Some Minneapolis City Council Members Double Down on Call to Replace a Failing System (That is Very Much Still in Effect as I Write This Headline)

This year has been a lot to handle. It’s the fourth year of a bumbling fascist as US President; a pandemic has killed 124,000 Americans and counting; there’s deepening economic misery for millions. And our city is at the epicenter of a global protest movement, kicked off by a Minneapolis cop casually pressing the life out of a man, while three other officers looked on and did nothing for nearly eight minutes.

You’ve got your pick of social, economic, and historical forces to explain how we got to this specific moment, with things spinning out of control. Choose one. Choose a little of each. In the midst of cascading disasters, it’s easy to lose track of it all. But we shouldn’t forget George Floyd, a black man who should still be alive. And we shouldn’t forget that the men responsible for taking his life were employees of the City of Minneapolis, acting ostensibly on our behalf.

A majority of the City Council has publicly acknowledged that the system that took George Floyd’s life — the Minneapolis Police Department — is irretrievably broken and should be defunded. They voted unanimously to spend the next 12 months in community dialogue to figure out what should replace our current system of public safety. It’s a move that’s brought both recognition and ridicule.

The Council is also currently working on language for a charter amendment, to be put to voters as a ballot measure. This measure would replace MPD with a department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. Draft language indicates the new department would have a “holistic, public health” orientation; be led by a director with public health or restorative justice experience (not a police chief); have a division staffed with “licensed Minnesota Peace Officers” (aka police); and presumably would be free of Bob Kroll and the Minneapolis Police Federation.

This is going to be hard. It’s already brought us scary headlines like, “Some Mpls. City Council Members Double Down on Call to Disband Police Despite Surge in Violence.”

The last month has also inflicted hurt feelings on the Minneapolis Police Federation, the union representing cops. One of their board members, Officer Rich Walker Sr., noted bitterly to WCCO, “Over half of this council ran on police reform. They’ve openly spoke against our police department.”

Aside from the fact that cops are feeling disrespected, I can’t draw a straight line (or even a zig-zag) between any action taken by the City Council and a recent surge in violence. If you’ve felt unsafe lately, it’s not because the police have been sent away. Cops are still on the job. MPD is still fully funded — at a higher level than it was in 2019.

There’s something else to keep in mind as you decide how to apportion responsibility to various city leaders. While the City Council is proposing to take more responsibility for public safety, they currently have very little. The Council does approve the police budget, but they are not in the chain of command. The police department answers to the chief; and the chief answers exclusively to the mayor. Currently MPD is the only city department structured this way.

These details are important. Local TV crime stories, with all the nuance that two minutes allow, might leave the impression that the City Council has pulled out the rug — and surrendered the city to chaos. A couple of those stories have featured activist and former Minneapolis cop Lisa Clemons calling for Council President Lisa Bender’s resignation.

Clemons has been a fixture at public hearings over the years, asking for more cops and defending MPD from criticism. Last July she told the Council’s Public Safety Committee, “It’s tiring to have to keep coming down here to watch you rake cops over the coals publicly and diminish the power of your police chief.” I’ve heard this argument frequently from some residents and elected officials: the council should fund more cops based on a faith in the power of Chief Arradondo’s good character. Few would dispute his character, but the Chief’s personal qualities now seem inadequate to the moment.

Last summer, Arradondo called for adding 400 patrol officers over the next five years, bringing the city’s total to 1,000. More resources, more cops, and a department taking on more responsibility. If you’re someone who believes MPD is broken, this 66% increase would have left the city with a problem 66% harder to unravel.

In January, MPD Deputy Chief Art Knight caused a stir* by admitting, “We have 3-6% of cops who shouldn’t be cops. I’ll be the first one to say that.” Less than five months later, George Floyd was killed, and we learned that Derek Chauvin and his three colleagues were among that 3-6%. When you think about it, it sort of defies the odds that they all happened to be working together that day.

But let’s use Knight’s estimate of the number of bad cops in the system (decide for yourself whether you think it’s too high or too low). Take 6% of 400. Imagine adding 24 more “cops who shouldn’t be cops” to Minneapolis streets. Imagine choosing to double down on the current system.

Some people, unfamiliar with the terms of this debate, want to know what’s supposed to happen when they need help. What happens when I call 911? No one is proposing we defund the concept of emergency response. The question is what sort of help a 911 call should produce. A lot of ridicule has been directed at the idea there’s a “privilege” that comes with making that call for help — as if anyone is suggesting that white people don’t deserve to feel safe. Privilege isn’t a slur, it’s a system that makes me feel safe while putting others in fear. Privilege is deciding it’s too hard to figure out a better way because the current system works just fine for me.

I know that at times this year, it’s felt like living in a war zone. Several weeks ago, as I was walking through a relatively unscathed part of the city, four Minneapolis cops pulled to the curb. They exited their squad car, carrying assault rifles, and moved quickly in my direction. And I felt safe. It never crossed my mind that I’d be perceived as a threat or that 911 had been called on me by mistake. My instinctive reaction was: “Jeez, I seem to have walked into a bad situation… good thing these guys showed up.” I didn’t have to worry if one of them was among the Deputy Chief’s “cops who shouldn’t be cops.” It’s good for me that I can feel safe in a moment like that. I want a system that produces the same feeling of safety for all of our neighbors.

*MPD spokesman John Elder later disputed the meaning of Deputy Chief Knight’s comments, despite the fact it was all said very clearly into a microphone, on video, in front of a City Council committee.