If you’ve been tuned into the Minneapolis public safety scene, you know that for years, Reclaim the Block and other grassroots community groups have been asking the city to do one thing: stop investing in policing.
Budget meeting after budget meeting, they’d turn out with their petitions and signs, demanding the city put less money into its police department and more money into programs that stop crimes from happening in the first place – affordable housing, addiction counseling, violence prevention programs.
The council's been listening.
“I think we’ve had a vision for a while of wanting to see another kind of city response to those  calls,” says Council Member Steve Fletcher, whose Ward 3 covers parts of downtown.
Calls about mental health crises could be answered by mental health professionals. Calls about opioid abuse could be answered by addiction experts. Instead, both get cops, usually armed.
But it’s one thing to think that’s a good idea and another to get it done. The city has “struggled” to put any of these reforms in place in a substantial way, Fletcher says.
Then George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.
Now the council members are listening to a city that is wounded, angry, fed up with decades of violence disproportionately visited upon black and brown residents. Various private and public bodies – from First Avenue to Minneapolis Public Schools – have essentially cut ties with the police department. Council members are trying to figure out what their next move is.
Their discussion is starting to sound a little more like what groups like Reclaim the Block and the Black Visions Collective have been saying for years. On Tuesday, Fletcher published a lengthy Twitter thread saying the police department was “irredeemably beyond reform,” and a “protection racket” that slows down responses as political payback.
“Several of us on the council are working on finding out what it would take to disband the Minneapolis Police Department and start fresh with a community-oriented, nonviolent public safety and outreach capacity,” he wrote.
You can peruse that thread in its entirety here.
Bob Kroll’s letter yesterday to the Minneapolis Police Federation membership showed us what rank-and-file officers voted for in their leadership, and it is yet another sign that the department is irredeemably beyond reform.— Steve Fletcher - Minneapolis Ward 3 (@MplsWard3) June 2, 2020
Council Member Phillipe Cunningham retweeted the thread saying police slowdowns after cut budgets had been his “exact experience as a council member.” Council Member Alondra Cano was also among those who chimed in, with a similar, but more concise note.
The Mpls Police Department is not reformable.— Alondra Cano (@AloCanoMN) June 3, 2020
Change is coming.#Justice4George
Fletcher says the entire council “to some degree” has been discussing disbanding the police department as an option. He doesn’t yet know what that will look like. He suspects it’s a transition that will take time, and the involvement – and possibly voting capacity – of residents.
But now more than ever, this feels within reach. Earlier this week, the council members unanimously signed on in support of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights’ incoming investigation into the police department.
In a joint statement, the council wrote:
"We urge the state to use its full weight to hold the Minneapolis Police Department accountable for any and all abuses of power and harms to our community and stand ready to aid in this process as full partners. The City Council’s oversight of the Minneapolis Police Department has been historically constrained by the City Charter and state law and we welcome new tools to pursue transformational, structural changes to how the City provides for public safety."
The power of state law, Fletcher says, might allow them to do things once thought “politically impossible” on the city level.
Even, say, recently. In 2018, the council voted to divert all of $1.1 million away from the police and toward "community-driven public safety programs." Last year, Mayor Jacob Frey's initial budget proposal called for hiring 14 additional police officers. After loud criticism from activists, Frey and the council compromised on a plan to hire 38 police cadets, with other funding going toward violence prevention.
Fletcher's looking forward to “conversations” with the community on how a new public safety approach would work – including some deeply uncomfortable conversations about use of force, and whether it still has a place in the city’s approach to law enforcement. But what he’s seen the community do already to take care of itself – forming fire watches, putting up unhoused folks in hotels, looking out for one another in a time of unrest – gives him hope for the future.
After all, this is an idea that came from residents – led by black and brown people – in the first place.
“This is our responsibility for not getting this done faster,” he says.