Minneapolis residents tell Charter Commission to get out of the way as they seek to dismantle Police Department

Minneapolis City Hall. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

More than 200 people signed up to talk to the Minneapolis Charter Commission Wednesday, and nearly all of them supported a proposal that would allow residents to vote on dismantling the Police Department and putting something else in its place. 

Jason Chavez told the commission the Police Department has proven violence is a first resort, recalling how at age 17 while walking to relatives, police showed up, drew their guns, patted him down, put him in a car and shut the door on his leg.

“How do you call your immigrant parents for help when you will be putting them in danger? How do you feel safe as a 17-year-old boy that has been attacked by police? You can only think of the worst,” he said. 

After the police killing of George Floyd, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted June 26 to send a proposed charter amendment to the commission for approval for a citywide vote, saying it would give them more power and flexibility to create an improved public safety agency.

The city charter is like a constitution; the Charter Commission will review the amendment and decide if it can go on the November ballot. 

The charter amendment would delete references to the Minneapolis Police Department in the city charter and replace it with a new public safety department with a “holistic, public health-oriented approach.”

So many people registered to speak at two planned public hearings that the commission limited each speaker to one minute, and set aside two hours total Wednesday. They got through more than 100 of those on the list, and the rest will be bumped to the next public hearing on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

The vast majority supported the charter amendment, and many warned the unelected, judge-appointed, predominantly white commission not to overstep its authority and delay deliberation, which would prevent the proposal from getting on the November ballot. The ballot question must get to the secretary of state by Aug. 21 to get on the ballot this year.

In 2018, the commission exercised its authority to take an extra 90 days to hold public hearings on an amendment that would have given the City Council more authority over the Police Department, preventing the proposal from making the ballot that year. 

Many testifiers feared the commission might do that again.

Ebony Chambers of the Barbershops and Black Congregation Cooperative of the progressive faith group ISAIAH said commission members have said they don’t want to rush the process. “But it is convenient for you to say when people are being killed that don’t look like you,” she said. 

“We as residents of Minneapolis and members of the disenfranchised community are tired of white disconnected people making decisions for us,” Chambers said. 

Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo spoke out against the charter amendment during a work group meeting Tuesday with the commission, saying major, systemic reforms can be made without it.

Rory Wakemup, a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, works in the community and worries the amendment won’t be enough to stop more unrest. “This is more of a warning: I don’t even know if the amendment will be enough, soon enough, because the city is a powder keg,” he said. “I think another riot or large uprising in a violent way is imminent. I would really prefer nonviolent stuff but I think folks in our community are already fed up.”

Several residents of north Minneapolis, which has seen a rash of shootings since the Floyd unrest, spoke against the charter change, with some saying the City Council did not consult the Black community.

Civil rights attorney and north Minneapolis resident Nekima Levy Armstrong opposed the amendment, saying the council didn’t do its job and was “lazy and incompetent” about pushing for police reform.

“They’re bypassing any possible reforms and going straight toward dismantling the police without really having any input from the Black community and particularly the people who are most impacted by the shootings and things that have happened in our community,” she said. “What they are doing is more oppression on top of oppression without actually hearing from the people who are most impacted by police violence and community violence.”

Cynthia Gomez, who lives in the Powderhorn Neighborhood and teaches in north Minneapolis, said she’s seen police contempt for the community taken out on her students.

“They showed the whole world, from the murder of George Floyd to the subsequent police riot over many days. They can’t help themselves even when the cameras are rolling. What are we supposed to do with a toxic force, rotten with racists and white nationalist elements, even if there are some good cops?”