sign, Community Control of the Police, Minneapolis
Protester holding sign promoting Community Control of the Police in Minneapolis on May 10, 2018. Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

If an ambitious amendment to Minneapolis’s city charter passes this year — the Public Safety Charter Amendment — one of two things will happen, depending on your take on the amendment. 

Supporters of the amendment say its passage will ensure that the city’s “police-only” approach to crime will end, replaced by a more comprehensive public safety plan that will decrease crime and incidents of police abuse. 

“It allows us to have a new era of public safety where police officers can also work alongside qualified professionals like mental health responders, like social workers, and like violence interrupters that makes the community safer,” said JaNae Bates, communications director with Yes 4 Minneapolis, a coalition of local political groups. (Bates added that the present city charter does not allow for this kind of structural change.)

Those opposed to the amendment say that it’s just unnecessary — redundant, even.

“Right now, the city of Minneapolis [already] has a mental health co-responder program … [and] group violence intervention programs that have been increasingly funded over the last several budgets,” said Leili Fatehi, campaign manager for All of Mpls, a group that opposes the initiative.

The charter amendment, placed on the ballot by Yes 4 Minneapolis, would make the following changes:

    • Replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety (DPS)
    • Have the mayor nominate, and the city council approve of, a person to serve as DPS commissioner (only the mayor’s office has oversight of the current police department)
    • Remove language from the Minneapolis City Charter on the police department, including minimum police funding requirements and the mayor’s control of the police department

This is not the first time such an approach has been tried. Other cities have redirected money from traditional law enforcement tactics to social services and social agency workers. Their perceived successes or failures may shape the future of Minneapolis policing.

ABOUT THIS VIDEO: Minneapolis City Council moves to have residents vote on replacing the police department

Alt-Policing Pioneers in Oregon

Way back in 1989, Eugene, OR, established the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets program (CAHOOTS). The program is staffed and operated by Eugene’s White Bird Clinic, and it dispatches two-person teams of crisis workers to respond to 911 and non-emergency calls involving people in emotional health crises. These calls were previously referred to the police.

The CAHOOTS units are equipped to deliver crisis intervention, counseling, mediation, and basic emergency first aid. If a situation becomes violent or life-threatening, police are dispatched.

The statistical history of the program makes a strong case for the program’s success. Of the estimated 24,000 calls CAHOOTS responded to in 2019, only 311 required police backup. The program currently handles about 20 percent of all 911 calls. Other cities, such as Denver, view the program as a role model.

Critics point out that Eugene is more than 80 percent white, making it difficult to determine if the program will work everywhere. Typically, cities with larger minority populations are more distrustful of police and public safety departments.

A Progressive Experiment in Texas

Liberal Austin, TX, located in the middle of a red state, has also made drastic changes. The city has gone from spending 40 percent of its $1.1 billion general fund on police to about 26 percent.

“Public health and public safety are at the heart of this. When we take policing away, we are actually filling that void with alternatives that we know are going to help,” said Chris Harris, the criminal justice director at Texas Appleseed, a local not-for-profit. 

In the 2020-2021 budget, police funds were redirected to emergency medical services, community medics, mental health first responders, services for homeless people, and victim support, as well as rerouting certain 911 calls to mental health professionals. 

But these changes have been met with backlash. The local Texas Municipal Police Association created a highway billboard that read, “Warning! Austin Police Defunded, Enter at Your Own Risk.”

https://twitter.com/ferozwala/status/1305268440085803009

In Minnesota, It’s Not the Typical Left vs. Right

Some criminal justice reformers sense, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, that the tide is turning their way. In 2020, there were $840 million in cuts in police budgets and at least $160 million in investments in community services.

But detractors cite examples of cities that have shelved planned cuts in traditional police funding due to rising crime rates. Recent moves by New York City, Baltimore, and Oakland, CA, to restore funding for traditional police services are seen as setbacks to reformers.

So far, the Minneapolis initiative’s opponents have shied away from using some of the more inflammatory rhetoric used by the right against similar measures. In fact, they have gone to great pains to stress their agreement with its overall goals. 

“We are not in favor of the status quo. We agree that policing in Minneapolis is fundamentally and deeply broken, that there needs to be major transformational changes made to the way policing and public safety happens in this city to make it more accountable … especially in its treatment of people of color,” said Fatehi of All of Mpls. 

The fact that All of Mpls is mostly made up of Democrats from the moderate wing of the party may account for this more centrist view. Their objection to the Minneapolis plan is, they say, that it doesn’t seem to be much of a plan.

“We do not support a charter amendment that all it does is seek to eliminate the police department, defund policing, eliminate the position of the police chief, and then it creates a department of public safety for which there is no articulated plan, there is no articulated structure, there is no articulated anything,” said Fatehi.

The Public Safety Charter Initiative’s supporters disagree.

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“There is this block in the city charter that has been there since 1961, that the Minneapolis [Police] Federation put in place that stops us from actually having any real structural reform or concrete change in how policing is done in the city,” said Bates.

Without the charter amendment change, policing would continue to consume 35 percent of the city budget, she maintained.

Leveraging Crime-Rate Politics

But as the election campaign heats up, the nuance around policy details may well give way to more red-meat rhetoric.

A leading expert on criminal justice reform, Tyler D. Parry, assistant professor of African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of Las Vegas, expects to see a deliberate disinformation campaign by opponents on what the initiative would actually do. He thinks a “more broad-based community outreach, particularly for people who either don’t understand entirely what defunding the police is actually reaching for … or for people who seem to just reject the idea entirely,” is necessary for the initiative to succeed.

Parry also sees the public’s fear of rising crime as another potential obstacle for supporters. However, backers see the crime rate as an argument in favor of their amendment.

“This [rising crime rates] is exactly why we need this right now. … [E]ven after George Floyd was killed, we poured more money into the police department. We have been given no solutions other than to pour more money into the police department… [but violence in our communities] is not actually directly connected to how many or little police we have,” said Bates.

Ripple Effects

Should Minneapolis voters pass the initiative in November, some anticipate it could signal a wider change.

Parry cites conservative Texas Gov. Greg Abbot’s (R) recently signed legislation that punished cities that reduced police budgets.

“It will have a ripple effect for those that support it as well as those that are against it,” he said. “[Supporters] have to be mindful of a significant blowback and probable misrepresentation by opponents of these measures.”

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