While Minneapolis residents were turning out in droves and then riveted by election results last week, the city’s unelected Charter Commission voted 14-0 Wednesday to reject a City Council proposal to radically overhaul the Police Department and send the plan to voters for approval.
But that doesn’t mean the council’s idea is dead because the Charter Commission is an advisory board. It can recommend approval, rejection or an alternative, but the council does not have to follow its recommendations.
The Charter Commission’s real power lies in its ability to delay, which it successfully employed this year — and in 2018 — to keep the council from putting major police reform initiatives on the ballot.
Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender says she expects there will be a referendum on the 2021 ballot to transform the city’s Police Department.
“I think the proposal will be similar to what we proposed,” Bender said Wednesday.
Any proposal will have to go before the Charter Commission again, but the council will be able to deliver it to the commission in time to get it on the November ballot even if the Charter Commission again delays their decision or declines to recommend it.
The council proposal would strip the Police Department from the charter (which is akin to a constitution), remove the mayor’s “complete power” to command the Police Department and delete a minimum staffing requirement of .0017 police employees per resident.
The measure would replace the Police Department with a “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention,” which would prioritize a “holistic, public health-oriented approach” to crime.
While nine council members vowed to defund the department after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, the Charter Commission — who are appointed by a local judge and are predominantly white — was decidedly cool to the idea.
The “defund police” movement made national headlines, was picked up as a campaign issue by President Donald Trump and used against DFL candidates statewide. Public safety will be a top issue in the mayoral and 13 City Council races next year, even as the council navigates reforms. Violent crime, including shootings and carjackings, are up substantially since Floyd’s death.
A Charter Commission work group considered an amendment that would eliminate the minimum staffing provision, and another creating a new public safety department similar to the council’s proposal. They rejected those, and the council amendment, as well.
Commissioner Andrea Rubenstein, who chaired the public safety work group that made the recommendation to the full commission, said the panel made the decision based on impending information and events such as the outcome of a state Department of Human Rights investigation; a lawsuit over minimum funding; a staff study and possible citizen petition or City Council action.
“We’d rather reconvene if needed,” in the spring to propose an amendment for the November 2021 ballot, she said.
City Council members have also said all along that amending the charter was just one step in a year-long process of engaging the public on how best to reinvent public safety.
Asked if the council’s stance on defunding police has softened, City Council Member Linea Palmisano replied, “To me it just seems like every day we throw paint on the wall and see what sticks. I don’t know that they’ve softened on this issue, or they’ve just lost track of it.”
Palmisano noted the relative lack of media coverage on the amendment, which she has opposed even though she supported sending it to the commission.
The Charter Commission has taken a lot of heat from council members and citizens desperate to take action after Floyd’s death. Palmisano defended the commission, saying, “I think the Charter Commission did an extremely thorough job.”
“It makes sense that they would leave the opportunity in the spring to make a decision on one of their alternatives,” she said. “It’s clear to me that the Charter Commission is really deliberate, and they’re committed to making public safety work for everyone.”
Bender agreed, saying “I truly appreciate how seriously the Charter Commission takes their role.”
Bender added, however: “I think this Charter Commission is delving fairly far into policy questions that are in the purview of elected leaders and deviating from their role of deciding whether questions are appropriate for the charter or not.”