City Council moves charter amendment to eliminate current Police Department; voters could act on it in November

By: - June 26, 2020 12:42 pm

A law enforcement group recently warned Minnesota lawmakers that their response to future calls for help in Minneapolis may be less than robust due to Minneapolis officials’ actions. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

The Minneapolis City Council began the process Friday of allowing voters to scrap the city’s police department and create a new public safety agency.

The move comes after a month of protests following the police killing of George Floyd.

The council’s vote on an amendment to the city charter is the first step to getting it on the November ballot.

It’s a stunning blow to the influence of Mayor Jacob Frey, who seeks reform of the current Police Department rather than its dissolution and rebuilding. The proposed amendment to the city charter, which is like the city’s constitution, would strip the office of the mayor of one of his prime spheres of influence — authority over the Police Department. 

The council voted 12-0 to approve an ordinance sending the proposed charter amendment to the Minneapolis Charter Commission, to be considered on July 8. The amendment would remove from the charter the mayor’s “complete power” to establish, maintain and command the Minneapolis Police Department and a minimum staffing requirement of .0017 police employees per resident. It would replace it with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, which would prioritize a “holistic, public health-oriented approach” to public safety.

The mayor would nominate and the City Council would appoint a director with non-law enforcement experience in community safety. That agency would have a division of licensed peace officers, similar to conventional police officers patrolling today.  

The council suspended its rules to condense the process — with just one public hearing by the Charter Commission — in order to make an Aug. 21 deadline to submit the ballot question to the secretary of state.

Council Member Lisa Goodman said the council’s action says “this is an item that belongs in the charter” and something voters should take up.

Frey said at a press conference that as written, the charter amendment is vague, pre-empts the community engagement process the council promised and would put the police department under the direction of 14 people. Frey isn’t sure if it would demote or eliminate Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, the city’s first Black police chief whom he fully supports, he said.

He said the proposed amendment is very similar to one proposed two years ago — six months into his term— after two police officers shot a Black man in north Minneapolis. Ultimately, the Charter Commission rebuked the council for rushing the process to get the issue on the ballot, and the council did nothing, Frey said.

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which represents more than 10,000 law enforcement officers, said in a written statement that it fears the “haphazard effort” could “create an unsafe environment not only for residents, but also visitors, businesses and employees that work and visit the city.”

The “proposal, in the midst of a drastic increase of violent gun crimes, is an unserious and disingenuous attempt to satisfy small political factions without providing real resources to address and prevent crime from happening in the city,” the statement says.

Council Member Andrea Jenkins said while she supports allowing residents to weigh in on the charter change, racism is the underlying problem in the Police Department and other institutions, and until that’s addressed, “nothing is gonna change.”

Council Member Steve Fletcher said no matter what kind of change the people of Minneapolis want for the Police Department, the city needs to change its charter to get it done.

“If we want to do a Camden-style restart, as many have said, we need a charter change,” he said, referring to the city of Camden, N.J. “If we want to abolish the police, as some are calling for, we need a charter change. If we want to create a more balanced department that relies less on police but maintains a police force, we need a charter change. And if we want the council to create increased public accountability and policy oversight in public safety, we need a charter change.”

No single action will undo longstanding oppression, said Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, but this lays the groundwork to make the kind of systemic change people are asking for.

Council Member Alondra Cano said it’s one of many steps the council will take to create “a new system of community safety that our community, neighbors and our blocks are each cultivating from the ground up.”

Council President Lisa Bender said sustained change takes deep community investment, and thousands of conversations with constituents.

“I hope that the Charter Commission will recognize the moment that we are in and take our offer of support, however we can provide it, to expedite this process so that voters have a chance to have their voices heard on this important question at this important moment in our city’s history,” she said.

After the Charter Commission considers the proposal on July 8, the City Council’s Policy and Government Oversight Committee will consider it again on July 9. If approved by voters, the changes would become effective May 1, 2021.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.