Memo to Charter Commission: Let the people decide the future of Minneapolis Police Department

A protest after the police killing of George Floyd. Macklin Caruso/Minnesota Reformer

Note to readers: The Minneapolis Charter Commission will decide this week whether to send an amendment to city charter — which is like the city’s constitution — back to the City Council for final review before landing on the November ballot. The amendment would dismantle the current Police Department and create a new public safety agency. 

For a long time, I held the belief that I needed police. The belief is so old, it feels like it was implanted at birth.

I grew up on the south side of Chicago in the 80s, when “stop and frisk” was part of the daily routine for young Black men like me. I went to Catholic school. Police patted me down looking for drugs, while I was in my Catholic school uniform. My friends and I would crack jokes about it.

It was considered normal.

It is not normal.

But we couldn’t imagine anything different.

I used to believe in the possibility of reform. The idea of a future without police scared me.

The more I came to learn about the history, about all the failed attempts to make cops less brutal and more geared toward preventing harm, the more I came to believe that our only answer is to start over.

Today I’m an abolitionist. For me, that means I believe we can and must build something new.

I don’t hate cops. I’m friends with people who are still cops in Chicago. Relatives of mine have been police. They’re good people. It’s not about them as individuals; it’s about a system that’s broken.

I’ve lived in Minneapolis for 10 years. I’ve never seen as many people engaged in a conversation about safety as I see now.

This is a historic moment — and it’s one in which our leaders have an obligation to encourage as much participation as possible.

That means giving people the chance to vote on a Minneapolis charter amendment in November that would dismantle the current Police Department and build something new.

Black folks are not a monolith. We have various opinions about policing and about changing the city charter. No one should expect us to all agree, just like no one should expect all white people or all men or all queer people to think the same. We get to hold a variety of views — and we deserve a democratic process that allows us to express them.

And, as the group most targeted by police violence, we also deserve a process that centers our voices.

According to police data, Black people account for about 20% of the city’s population, but are more likely to be pulled over, arrested and have force used against them than white residents. And Black people accounted for more than 60% of the victims in Minneapolis police shootings from late 2009 through May 2019.

And at the same time as police brutalize us, they also fail to serve our communities. In North Minneapolis, where I live — an area with concentrated Black populations and high homicide rates — fewer than one in three homicides between 2007 to 2016 resulted in an arrest.

We expect police to do too much — prevention and intervention and all forms of safety. But they are primarily trained to do law enforcement. They are designed as a hammer and to treat everything like a nail.

As a result, what I see police providing in my neighborhood is not much prevention, no real intervention, no justice. And no rehabilitation for those who do get arrested and put back on the streets with no support and more trauma.

Everyone I’ve discussed this with acknowledges how the Minneapolis Police Department is failing Black people. They are failing to provide safety and service while at the same time abusing and violating the dignity of Black people. The only question is who will be at the table when we get to imagine something beyond them.

Right now, the Charter Commission, which has one Black member, will decide whether Black folks — and all Minneapolis residents — can vote on the charter change in this coming election November 2020.

That is not right. We deserve to decide for ourselves.

I hear some neighbors say they oppose the charter amendment because they don’t trust politicians.

I don’t trust them either. And we shouldn’t have to.

That’s exactly why Minneapolis needs an up or down vote in which we can all participate. And exactly why the Charter Commission shouldn’t stand in the way.

We should want more from public safety. We should demand more than the police are willing or able — even by law — to provide. They don’t prevent violence or intervene in its root causes. We won’t continue to ask them to do so, but we will share in those public safety dollars that have been hoarded in their nest. People don’t have to be abolitionists to join in this conversation. We should all want a better return on our investment.

Wishing us — all of us — peace and love and safety.