What happens when we dismantle the Police Department? Here’s a plan.

End racial profiling, stop using cops to solve problems they aren’t trained for

This can't be the only way. Photo courtesy of ACLU of Minnesota.

Long before the death of George Floyd, every one of us has carried our own internal risk/benefit calculus about what level of danger would lead us to call police. What has been most significant about the traumatic video of George Floyd’s killing is how much it may have changed that calculus — and broadly across races.

Witness to an unpleasant argument outside a store? Perhaps they are safer having the chance to work it out on their own. See a person who may be experiencing a drug-induced or bipolar hallucination? Better to just keep a distance, as a 911 call may more likely create a deeper problem than solve the one at hand.

In the weeks since the City Council committed to abolishing or defunding the Police Department, a common glib response has been: What happens when I call 911? 

But those who present the fear that a future 911 call in Minneapolis will be a bridge to nowhere ignore that such a call is already a nonstarter for many. 

And when perspectives of policing have broadly reached the point when many simply don’t want to use the free service, then alternatives must be sought for public safety problem-solving.

The Minneapolis City Council is advancing a referendum on dismantling the current Police Department and creating something new. Unfortunately, its lack of detail invites not just some wild misinterpretation by opponents, but also earned criticism from presumed allies that they may only be placating a racial justice movement while also lacking seriousness of intent to truly produce change at all. 

So how do we get to where a call to 911 not only remains available in form, but is availed equitably in function? 

An equally critical question is how can we end profiling and begin to reverse the deep breakdown in trust it has advanced?

A common scenario: Police follow a driver they have some suspicion about. From the racially-biased police perspective, this could either be in a low-income area (teeming with suspicion) or a more privileged area (person might not belong here). A failure to signal a turn leads to a legal basis to activate the lights. The stop leads either to the whiff of a marijuana odor, or the fabrication of such. (Police know lies about odor cannot be disproven by bodycam.) Now there are grounds to search the car. The goal: drugs, a gun, something far more significant than a driving error.

Welcome to jackpot policing. Stop 30 cars and maybe you hit your payout with one. If police don’t place wagers like this in your neighborhood, then you are not being targeted, and your demographic (and neighborhood itself) will not show up as frequently in crime statistics. But please consider the impact on the 29 other drivers who have endured this for more than a generation, and whose neighborhoods are never asked if they prefer this form of policing.

In order to bring trust to calling 911 as well as to overcome the long-term damage from jackpot policing, it will be necessary not only to bring a new vision for what police or non-police can respond to, but create a new structure for the police subcomponent. 

A Model Plan 

A commissioner of Public Safety, selected by the mayor, will supervise two divisions:  Police Services; and Community Response and Prevention

The former, led by a chief of police, will supervise three units that will need to operate with significant separation from each other: Emergency Response; Vehicle and Pedestrian Safety; and Investigations.

Emergency Response will handle immediate threats to physical safety, such as crimes reported to be in progress. They will handle situations in which danger is not just possible but clearly a risk, and will be available to all the other units for this purpose as backup. Given the limited role, they will not patrol in search of danger, but be dispatched — in the same way that ambulances don’t roam the streets on the chance they might encounter someone needing a hospital.  

The Vehicle and Pedestrian Services unit will be the patrol: inside of cars, or on the streets on bikes, horses, or feet (e.g. downtown after events). They will provide the visible association of safety that many seek from police presence, as well as respond to accidents and make stops for traffic infractions, including drunk driving.

But no jackpot policing! For this unit, the goal will very clearly be about safety in the present moment — nothing more. They will not be allowed to search cars upon the discovery of a traffic violation. To further prevent profiling and the long-term damage of distrust, this unit will patrol in equal measure in all residential areas of the city. 

Some will complain that this limitation will end what is euphemistically referred to as proactive policing. Yes, it’s time to overhaul this failed approach, which carries severe inequities that have been statistically well documented. Who gets stopped, who gets searched, who gets targeted for stings — all leading to who is more likely to end up in prison or carry records that make housing and employment more difficult.

Proactive policing emphasizes the finding of crime, rather than its prevention or resolution, and follows from the feedback loop that jackpot policing over many years has perpetuated. In essence, those victimized by the profiling and saturation of humiliating stops grow to see police not as a tax-supported city service for all, but as hostile outsiders. This increasingly cuts off pathways for police to receive information and tips that otherwise would help prevent and solve crime, which creates impetus to initiate even more stops in search of elusive jackpots. 

(Another danger, of course, is that the anger of the person stopped can also build each successive time, which if it spills before the wrong cop personality can lead to escalation and tragic consequence.)

To break this self-reinforcing cycle and encourage alternative and better means to solve and prevent crimes, much greater priority needs to be given to a rebuilt Investigations unit. The investigators need not wear police uniforms or even all be licensed police. (At a point of an arrest, they can bring in the Emergency Response unit.) 

This Investigations unit will help rebuild confidence in public safety by emphasizing supportive victim response and the restorative value of addressing crime and its impacts. While it may take some time before providing assistance to police loses all of its negative currency, great progress can be made by a responsive Investigations unit that is not tied to negative perceptions other police may engender.

As for preventing and solving crimes, this unit should be guided by partnership with a prosecuting attorney — as happens federally — not only to best ensure improved ethics and abidance of constitutional standards, but to prioritize investigations which dismantle crime at its higher sources. 

The civilian who leads Community Response and Prevention would also supervise three units: Community First Responder; Community Problem-Solving; and Prevention Services and Strategies.

Community First Responders would handle all of the current asks of police that should not presume a crime or the need for force, even as they often will relate to livability or fear: noise complaints, a person who might be having a mental health episode, a hostile argument in public. Unlike police — for whom de-escalation is contrary to other training received — their primary capabilities will be sensitivity (including cultural) and positive persuasion. If the intervention is not successful or if safety is uncertain, the Community First Responder could then call in the police Emergency Response, but the latter will only take over at the command of the former. (Similarly, the 911 dispatcher may initially send both forms of response if the degree of danger is not clear, with the Community First Responder presumptively leading.)

Community Problem-Solving would receive reports from the First Responders and deliver solutions intended to go beyond an emergency intervention. Yes, social workers. Though it would also have, or contract with, a range of other specialists such as addiction counselors, mediators, restorative practitioners, etc., who with cultural competency would seek community support avenues to stop the cycle of crisis and response — something that criminal justice has notoriously failed at for years.

The Prevention Services and Strategies would allow for non-harmful proactive approaches — some of which are underway through Minneapolis’ Violence Prevention office or are being tried in other cities — such as assisting safe exits from gangs. Most importantly, this is the office that can experiment with, and develop, a new generation of strategies that have not yet emerged.

While the City Council prefers to frame alternatives to police as a community health vision, they should be careful not to avoid the term public safety. It’s not just police who can provide public safety.

Would Minneapolis police accept this restructure?

Probably not, especially as one can predict that most change is instinctively resisted. Certainly the union will oppose any idea that threatens overall membership numbers.

But this proposed restructure innovatively addresses the complaint police often voice themselves: that they are asked to intervene to solve all sorts of problems that they should otherwise have no business with, and for which they carry the wrong tools to address. Here at last, government would not be dumping problems on police but providing alternatives.

Member of the city Charter Commission — or other skeptics of the incomplete City Council proposal, who in good faith may worry about the relative capabilities of who responds to a 911 call — must not lose sight of how many are unwilling to make that call in the first place, and what public safety issues remain unresolved as a result. Only a significant overhaul — and one that closes the casino for good — can rebuild public safety in Minneapolis.