Minneapolis budget tees up conflict between mayor and council over future of police

Minneapolis Police guard the Third Precinct on May 27 during protests following the police killing of George Floyd. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The Minneapolis City Council heard from over a hundred residents on Monday asking them not to defund the Police Department as violent crime spikes in the city and police officers leave the department in droves.

The testimony came during the first public hearing on the city’s 2021 budget, which will see reductions across departments as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cut tax and fee revenue while pushing spending higher in emergency areas like public health.

The budgeting process gives the City Council its first chance to make substantial changes to the Police Department after the police killing of George Floyd in May. The council was thwarted by the Charter Commission earlier this year from putting a proposal before voters on November’s ballot to dismantle the Police Department and create a new department of community safety under the council’s control.

Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo aim to keep the department intact and have begun lobbying residents to support them while promising to reform the department on their own. Monday’s public hearing provided some evidence it’s working.

“I’ve had to rush neighborhood kids into my home for safety after they’ve seen shots fired. This is unacceptable,” said Benjamin Braaten, a resident of north Minneapolis. “The department is stretched and our protection is compromised.”

Around 500 people have been wounded by gunfire in Minneapolis in 2020 — a 15-year high — while violent crimes including robbery and aggravated assault are up 17% from the previous five-year average.

The cause of the uptick is not entirely clear. Criminologists cite a range of potential factors, including the pandemic and the social isolation and economic hardship that have followed. Some residents blame anti-police rhetoric emboldening criminals and causing officers to pull back.

Most of the 166 people who called in to testify expressed support for reforming the department but pleaded with the council not to cut its budget. One caller told about her brother being shot and killed, another about being too afraid to walk her dog and yet another who said she doesn’t leave her house without mace, a whistle and a retractable club.

Other callers questioned whether more police would increase public safety and alleged that the mayor and police chief were capitalizing on people’s fear to justify their budget proposal. Instead, they said the city should direct funds toward social services and violence prevention.

“I hear the fear of the callers before me. But the fact must be stated that the police respond after an event occurs. They don’t and won’t keep you safe,” said Nicole Weiler, a south Minneapolis resident who serves on the city’s 911 alternatives work group. She added: “You pledged to defund and dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department, and we’re here to hold you accountable.”

The mayor and police chief are pushing hard to win approval of the police budget, organizing supporters through the city’s email system.

Ahead of the public hearing, the Frey’s office sent an email to people who had contacted him about policing, encouraging them to call into the public hearing and tell the council to support Frey’s budget, which would fend off bigger cuts to the only department fully under his control.

“As a city, we can’t expect the police chief to continue doing more with less. We need to provide the chief with the staffing resources to do what they are charged with doing,” the email reads, which is signed by Frey’s executive assistant Marcus Singleton.

Arradondo sent the same email, though with his own name, to residents in the 3rd and 4th Precincts who subscribed to weekly crime reports from the city.

The email urged people to call into the first public hearing on Monday, after which “decisions have been made and the revisions to the proposed budget will be mostly done.”

Many callers urged the council to take a “both/and” approach to policing, mental health care and violence prevention. But the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing local governments across the country to make difficult “either/or” decisions.

Frey’s proposed budget for next year is $230 million smaller than this year — a 13% reduction — and the Police Department will not be spared.

The mayor’s proposed budget in 2021 reduces police spending by about $12.6 million, which is possible without layoffs because so many police officers have left the department following the protests of Floyd’s killing.

Around 40 officers leave the department in a given year, but Minneapolis expects more than 140 officers to leave the force by spring of 2021, saving the department $14.2 million. Those officers won’t be replaced for at least another year as the city leaves scores of positions unfilled across departments as part of a citywide hiring freeze.

While the mayor’s budget proposal doesn’t include hiring more officers over the next year, it does make relatively small investments in the city’s “co-responder” program, which dispatches mental health professionals to some emergencies with armed officers. The mayor’s plan also funds a long-talked-about “Early Intervention System,” which alerts supervisors to officers who show patterns of misconduct.

Under the mayor’s proposal, the Health Department will receive additional funding for the Office of Violence Prevention, paid for by not filling vacant jobs across the city.

Even as Frey appears somewhat responsive to residents and council members who want funding shifted away from the department, his proposal is unlikely to be the final draft.

At least some of the nine City Council members who pledged to dismantle and replace the Police Department in June are expected to bring forward amendments to Frey’s budget that would pull money away from the Police Department and direct it to initiatives within the Office of Violence Prevention, which, unlike the Police Department, is under the council’s authority.

A majority of council members have already signaled their support for creating a 24/7 mental health response team in the coming years, which would dispatch health professionals to some emergency calls without an armed police officer. The proposal was brought forward by more than 75 small businesses in the city last week.

The City Council is also poised to put an amendment to the city’s charter on the 2021 ballot, which would put to voters the question of rebuilding the Police Department from the ground up. In the meantime, every request for police funding is under intense scrutiny from the council and the public.

Last week, the council only narrowly approved the chief’s plea for an additional $500,000 to contract with officers from other law enforcement agencies, arguing that the beleaguered department desperately needs more officers to respond to 911 calls.

Council members grilled the chief on his strategy for the additional officers, demanding to see evidence that the 20-30 temporary officers would reduce violence. Arradondo declined to go into strategy, arguing the need for officers to respond to emergency calls was urgent.

“Our city is bleeding at this moment. I’m trying to do all I can to stop that bleeding,” the chief said.

That message clearly resonated with many residents who don’t want the Police Department defunded while the City Council works toward a potential overhaul of the force.

“Our city cannot wait for you all to ponder and take your time and imagine what you might do,” said Janet Skidmore, a resident of the Central neighborhood. “I don’t deny that might come later and I do support the idea of police reform . . . but we are in an emergency situation here.”