An influential bloc of Minneapolis City Council members is pressing ahead with plans to dismantle the police department as a monthlong eruption of gunfire sent tremors through some neighborhoods.
Council President Lisa Bender said crime typically spikes in the summer and that the COVID-19 pandemic and the unrest following George Floyd’s death have added to the stress in the community.
“We still have a police department today,” she said. “Its funding has not changed from three weeks ago.”
Pressure is mounting on City Council members to clarify who would respond to reports of violent crime if they accede to calls to defund the police department.
At a community meeting in the city’s Jordan neighborhood Tuesday, Sondra Samuels told a small group of police officers that she wants to see changes in the department in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing. She doesn’t want a “blue code of silence.” She wants racism to end.
But, Samuels also told them, “We want to get rid of that. We do not want to get rid of you.”
It has been more than two weeks since nine City Council members gathered in Powderhorn Park to declare that they would begin the process of “ending” the Minneapolis Police Department. There has never been one clear, detailed description of what that would mean. Various council members and community activists have used the terms “defund,” “dismantle,” and “abolish” in different ways.
In the weeks since that statement, many of the discussions in City Hall have focused on the possibility of boosting investments in violence prevention programs and even sending mental health professionals or social workers to some types of calls.
But with gunshots erupting in their neighborhoods — and at least 113 people injured or killed in shootings since Floyd’s death on May 25 — some residents are asking urgent new questions about the council’s plans, or calling on them to back off the idea of defunding police altogether.
Steven Belton, president and CEO of the Urban League Twin Cities, said he believes the public commitment to disband the police department has emboldened criminals and sparked a new wave of violence.
Absent any detailed proposals so far, some council members have floated ideas about what that defunding or dismantling might look like.
Five council members — Bender, Jeremiah Ellison, Alondra Cano, Cam Gordon and Steve Fletcher — are working to change city charter language that sets a minimum size requirement for the department. The department had 892 sworn officers and 175 non-sworn employees as of June 1.
One draft — its details being discussed privately — contemplates a larger public safety department that would still have some licensed officers.
But any change to the city charter would need to be approved by the council and the Charter Commission, and then put before voters.
Fletcher said he thinks the city will need to maintain some trained, licensed, armed employees to respond to violent calls in progress, such as active shooter situations. But he noted that in many instances, officers often arrive at a scene after the violence has ended.
“It’s so much more common that we’re showing up [and] the person has already left who has committed the crime,” he said. “We’re in problem-solving mode. We’re in investigation mode. We’re in logistical management mode, and those are things that we don’t need necessarily armed officers to be doing.”
Gordon said city officials need to determine which calls for service truly require a police response. “Whatever we come up with, we’re going to have to look at what are the essential services the Minneapolis Police Department is providing,” he said.
Council Member Andrew Johnson, who participated in the Powderhorn Park announcement, said there will still be a need for armed law enforcement. “But the question is, what’s the appropriate amount, and what’s the best way to respond to different types of crimes?” Johnson said.
He said armed officers might not be necessary for responding to car crashes or loud music calls. Council Member Jeremy Schroeder said he wants to ensure that there is a “swift response with appropriately trained people” in situations where there is an imminent threat. But he hopes that future efforts will put more emphasis on helping communities cope with trauma after crimes occur, or investigating their root causes.
The police union, Republicans and many Democrats outside the city have raised concerns about the “abolish” mantra and the recent flurry of shootings. Some official city statements also have described the recent uptick as “alarming.” But Bender pushed back against the idea that council members’ calls to defund the police department are contributing to the violence.
Bender acknowledged that some city residents say some officers might be pulling back in response to council members’ criticism.
Minneapolis police Lt. Mark Montgomery told people at the Jordan meeting that his North Side officers feel “battered” but are continuing to respond to 911 calls. He denied that there was any work slowdown.
Other council members say that the recent wave of violence in the city confirms their belief in reforms that transform — but do not eliminate — police.
“What I want as a result of these shootings [is] the gunman arrested and put in jail. And only a licensed peace officer can do that,” said Council Member Linea Palmisano, who didn’t join the pledge to end the police department.
City Council Member Andrea Jenkins said police should still respond to calls and do their job to “serve and protect” the community. But the city should focus on creating more schools, housing and other services that prevent people from pursuing crime or turning to violence, Jenkins said.
Council Member Lisa Goodman also refrained from the pledge.
“There needs to be transformational change in how we view public safety in the city,” she said. “On the flip side, to be clear, I do not believe that social workers or other community activists, I don’t believe it’s reasonable for them to be asked to respond to 911 calls on domestic abuse or other very volatile situations.”
Staff writers Libor Jany, Maya Rao and Miguel Otárola contributed to this report.