When I first heard of the unfortunately named movement to defund Minneapolis police, the idea sounded utopian and uncomfortable. But after digging deeper, observing the Powderhorn Park defund rally and talking to advocates, I’ve moved from skeptical to intrigued. That’s because except in the minds of a few diehard supporters, nobody expects this movement to end up with no law enforcement in Minneapolis to make arrests for violent crime.
It was clear at Powderhorn that even the nine City Council members who committed to the idea admittedly don’t know yet where it will lead. That’s good. They’ve committed to a vast community discussion in which they pledge all voices – those who fear police and those who fear fewer cops – will have a say. Let’s hold them to that.
But the intriguing part of this debate is that it’s likely to force us to think through when and how other professionals – such as mental health, medical or social workers — can be substituted for cops in police calls. That shifting of resources would mean less money for a smaller police department but more for services targeted at many of the situations that prompt calls for police. That means better help for vulnerable people. It also focuses police on the calls for which their expertise is most appropriate.
Think of it as right-sizing the police department.
But even though this debate was moved to warp speed by the killing of George Floyd, any potential action likely will happen on a slower track. A vast community discussion takes a long time – witness our recent 2040 comp plan debate – and if a resource shift requires a city charter referendum, we may well be into 2022 before any substantial shift would begin.
We still need to sift through what works and what doesn’t, what’s been tried and what’s potentially feasible for curbing racist and abusive policing.
I begin with a bias as a union man. I believe in the right of all workers to unionize, including police, and to elect the leadership they desire. Unions exist to improve working conditions and to defend their members against arbitrary managers. I believe that arbitration is an important step in giving workers due process in discipline cases.
Nevertheless, it’s time to rethink our practices. I don’t think that pending legislation, which would require racially sensitive training of arbitrators who would be appointed by the state, goes far enough. I think it’s possible to retain due process while modifying arbitration so that strong termination cases against bad cops result more often in their termination. There should be a high bar for taking away someone’s job in any profession. But granting a cop the right to use deadly force should be accompanied by zero tolerance when force is misused.
That’s why it’s good that the City Council – under pressure from a state human rights investigation – toughened the force’s existing duty-to-intervene policy. It requires intervention by officers who witness other officers use force that’s inappropriate or goes on longer than conditions warrant. We also need to change state laws governing use of force to make sure they promote sanctity of life, and require that the force be reasonable, necessary and proportionate, as recommended last winter by a state task force. The legislative proposal by Gov. Tim Walz and DFL legislators seeks that.
The state should also consider stripping an officer of their state license when an arbitrator upholds a termination for use-of-force reasons so that the officer doesn’t take malignant habits to another city.
Some reformers nationally suggest stripping cops in cities like Minneapolis of their protections against damages in lawsuits brought by citizens, so that taxpayers aren’t left at risk. We could then require individual officers to purchase liability insurance against maltreatment lawsuits, say after two years on the job. The city could reimburse them up to the median premium cost for such a policy. But those whose records lead insurers to charge higher premiums would eat the marginal cost themselves. Those whose conduct makes them uninsurable would lose their jobs. The city also needs to shed the requirement that it pay for settlements arising from off-duty assignments.
The Minneapolis Federation of Police is unlikely to accept such changes willingly. Labor bargaining usually requires trade-offs; you give up that if I give you this other thing you want. But the city has other ways to ramp up pressure. It recently stepped away from negotiations on a successor agreement to the police contract that expired in December. That delays any raises for cops. The city may well be waiting out the clock in hopes that federation President Bob Kroll will depart as he reaches retirement eligibility.
The city could also make the high cost of huge settlements for police misconduct tangible to cops in other ways. The council and mayor control the department’s budget. Conceivably, they could convert the annual cost of settlements into a full-time equivalent number of officers, reducing the sworn force by that many officers to pay for settlement costs. Cops keep arguing for more cops; this would give them an incentive to behave better to preserve jobs.
Minnesota law enforcement groups have built a powerful interlocking lobby at the state Capitol, often relying on conservative lawmakers, some of them cops themselves. That successfully overturned a former residency requirement in Minneapolis for cops. One former deputy chief suggests requiring new cops to live in the city for three to five years. That forces them to get to know their work environs as something more than an enforcement zone. But that is unlikely to happen if legislators kowtow to the statewide police lobby.
However, the Legislature holds some leverage. Only it may appropriate the state funds needed annually to keep the state-aided fund for Minneapolis cop pensions solvent. Do lawmakers have enough backbone to play hardball?
The death of George Floyd shocked us all – including some cops – with its callous and racist disregard for human life. Beyond the human cost, there’s a collective financial cost that affects all of us in Minneapolis. A settlement with Floyd’s relatives could well top the $20 million approved last year for the family of Justine Damond after her killing by a trigger-happy cop. The city’s estimated $500 million in property damage also represents the cost of ignoring the long-festering issue of police behavior.
Going forward, let’s change the rules so the bad cops are weeded out or conform to expectations. Let’s thoroughly explore a policing system that puts the response to a call on the shoulders of those best trained to offer help – social workers, homeless outreach workers, chemical dependency specialists, and yes cops.
That’s the policing that Minneapolis deserves. That’s the policing that might have kept George Floyd alive.