Egregious, grotesque, absurd, crazy, ridiculous.
These are a handful of the words that some local African American leaders are using to rebuke the Minneapolis City Council’s moves toward dismantling the Police Department, even as they demand an overhaul of law enforcement.
While the movement to defund the police has been driven by Black activists, others say that city politicians rushed the process and failed to include a police chief who has the backing of many Black residents.
“They have shown a complete disregard for the voices and perspectives of many members of the African American community,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and former president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. “We have not been consulted as the city makes its decisions, even though our community is the one most heavily impacted by both police violence and community violence.”
A month after George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer, the City Council unanimously voted Friday to revise the city charter to permit the dismantling of the Police Department, the first step toward putting the matter to voters on the November ballot. The ordinance, which the Charter Commission discussed during a meeting Wednesday, would abolish the city’s current law enforcement structure in favor of a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.
It also raises questions about the future of Medaria Arradondo, the city’s first Black police chief.
The measure doesn’t preclude a chief with a traditional policing background, but it requires the head of the new agency to have “non-law enforcement experience in community safety services, including but not limited to public health and/or restorative justice approaches.” Arradondo joined the department as a patrol officer in 1989 in his early twenties.
“Why now, when you have an African American chief who is highly regarded and trusted in the Black community?” said Steven Belton, president and CEO of the Urban League Twin Cities. “This strikes me as being passive-aggressive Minnesota Nice on steroids. This is a hit on Chief Arradondo.”
Pastor Brian Herron said the council is “pandering.”
“We have a department that is troubled, but it is also a department that with the leadership of our chief could be really transformed, and the culture of policing could change dramatically if he was given the proper support,” said Herron, who ministers at Zion Baptist Church in north Minneapolis.
Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said that there’s urgency to create a system of emergency response that isn’t harmful and that the council is not “pre-prescribing” what that looks like. He added that the charter change provides room for the council to make changes that the community asks for and doesn’t lock them in to minimum police staffing or having police as the sole emergency responders.
“The Black community is not a monolith, and just because there’s someone that might have a high profile doesn’t meant that they necessarily speak on behalf of the Black community of Minneapolis,” said Ellison, who is Black and represents a North Side ward that’s about half Black.
He said the city wants to create a system that is sustainable because “I’m not always going to be the council member of Ward 5, Jacob’s not always going to be the mayor, Rondo’s not always going to be the chief, and so we can’t build policy based on one person’s personality.”
On June 7, a veto-proof majority of the council vowed to disband the Police Department at a rally in Powderhorn Park. The event was hosted by Black Visions Collective, a Black-led racial justice nonprofit, and Reclaim the Block, an affiliated coalition demanding divestment from the police.
Those organizations have pushed City Hall in recent years to shift money from the Police Department to violence prevention and community programs as the first move toward a police-free society.
“We have been working to call for defunding of the police primarily because we feel like it’s one really critical step in actually being able to abolish the police and open up the resources that are really needed in our communities to provide true safety,” Kandace Montgomery, director of Black Visions Collective, told Belton last week.
They spoke during a collegial online discussion hosted by the Twin Cities Urban League. When Belton relayed a question from a listener asking why they couldn’t work with the chief instead of removing power held by a Black person, Montgomery replied, “It’s not a target towards Rondo. It’s actually saying we need the type of leadership, the decades of experience to lead a department like this, that are rooted in community models of safety and restorative justice … and most career law enforcement folks do not have that.”
She said she was on daily calls with council members “trying to get stronger and more clear and specific language … we think this is a first step and this is a marathon.”
Belton said that some voices have been lost, noting, “There have been a lot of others who have been left out of this conversation.”
He told the Star Tribune that the problem is a culture of policing that disregards Black lives, but he said nothing in the new proposal addresses that. He said it’s irresponsible to talk about funding health care, housing and education — advocates want to shift more money from the police budget to social programs — without discussing public safety.
“The tension of living in many of these African American communities is that we are overpoliced, we are subjected to excessive police use of force, but at the same time we are also disproportionately victims of crime and witnesses of crime,” said Belton. “And you cannot talk defunding the police if there is not a concomitant strategy of community safety in place as well.”
Belton and others want more public hearings, broad community input and a deliberate process before the charter change is put to voters — not after.
Levy Armstrong said she doesn’t have confidence in the City Council after it failed to take significant action on police issues over the years. She’s among the those who pushed for more police accountability following the 2015 officer shooting of Jamar Clark, an unarmed 24-year-old African American man. Outrage over the killing prompted an 18-day protest outside the police Fourth Precinct that included Levy Armstrong, along with Montgomery and other activists working to defund police.
“I think some of them are seizing upon the national spotlight to look as if they’re making a difference,” Levy Armstrong said of the City Council.
Activist Raeisha Williams agreed. She believes in reducing the police budget and making officers reapply for their jobs, doing deep background checks and suspending cops who have more than a few complaints against them. But Williams also wants to ensure the safety of her ward, which is represented by Ellison, whom she ran against in 2017.
Williams said it was “grotesque” for the council to propose eliminating emergency response by police “when they had nothing else in place for who was going to protect the community the right way.”
Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, urged neighbors at a community meeting this week to write to City Hall in opposition to the plan. She said residents want the same things for the city, but the council’s vote “is premature, it’s immature and it’s dangerous.”