Minneapolis Charter Commission scuttles plan that would have allowed city to reduce Police Department

Will next take up City Council idea to eliminate Police Department, replace with something else

By: - July 29, 2020 9:25 pm

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

The Minneapolis Charter Commission considered, and then scuttled, a plan Wednesday that would have erased minimum police staffing requirements specified in the charter, which is like the city’s constitution. 

The commission mulled the change as a response to the City Council, which has its own plan to dismantle the Police Department and create a public safety alternative for residents to vote on in November. 

A motion to put the commission’s alternative on the ballot failed by a vote of 6-8 (one commissioner was absent.) 

Next week, the Charter Commission — a group of 15 unelected Minneapolis residents appointed by a judge as caretakers of the city charter — takes up the City Council’s proposal, which would remove the Minneapolis Police Department from the charter as part of a year-long process of remaking public safety in the city.  

The City Council and several members of the commission are engaged in a mostly polite but high-stakes struggle over the future of the city. 

The City Council unanimously voted for its own charter amendment, and wants it on the ballot this November. 

But the Charter Commission could prevent that from happening by stalling, using its authority to take another 90 days to decide whether the measure goes before the voters — as it did in 2018 with a similar proposal. Doing so would make the City Council charter amendment ineligible for the November ballot.

If the commission opts not to delay, they can recommend approval, rejection or an alternative to the council plan, but the council does not have to abide by the recommendation.

Most of the commissioners don’t appear to like the council’s charter amendment much, either, but it’s not clear whether they’ll delay and keep it off the ballot this year. 

Commissioner Dan Cohen said if either of the proposed amendments were to pass, the city would sustain a “giant, self-inflicted wound.” 

Crime would soar, property values sink, black and white residents would flee the city, businesses close, jobs disappear, he said.  

The city, he said, would have “rows upon rows of vacant houses.”  

“All to punish the many decent cops for the horrific actions of the few in taking the life of George Floyd while the massive thrust of this whole punishment would fall on itself,” he said, saying the city went through this after riots 50 years ago. He doesn’t care to repeat the experience, he said. 

Commissioner Gregory Abbott said the charter commission’s role is to decide what should be in the charter and it should let the City Council do its job.  

“I think some of the ‘parade of horribles’ arguments that are being made here in terms of ‘This would permit defunding police’ and things of that nature, you know it’s in the nature of democracy that political leaders could make mistakes,” he said. “I think we’re kind of treading perilously into an area where some people seem to think our job is to put up guardrails for political mistakes by council or mayor and I don’t think that’s our role here.”

Commissioner Andrea Rubenstein said the council’s amendment has divided the city.

“The City Council amendment has effectively divided the city according to the thousands of comments that we have received. The short version of the division is ‘Let us vote’ vs. ‘Let us vote for what?’ Sadly there’s been misinformation,” she said.  

Commissioner Lyall Schwarzkopf questioned whether the hundreds of people who testified and wrote to the commission were truly representative of Minneapolis, and suggested the commission hire a consultant to poll people in the coming months.  

“Are they really the people?” he said during a work group meeting Tuesday. “Are they really talking for every individual person in the city?” 

Other commissioners worried that people living in neighborhoods most affected by the increase in violent crime after George Floyd’s killing have not had enough say. Commissioner Jana Metge said she’s not getting many calls or emails from people in the areas most affected by crime.  

“I am very concerned as a citizen who is living with 911 calls and ducking gunfire day in and day out in the city of Minneapolis,” she said. 

Commissioner Andrew Kozak questioned the efficacy of reducing the police force, and said the answer isn’t to shove this on the ballot this year. 

“It can wait for 2021,” he said. 

Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg said the City Council’s charter amendment has become code for defunding the police, and he thinks it’s worth considering, but, “We should take a year to do that” and put it on the 2021 ballot.  

Commissioner Jill Garcia, one of three people of color on the commission, said neither proposal addresses the police culture, which takes years to cultivate and will take years to change. 

Commissioner Toni Newborn said as a person of color, she has been quiet and trying to listen, but it’s hard to think about waiting for change when people in the community have died in the meantime. The most vulnerable people don’t go to meetings or write letters, she said before voting to put the commission proposal on the ballot.  

Commissioner Al Giraud-Isaacson, who authored the alternative amendment, agreed, saying, “I’ll put my trust in the voters of Minneapolis and I’ll say I believe the citizens of Minneapolis have earned the right to have a say.”  

Next week, the commission will decide whether to do that with the council proposal, and whether that should happen this year or next. 

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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. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.