The New York Times reports the City Council’s efforts at police transformation have failed. That’s premature.

October 2, 2020 11:23 am

Minneapolis Police guard the third precinct on May 27, before it was taken over by rioters. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

A recent article and podcast in the New York Times reported that since a June pledge to “begin the process of ending the Police Department,” the City Council has failed to bring about change and even caused some members of the council who took the pledge to have second thoughts. Here’s a key section of the article:

The regrets formalize a retreat that has quietly played out in Minneapolis in the months since George Floyd was killed by the police and the ensuing national uproar over the treatment of Black Americans by law enforcement and the country at large. After a summer that challenged society’s commitment to racial equality and raised the prospect of sweeping political change, a cool autumn reality is settling in.

National polls show decreasing support for Black Lives Matter since a sea change of good will in June. In Minneapolis, the most far-reaching policy efforts meant to address police violence have all but collapsed.

The Times’ framing conveys the strong impression that the City Council’s efforts to transform policing are moribund. But in reality, just a day before the podcast was released, a council committee unanimously advanced a plan for a year of community engagement on public safety issues. 

The Times’ coverage clearly left the listener or reader with the impression that the City Council erred in their response to George Floyd’s death, and the unrest that followed. But at times, the critique seemed to waver between condemning the City Council for taking action too quickly, without a plan in place, or for taking no action at all, after promising bold steps.

The extremely unsatisfying truth is that the council promised a bold vision, and then embarked upon an extremely mundane process by which to achieve it. That has left police opponents frustrated by the pace of change, and left police supporters frustrated by the direction of change. 

Let’s acknowledge there’s a lot around the edges of frequent critiques that are impossible to dispute. The City Council’s pledge in Powderhorn Park made news globally in a way that they were clearly not expecting. I have no doubt that if the council members understood how their declaration would be read by people who skim the headlines and ignore the articles, they might’ve made different choices. The phrase, “police-free future,” for instance, is probably best taken in the same way that one might make a toast for world peace, as even strong policing opponents concede that something like police would be needed to respond to violent crime for some period, and that such a future would be contingent on the actual need going away.

Despite these critiques of the messaging around the pledge and the Times’ use of polling data to try to show the public has turned against the idea, a fuller picture of public opinion is mixed: The Times portrays polling by the Star Tribune — which found 40% of Minneapolis residents in favor of reducing the size of the police force and 44% of residents opposed — as a decisive defeat for the cause. The podcast briefly mentions that nearly three-fourths of residents supported diverting police funding to other services, and the article ignores that finding. Neither piece mentions that the polling found that residents trusted the City Council more than the mayor on the issue of policing. Nor does either piece mention polling by the Times itself that found majority support for police defunding.

The Times’ features imply the more subtle but serious charge that the City Council overpromised and underdelivered. Although there is no doubt that the City Council’s policy has not always been clear or a communications triumph, the case is overstated. Looking both at the text of the pledge itself, and the contemporaneous statements of the City Council members, two things are true:

1. The City Council was never in lockstep on this issue, and the members who made the pledge have had subtly different opinions about what it meant from the start.

2. The City Council is not as deeply divided on this issue as they have been made to seem, and there is substantial common ground in support of the approach that they are still pursuing.

I come to this conclusion from a unique viewpoint. Like Astead Herndon, the writer for the New York Times, I do not live in Minnesota. My interest in the issue comes from having lived in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and caring deeply about the place. But as an outsider, I have relied almost exclusively on reading in order to understand what is going on. After George Floyd was killed, I read a lot. I think that detachment gives me one advantage, and it is the only reason I feel comfortable writing this. I have had to read every last word the City Council, the advocates, the opponents, and a lot of people in-between have said about this issue. I can’t claim to understand things better than people who were there and who lived through that awful week and its aftermath. I don’t claim to. But I can remember and tell you what people said in response.

Here is the actual text of the pledge that was jointly made by the nine council members:

Decades of police reform efforts have proved that the Minneapolis Police Department cannot be reformed, and will never be accountable for its actions.

We are here today to begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department and creating a new transformative model for cultivating safety in our city.

We recognize that we don’t have all the answers about what a police-free future looks like, but our community does.

We’re committing to engaging with every willing community member in the City of Minneapolis over the next year to identify what safety looks like for everyone.

We’ll be taking intermediate steps towards ending the MPD through the budget process, and other policy and budget decisions over the coming weeks and months.

In this pledge, the council members promised three actions:

  1. Begin the process of “ending” the Minneapolis Police Department.
  2. Engaging with the community over a year-long period to discuss public safety.
  3. Take short and medium-term actions in the general direction of these goals.

It has been just over three and a half months since the City Council made this pledge. What have they done since?

  1. Unanimously passed an amendment to the city charter that would rename the MPD, put it under City Council oversight like any other city department, and house it within a new department that is focused more broadly on health and safety. That amendment was momentarily derailed by the city’s Charter Commission. The amendment can be resubmitted again, and without the possibility of a pocket veto this time, meaning it’s going to eventually be on the ballot.
  2. Passed a plan out of committee to begin a formal community discussion process. Some council members have already convened smaller informal neighborhood discussions.
  3. Moved small amounts of money out of the police budget and into the Office of Violence Prevention, with further cuts and shifts proposed by Mayor Jacob Frey.

It is true that the Minneapolis Police Department remains intact. It has not been “ended.” But from the very start, in their pledge, the City Council promised that any outcome would only come about after a year of public consultation. In the meantime, they have laid the groundwork for further changes.

If, by next year, little to no progress has been made, there will be ample justification for calling the City Council’s efforts a failure. But anyone who expected wholesale changes in a single season did not read or listen to the City Council’s pledge, nor are they familiar with how Minneapolis operates. As local journalist David Brauer wrote a couple days after the pledge, “Don’t think the globe is ready to discover how much Minneapolis loves ‘process.’”

After making their pledge, many of the members of the City Council wrote to their constituents to further explain their views. These messages reveal that there were subtle differences in what each council member meant, but also strong commonalities.

I want to highlight five of the longest and most personal statements that make the point. You can follow the links that follow to read statements by Council Members Cam Gordon, Steve Fletcher, Phillipe Cunningham, Jeremy Schroeder and Andrew Johnson. Every council member chose to frame their thoughts in a different way. They shared different rationales for making the pledge at Powderhorn Park. They emphasized different parts of it. It is clear from their contemporaneous statements, that there are looming disputes about how far the City Council should ultimately go.

At the same time, it is clear that there are a number of points of agreement. I think four of them are clear across the entire City Council:

  1. Developing a plan will take a year.
  2. The electorate will need to ratify it in some way.
  3. There is still a need for a police force.
  4. The scope of policing should be reduced and replaced with services.

That agreement was clear then. It is still clear now. Neither the Times’ podcast, nor the article, demonstrate that the City Council is reversing itself on any of these planks.

The sum total of the City Council’s backtracking appears to be on whether or not they thought the pledge was great politics. Now that the moment has passed, the politics of the situation are less clear.

But the substantive case for change still remains. By all accounts, the substantive process for change is still ongoing. Isn’t what’s left just theater criticism?

It’s important to hold public officials accountable for what they say and do. It’s important to make sure that the Minneapolis City Council continues to work on creating the transformative change that they promised. But that criticism should also be grounded in real language and real actions. Who is up, who is down, who looks dumb, who looks smart; none of that is relevant unless it bears upon concrete things that actually happen.

It’s too early to tell if the Minneapolis City Council is succeeding or failing in its efforts. What they have pledged to do is very hard. What they have pledged to do will take time. But giving up on that work — which is premised upon the deep involvement of the public — because the national media is disappointed that reality didn’t match their hype, would be a mistake.

A version of this essay first appeared on Medium. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is an urban planner specializing in design and transportation in Minneapolis. He's also a soccer obsessive, cookie enthusiast and cold weather apologist.