A Brief History of Police Politics in the Minneapolis City Charter (1959-1961)

On July 8, 2020, the Minneapolis Charter Commission will hear from city council members and the mayor about a proposed change to the city charter related to the police department. Broadly speaking, this charter amendment would create a new department (Community Safety and Violence Prevention) to replace the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and give the city council oversight of this new department. The mayor currently has complete authority over MPD.

On July 15, 2020, the Charter Commission will hold a public hearing on the amendment. After that, likely at a later meeting, they will take one of four actions: yes, no, provide a substitute amendment, or delay action. The Charter Commission is essentially offering a recommendation, which the city council can accept or reject. But if the commission delays their action past August 5 (which they have the authority to do), it becomes impossible for this amendment to be put to voters in November.

One question keeps popping up: why does this even need to go to the voters? The Minneapolis City Council has publicly resolved to take action and has a veto-proof majority, so what’s the issue? One key obstacle to meaningful change involves language in the city charter that requires a police department be staffed at a minimum level:

“The City Council must fund a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident, and provide for those employees’ compensation, for which purpose it may tax the taxable property in the City up to 0.3 percent of its value annually.”

This language was adopted after a charter amendment was approved by voters in 1961. It’s surprising that this type of language is in a city’s charter at all. A city charter is not usually the place for deciding how large city departments will be, let alone where their funding will come from. We have a budget process that determines this for other departments — every year the mayor proposes a city budget, and the city council amends and approves it — so why are police staffing levels specified in the charter?

An Incomplete History Of Charter Amendments (1959-1961)

To understand how the requirement for police officers per resident (and dedicated funding for those officers) passed in 1961, we need the context of what happened in the years before.

In 1959, the City of Minneapolis underwent a year-long charter review process via the Joint Committee on Charter Review (JCCR). JCCR held a number of hearings, but the topic of a city charter was as boring then as it is today:

“One of these [members of the public], who did most of the talking, was from Orono.” (Star Tribune, 1959)

At the end of the year, several charter reform advocates that were members of JCCR formed the Charter Improvement Volunteer Information Committee (CIVIC).

CIVIC advocated for a number of sweeping reforms to the city charter. The most prominent proposed change would replace the city’s weak-mayor system with a strong-mayor system. This would have granted legislative powers to the council and administrative powers to the mayor’s office.

According to the Star Tribune, one additional proposed charter reform would “end piecemeal dedication of separate tax levies.” Some departments had their own dedicated revenue stream, rather than being funded from the city’s general fund. This made the union representing cops feel like their funding source was at risk:

Police Federation opposed CIVIC’s proposed changes, such as elimination of two-mill levy dedicated to police and fire. “Two-mill” means $2 for every $1,000 in assessed property value.

The Minneapolis Police Federation felt so threatened by the proposed charter reforms they used police facilities to organize opposition, with a plan to distribute “Vote No” signs to the public at precinct stations. On May 30, 1960, just one week before the vote, the front page of the Strib featured this headline: Mayor to Ask How Foes of Charter Got Police Help.

This charter proposal was well-publicized in the paper in the months leading up to the vote. On June 7, 1960, the proposed charter changes were rejected by voters 54,730 to 43,819. Wards 7, 10, 11, and 13 cast more votes in support of the changes. The mayor brushed off the actions of the police federation and everyone moved on.

While the police federation and city council members were happy with this outcome, these charter reforms nearly removed revenue sources dedicated to the police and other departments. Without these dedicated sources codified in the city charter, department funding would have been subject to actions by the mayor and city council during the annual budget process.

The year after the strong-mayor amendment was defeated, Council President George Martens introduced an amendment that was more to the union’s liking. “Amendment 17” would ensure the city had 1.7 officers per 1,000 residents, and that the police department was entitled to $3 annually for every $1,000 of taxable property within the city.

This would not only add 150 dues-paying officers to the city (the city was authorized for 672 officers at the time (May 22 1961 Strib)), but also secure police funding by placing it into the charter itself. Significant reductions in funding would need to be brought to voters in the form of a charter change, which is exactly what we’re facing in 2020.

Once again, the Police Federation openly campaigned on this charter amendment, this time in support:

“Vote Yes” signs stacked in police headquarters.

Inspector of Police E.I. (Pat) Walling’s written instructions, read to all officers at roll call, were to display “Vote Yes” signs on their lawns and communicate with the public about the “critical shortage of police personnel” (officers campaigning on the job is something that some members of today’s City Council will tell you is still the norm). Walling’s memo was endorsed by the mayor and the chief. The mayor’s DFL opponent, Arthur Naftalin, who defeated Peterson that year, publicly supported the amendment.

The amendment passed by a 2:1 margin, with a vote of 61,936 to 32,455.