Vote Yes for the Minneapolis Public Safety Charter Amendment

After a year of debate, countless (very painful) Charter Commission meetings, and a successful community-led petition drive — a public safety charter amendment is going to be on the ballot this November. You should vote yes, and here’s why.

Our city’s existing system of public safety has failed and it continues to put us all at risk.

This is all happening during a time when MPD has dismantled itself. A large number of officers have quit in the 14 months since four of their colleagues murdered George Floyd. The disintegration of MPD wasn’t a planned policy outcome or sudden misstep. It didn’t happen because some group of council members stood on a stage last summer with the wrong slogan draped across the front. You don’t even have to blame individual officers, whose jobs have certainly become more difficult amidst staffing shortages and loss of legitimacy. What we are experiencing is the ongoing implosion of our city’s existing system of public safety, built over generations. It’s not working.

Elected officials, not lawyers and judges, should decide how public safety is funded and staffed in Minneapolis.

In 1961, the Minneapolis police union successfully campaigned to have an unusual provision inserted into the city charter, mandating a minimum number of staff for MPD. This has become particularly relevant recently: a district court judge is using it to force the city to hire officers faster than it’s capacity to properly train them. City Attorney Jim Rowader, a political ally of Mayor Frey, said in a statement that “the timetable imposed by the court infringes on the City’s discretion and autonomy, and thereby impacting its ability to hire only well-qualified candidates…” This stepped up timeline is an alarming prospect for a city that’s currently under investigation by both the state and federal governments for having a brutal, corrupt, and racially discriminatory police department.

Even Mayor Frey, while opposing the larger changes contained in the charter amendment, agrees that minimum staffing for MPD shouldn’t be in the city charter. As he said last September:

There is remarkable consensus on this: The minimum staffing rule compromises good government and effective public safety. It’s a 60s-era police union relic that empowers lawyers and judges to make decisions, rather than those elected to represent residents of Minneapolis.

We shouldn’t structure government around the personal qualities and momentary popularity of a single, appointed department leader.

Steve Cramer, downtown business leader, wrote in the Star Tribune this week about his reasons for opposing the charter amendment. Among several fear-based arguments is his fear of losing Chief Arradondo: “Medaria Arradondo is a Minneapolis kid who puts his heart and soul into keeping our city safe for everyone.” Arradondo is the singularly honest and heroic figure who can save us.

And oh, by the way he’s been police chief since 2017. In 2019, he gave a presentation to the City Council about instilling a culture in MPD that places a value on the “sanctity of life and de-escalation.” It’s been said many times by Mayor Frey that Arradondo interviews each recruit personally. Two of those recruits are awaiting trial for George Floyd’s murder. This is bigger than this chief, or this mayor, and it’s not fair to Arradondo to portray him as a magical figure.

But based on how many Minneapolis candidates are using some variation of the rallying cry “support our chief,” maybe Cramer has hit on a persuasive argument. Public sentiment towards MPD ranges from “disapprove” to “despise” to “fuck the police.” By contrast, Chief Arradondo is widely admired and gets glowing coverage across local media. Still, it seems incredibly unwise to make long-term decisions about the future of public safety in Minneapolis based on the personal qualities of one individual. What happens when Arradondo leaves — as he tried to do earlier this year by seeking the police chief job in San Jose? Appointed department heads don’t always last.

Arradondo became chief in 2017, after his predecessor was forced to resign following a high-profile police killing. The current chief has avoided a similar fate, despite presiding over a series of police-caused catastrophes: the murder of George Floyd, the ongoing disintegration of his department, and other public safety failures. This total focus on Arradondo also ignores the fact that under the current charter, he answers to the mayor. It’s Mayor Frey who has ultimate responsibility and “complete power” over MPD.

Disregard the fearmongering — focus on what this amendment actually does.

But maybe you’ll be pleased to learn that the charter amendment doesn’t actually fire the chief. It does remove “police chief” as a job title required by the charter. It doesn’t say that the job can’t continue to exist — and be occupied by Arradondo. Not all leadership roles are enshrined in the city charter. If you believe, as I do, that Minneapolis will continue to have armed law enforcement into the foreseeable future, then there will be someone in charge of that. Getting emotionally attached to the idea that the person in charge must be Medaria Arradondo is a recipe for heartbreak, no matter what the charter says.

Removing requirements and minimums from the charter isn’t the same thing as abolition. It’s conceivable that the charter amendment will pass and, to the consternation of many, nothing much changes. MPD doesn’t disappear at midnight on election day. The department would continue to exist indefinitely, as currently structured. The pace of change will be a matter of who we elect to implement changes (do big important policy changes come in any other speed than disappointingly slow?). The timeline for fleshing out the new Department of Public Safety, and how to integrate law enforcement into that department, will be up to elected leaders. A majority vote for this charter amendment is a first step. It opens the door for change, but doesn’t guarantee it. (Here’s one idea of what it could actually look like.)

My assumptions about the future existence of police in Minneapolis are based on the fact that the current City Council has agreed to hiring officers and funding police overtime at the levels Mayor Frey requested. Steve Cramer has referred to police funding as “solid” for 2021. The rug has not been pulled out from under the chief. I worry that even avid local news consumers would have no idea that these things are true.

“A seamless continuum of safety strategies”

In arguing against the charter amendment, Cramer says there’s “no need.” He says we already have alternatives to police. Then he writes something that I could easily repurpose as an argument in favor: “These newer initiatives [violence prevention and mental health focused interventions], in my view, have not been adequately integrated with law enforcement to create a seamless continuum of safety strategies.”

Here’s the section of the amendment describing a potential new Department of Public Safety to replace MPD (bolding mine):

(a) Department of Public Safety.
(1) Function: The Department of Public Safety is responsible for integrating its public safety functions into a comprehensive public health approach to safety, including licensed peace officers if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department. 
(2) Commissioner of Public Safety Department. (a) The Mayor nominates and the City Council appoints a commissioner of the department of public safety under section 8.4.

So we know the amendment doesn’t eliminate police. It elevates the idea of a “comprehensive public health approach to public safety,” aspiring to some degree of budget parity with armed law enforcement. It creates space for a leader with a broader view than a career law enforcement official would have. It would, in Cramer’s words, “create a seamless continuum of safety strategies.” 

Again, you can say this is all just words and you don’t trust the follow through. But if that’s the case, go out there and elect a different group of leaders. This is an election year!

Removing the mayor’s “complete power” over police

The charter amendment removes language giving the mayor “complete power over the establishment, maintenance, and command of the police department.” Currently, the City Council doesn’t have any authority over MPD policies.

Mayor Frey and others have argued that giving additional authority to the Council would make for “14 bosses,” creating confusion in a crisis. I think this is overblown. I don’t sense that council members are eager to micromanage the response to a crisis or a shooting. The City Council has policy authority over the fire department, public works, and all the other departments. Fires still get put out. Clean water still flows through my faucet. Meanwhile, MPD has long had a direct line of authority to the mayor, yet still managed to become an international symbol for police murder. For generations of Minneapolis mayors, the single-boss theory hasn’t worked.

(And hey, if you like the single-boss idea, but aren’t sure you’re enjoying the way it’s been executed over the last 3.5 years, feel free to swap mayors — it’s an election year!)

You might dismiss this as a simple struggle for power. But I see value in having 13 representatives, from each part of the city, collectively directing the future of a new Department of Public Safety. We have a system currently where the mayor is entirely in charge, subject only to budget approval of the council. Right now, decisions are made by the mayor, in private, without debate or formal public input. But we could do it differently. There’s transparency that comes with public hearings and a vigorous debate. There’s responsiveness, creativity and equity that comes from having 13 avenues to getting community priorities on the agenda at City Hall.

Vote yes for the public safety charter amendment.

I ask that you keep a clear head about how we got to this moment and what is actually on the ballot. This is not a referendum on the chief. It’s about investing power in the hands of those we elect to represent us — not with judges or an arbitrary rule bestowed upon us by the police union. This is a first step towards realizing a more just, more resilient, more comprehensive, more transparent system of public safety. Vote yes for the public safety charter amendment.