The next few weeks will be crucial for the future of policing in Minneapolis.
In the weeks since George Floyd’s death, some people have pushed to abolish the Police Department. Others have advocated scaling it back and boosting investments in violence prevention and mental health programs.
Up for consideration now is an attempt by some City Council members to change the city’s charter to eliminate the requirement to have a police department. Here’s what we know about the proposal.
Q: Why are we talking about changing the city charter?
Floyd’s killing added new urgency to a longstanding argument about how to reform a police department that disproportionately uses force on people of color, especially those who are Black.
Some have called for the department to be abolished, and nine City Council members promised to “begin the process of ending” the MPD.
The city charter presents an obstacle. It currently requires the City Council to “fund a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident.”
Based on the latest census data, that amounts to roughly 730 police employees. The department currently has about 825 officers, though it’s authorized to employ more.
Q: Why does that requirement exist?
A: Some version of the requirement has existed since at least the early 1960s. In 1961, voters agreed overwhelmingly to earmark some tax revenue for police and set a rate of 1.7 officers for every 1,000 residents.
Supporters pitched the proposal as a way to add 150 officers to the force, bringing it to roughly 800. The measure was supported by the police union, as well as some local union leaders and business groups.
The precise language has changed some over the years, but the overarching idea of requiring a minimum number of police has remained.
Q: What change is the city considering now?
A: Five City Council members — Jeremiah Ellison, Alondra Cano, Steve Fletcher, Cam Gordon and Council President Lisa Bender — wrote a charter amendment to remove the requirement to maintain a police department. In its place, the city would be required to create a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, which would seek to promote a “holistic, public health-oriented approach” to safety.
It would also remove the language that says the mayor has “complete power” over the Police Department, and gives the City Council some additional authority.
Q: Would there still be police if the charter is amended?
A: Unclear. The proposal as it’s currently written says that the City Council “may maintain” a Division of Law Enforcement Services, which would include “licensed peace officers.”
Asked during a public meeting why they made that division optional, Council Members Gordon and Fletcher said they wanted to ensure that future city leaders have some flexibility if new models for public safety arise.
If the measure passes in its current form, decisions about police staffing would be made by the mayor and City Council in separate processes.
Bender, in a public meeting earlier this month, said she can say “with relative confidence that the consensus of the [current] council would be that there needs to be some level of peace officers in the new division.”
Q: How would this change happen?
A: The proposal is before the Charter Commission, a group of court-appointed volunteers entrusted with overseeing the city’s constitution.
Commissioners must review the matter and give a recommendation to approve it or reject it, or offer an alternative.
The matter then heads back to the City Council, which is not bound by the Charter Commission’s recommendation.
It would eventually need to be approved by voters.
Q: How do people feel about the proposal?
A: It’s too early to get a complete picture. The city has received thousands of comments and published them online.
Mayor Jacob Frey blasted the proposal, saying he believes it’s too vague and voters deserve more clarity.
Some groups calling for the Police Department to be abolished have said they fear it still leaves open the possibility that a law enforcement officer could helm the new department.
Q: Why is this happening so quickly?
A: There is an Aug. 21 deadline for adding items to the November ballot.
The council members who wrote the amendment have said they believe the charter needs to change quickly so they can embark on an honest conversation about overhauling public safety in the city.
Opponents have said they fear the process, which would normally unfold over several months, is happening too fast. The Charter Commission could take a full 150 days to review the proposal, preventing it from getting on the ballot this year. If the commission bypasses that deadline, the measure could still go on the 2021 ballot.
Q: Do they really need to change the charter?
A: If they want to completely eliminate the Police Department, council members would need to work with the public to change the charter.
The City Council could, in the interim, try to drop the force down to the minimum required levels. Many will be watching to see if they try that as they revise the 2020 budget and work on the 2021 budget.
Q: Are there any other proposals?
A: The Charter Commission is considering an alternative amendment that would eliminate the minimum staffing requirement from the police department. It would leave the rest of the charter intact.
The proposal would still keep the requirement to have a police department, but would give the mayor and City Council wider latitude in determining its size, said Charter Commissioner Al Giraud-Isaacson, who introduced the new measure.
The court-appointed commission could decide unilaterally to send the measure to voters. The City Council and mayor would decide how the question appears on the ballot, but they cannot change the amendment itself.
Depending on what actions the Charter Commission and City Council take, both plans could end up on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Q: How can I offer my public comments?
A: The Charter Commission already held one, virtual public hearing. It has two more planned.
The second, to discuss council’s proposal, will start at 6 p.m. July 21. A third hearing, to discuss the commission’s proposal, will start at 5 p.m. July 27..
They can be viewed at Comcast Channel 14 or 799; CenturyLink Channel 8001 or 8501; or at www.minneapolismn.gov/government/city-council-tv/.
People who wish to submit public comment can visit www2.minneapolismn.gov or call 311 for help.
People who want to speak during the hearings can sign up online via the city’s website.
Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994