Minneapolis City Council members on Thursday overwhelmingly expressed support for broadening the city’s approach to public safety — but they still disagree on whether they should cut the police budget to do it.
During a 2 ½ hour public meeting Thursday, most council members said they want to expand mental health services change the way the city responds to some nonviolent emergency calls.
But they left without taking action, amid a debate over whether it was appropriate to use money allocated for police overtime to fund those new efforts.
“For me, it’s not about whether we should or shouldn’t do a different mental health response,” said City Council Member Lisa Goodman, adding later: “It’s about how it’s funded. Come on, everyone knows what this is about: This is a semantic game we’re playing here.”
Council President Lisa Bender, part of a trio of council members pushing a plan to divert police funding to new programs, expressed disappointment in the lack of action.
“There are places of disagreement that will have very real impacts on our ability to implement the programs that we have proposed,” Bender said.
The city’s 2021 budget is providing a major test of its leaders’ appetite for changing policing and public safety following George Floyd’s death and a surge in violent crime.
Council members now have less than a week to develop a plan a majority of them can support, if they want to fund the efforts in 2021. Discussions will resume Friday afternoon and could carry into next week.
On Thursday, they got the first chance to make changes to Mayor Jacob Frey’s budget proposal.
Frey has pitched a roughly $1.5 billion plan that includes $179 million for the Minneapolis Police Department. That includes about $10 million in overtime to help ensure 911 calls get covered amid an officer shortage and that the city is prepared to deal with the potential for more unrest surrounding the March trial for the officers charged in Floyd’s death.
The main focus of discussion on Thursday was a plan drafted by Bender and Council Members Phillipe Cunningham and Steve Fletcher, who head the public safety committee.
That proposal would cut nearly $8 million from Frey’s proposed police budget and use it to fund civilian-led mental health crisis teams, violence prevention programs and efforts to have other divisions handle property damage and parking complaints.
Of that money, $5 million had been earmarked for police overtime. Fletcher said he believes they can reduce officers’ workloads by redirecting some calls to other city departments.
“We believe we can produce a substantially better outcome on a lot of these calls and that we’re hearing from community that many are not comfortable with the outcome of the services we currently provide,” he said.
Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins questioned whether they could accomplish that quickly, noting that it takes city employees time to adjust to new roles.
“It’s still going to take time to really build these systems out, and so it is a false expectation to think that we’re going to see these kinds of reductions immediately overnight,” Jenkins said.
She also said she was hearing concerns from mental health workers about new crisis teams led by civilians.
Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said he feared that people were losing track of the real goal: trying to find solutions that might work in the future.
“The reality is that some of us, even some of us on the council, have just simply resigned ourselves to the fact that the occasional police killing is just the cost of doing business,” Ellison said. He added later: “That’s not a reality I can accept.”
His remarks drew criticism from some of his colleagues, who said they care about police violence but also want to ensure that new programs will work.
Jenkins and Budget Committee Chairwoman Linea Palmisano have crafted their own proposal that would use $5 million from an unexpectedly high return on city investments for transforming public safety. The fund would prioritize bolstering the city’s mental health services and creating alternative responses to 911 calls.
Council Member Jeremy Schroeder has another proposal that would use $5 million in extra money from the general fund to help offset cuts to police overtime, providing the City Council signs off.
Amid the debates about how to fund the new initiatives, there is also a question of how to fund new recruit classes.
Frey’s proposal calls for three additional recruit classes next year. The proposal from Bender, Fletcher and Cunningham would fund the first class but create a reserve fund for the second and third classes that would require City Council approval before those additional classes could begin.
“I would say that the only way we would intervene would be … if we felt we weren’t getting the information we needed” from the department, Fletcher said.
That proposal would also limit the force size to 750 working officers in future years. Frey’s proposal seeks to keep the “target level” listed as 888 — the number initially authorized for 2020 — in hopes of easing their ability to hire in future years.
Hours before council members began their budget debates, Frey and local business organizations announced plans to create a private fund for new programs aimed at transforming public safety.
Frey described the fund as an effort to find a pathway for advancing some of the council members’ ideas “without cutting police.”
The Minneapolis Community Safety Innovation Fund will collect donations from private organizations that could be used to help city leaders fulfill their promise of transforming public safety.
Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, said organizations had committed roughly $5 million to the project so far. The funds will be managed by the Minneapolis Foundation, and many of the specifics are still being worked out.
The fund does not require approval from City Council members. Some of it could eventually be handed back to the city, which would require a council signoff if the money surpasses a certain threshold. Some could go to private organizations to aid work undertaken by the city.
Frey said that he believes that some of the council members’ efforts have merit, but they require more detailed operational plans before launching. He said the city should not further cut its police force to achieve those goals.
He said of the new fund, “What it also allows us to do is to do our homework.”