Last night, Mayor Jacob Frey was a guest on my mom’s second favorite MSNBC program. He suggested to a national cable audience of increasingly scared moms that our City Council is interested in “abolishing all law enforcement.” This echoes comments he made last Friday about a “wholesale elimination of a police response to violent crime.” It’s important to note that if you listen to members of the City Council, “abolishing all law enforcement” isn’t on anyone’s agenda.
You may have been forced recently into carefully explaining to your mom that the city you live in is attempting to: replace the broken Police Department with a new department of Community Safety; re-orient that new department’s funding towards a public health approach; and shrink the role of armed law enforcement. If this sounds like your situation, you can thank Mayor Jacob Frey.
Frey says he’s open to other strategies beyond policing, “but if we’re talking about just abolishing all law enforcement, no. Cities around the country, including Minneapolis need law enforcement. We need to abolish the behavior, we don’t need to be abolishing the police.” pic.twitter.com/fBsmmvUgpX— Wedge LIVE!™ (@WedgeLIVE) July 1, 2020
During this incredibly difficult time, the City Council has shown leadership. They have acted with remarkable unity. They haven’t been sensationalizing and misrepresenting each other. They’ve been giving each other the benefit of the doubt. It’s an amazing time in local politics. But the Mayor just went on national TV to knowingly misrepresent what’s happening. He saw an opportunity to feed a right wing caricature and he took it — because he thinks this false debate is more convenient than the one we’re trying to have. This is a failure of leadership.
As Council Member Jeremiah Ellison put it last week, “I think that the Mayor, if I’m being frank, has decided that it’s in his best interest to generate a lack of clarity.”
So what’s this really about? A few days ago I wrote about the structural debate that’s been simmering for a few years: who should have authority over police? Or, potentially who has authority over a new department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention?
When Mayor Frey talks about the problem of “14 bosses,” you might imagine a hostage situation on Lake Street where Chief Arradondo can’t act because nobody can get Council Member Alondra Cano on the phone. This sounds like a bad way to run things. But we know this isn’t how it works. Every other department, including the fire department, operates under council oversight. As Ward 11 Council Member Jeremy Schroeder said on a conference call with constituents yesterday, “oversight” doesn’t mean managing day to day operations by committee.
Schroeder: “Oversight” is not the same thing as running a department by committee on a daily basis. Every other department functions with council oversight, except police.— Wedge LIVE!™ (@WedgeLIVE) June 30, 2020
One overlooked benefit of giving the City Council more authority: it would create a more racially equitable system. The wards with a relatively high proportion of residents of color (4, 5, 6, 9) make up 31% of the City Council. But those same parts of the city make up only 21% of citywide votes that elect the mayor. This is not a criticism of any particular mayor, it’s just how it works. Whiter, wealthier parts of the city turn out to vote at higher rates — meaning they have a larger say in choosing the person who fills an office elected by citywide vote.
Even though ward boundaries are redrawn every ten years with an equal number of residents, the voter turnout disparity is wide. In 2017, Ward 13 saw 11,742 ballots cast; Ward 5 had 4,278. But there’s protection built in to a district-based system: even if turnout is low in Ward 5, residents (even non-voters) can be assured the council member who represents them has been chosen by their neighbors. Shifting authority to the City Council would be shifting power to the city’s BIPOC residents who are disproportionately impacted by the current system of public safety and policing.
Finally, here’s a campaign finance argument. Mayoral elections are increasingly expensive (Frey spent over $776,000 in 2017). The winner will tend to be reliant on a lot of money from downtown business interests. The business community is by far the biggest law and order constituency in Minneapolis.