in my commitment to people and to our city. I think that reforms are the tools we use to achieve transformation of the department.”

Frey and Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

Michelle Bruch contributed reporting to this article.