The outcry that followed George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer surpassed anything Michelle Gross had seen in 30 years of pushing for police reform.
But six months later, the tragic momentum for change in that moment, she said, has fizzled into frustration.
“It’s been a revelation to me, a disappointing revelation, to see how unwilling the mayor and the council have been to be real leaders in this,” said Gross, of Communities United Against Police Brutality.
The city’s elected leaders say they remain committed to changing the way the city runs its 150-year-old police department and approaches public safety — a task that has proved difficult as residents make competing demands during an especially violent year. It has also taxed the city’s staff and raised fresh questions about Minneapolis’ power structure.
“If people are encouraging us to move faster, I agree,” Mayor Jacob Frey said. While the city has made some policy changes — including those required by a court order — others need intense legal reviews and changes at other levels of government, he said.
Some on City Council are urging people to keep the faith and to give them time to sort out the 2021 budget in December. Among other things, Frey’s budget proposal calls for boosting funding for the Office of Violence Prevention, purchasing an early warning system to flag officers who are struggling and adding workers to the 311 department who can focus on processing theft reports.
Council members will get to pitch their own proposals next week. Some are exploring a plan to have specially trained workers respond to mental health calls or increase opportunities for civilian oversight. Some hope to further boost efforts to mediate conflicts in the community before they escalate into gunfire.
The overarching goal is to take a “public health approach to public safety,” Council Member Phillipe Cunningham has said repeatedly.
Where critics see a patchwork of pilot programs and research projects, some elected leaders see a wider plan beginning to take shape that focuses on reforming the police department, increasing violence prevention and exploring alternatives to policing.
“I think the pieces that different council members are working on fit together in a much more coherent narrative than it might look if you look at them all separately,” Council Member Steve Fletcher said.
Minneapolis leaders have pledged a variety of changes around policing and public safety. Here’s where they stand.
Court-ordered changes: The city banned chokeholds, strengthened requirements to intervene in excessive force cases, limited the number of people who can authorize the use of crowd-control weapons and allowed for wider body-camera reviews, under an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
Police Federation negotiations: Chief Medaria Arradondo withdrew from union negotiations, but others in the city continue to participate.
Mental health support: Police can receive 10 counseling sessions under a pilot program launching in 2021. Some council members are exploring the idea of creating civilian mental health response teams next year.
Early warning system: The mayor’s budget proposal calls for purchasing a system to flag officers’ behavior for early intervention, but the funding still needs council approval.
Emergency calls: Elected officials endorsed the idea of having the city’s 311 line process more theft reports, but they need additional staff to begin that work. The city is also researching whether civilians could handle some other 911 calls.
Violence prevention: Minneapolis teams that connect people with social services and resolve conflicts are funded through 2020. City staff have also been asked to provide recommendations for increasing efforts on the North Side.
Racial healing: Staff is researching ways to create a truth and reconciliation commission, with recommendations due in January.
What comes next?
Many of the activists who imagine a future without police will be watching closely as the council works through budget negotiations amid a financial crunch brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Black Visions and its sister organization, Reclaim the Block, want council members to fulfill a pledge nine of them made this summer to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.” Some were troubled when the council recently approved funding to bring in extra officers amid a shortage.
“I would say that after the murder of George Floyd this summer and after the uprising, the mayor and the council both had an opportunity and, I think, a mandate, to really, fundamentally [rethink] how we keep each other safe in this city,” said Lex Horan, an organizer with Reclaim the Block. “So far, we aren’t satisfied with either the mayor or the council.”
Some Black leaders say the campaign aimed at ending the police department has been detrimental to the city, sending a dangerous signal to criminals that police are not protecting property and residents. Former Council Member Don Samuels, who is suing the city over its police staffing levels, said he thought the pledge to end the department was “naive,” especially on the heels of rioting. People living in his North Side neighborhood felt ignored at the very time they feared for their safety.
“We all make big mistakes, right. We’re all learning,” Samuels said, “but the reluctance to pivot in the light of conflicting realities is just mind-boggling.”
Mixed views on funding
Only 40% of Minneapolis residents favored reducing the size of the police force, according a Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll conducted in August. Among Black residents in the city, opposition to cutting police officers reached 50%.
Steven Belton, president and CEO of the Urban League Twin Cities said the council promised to listen deeply to the community and keep people safe.
“We seem to have failed spectacularly in both,” he said.
Some council members are trying to impose their views on residents, he said, noting the mayor seems more willing to listen.
“The real issue is: Is he going to be allowed to lead, along with the police chief?” Belton said, adding: “We need radical reimagining of the police department. That is not the same as defunding the police department or stopping policing.”
Indeed, some people and council members want to see Frey do more to change policing.
“The truth is, if we had more support from the mayor to invest in these community-based strategies, in mental health response, we would be much farther along,” City Council President Lisa Bender said. “We would have been farther along before George Floyd was killed.”
Weeks after Floyd’s death, Bender and four of her colleagues pushed a proposal that would have allowed them to replace the police department with a community safety department, and shifted some power over police from the mayor to the council.
With that delayed — and eventually rejected — by the volunteer Charter Commission, some council members have turned to a mechanism called a staff direction. That allows them to instruct city employees to prioritize certain work, such as providing recommendations for community engagement or researching ways to form a truth and reconciliation commission.
The Charter Commission has begun researching whether Minneapolis should consider switching to a system like the one in St. Paul, where the mayor has more control.
Frey hasn’t taken a public position on whether the city should make that change, though he did acknowledge that the line marking who has authority over the police department “at times gets blurred.”
The mayor said his work on the police department is not over. He’s talking to the union about a policy to ban no-knock warrants, except in extreme circumstances, like an active hostage situation.
He’s open to discussions about redirecting nonviolent 911 calls or finessing responses to mental health crises — but says those changes require more analysis and planning.
“These are complex questions,” he said. “They are going to be answered, and we are moving forward. It does take time, though.”