Minneapolis Council proposal shifts $8M from police to mental health response, violence prevention

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

Three Minneapolis City Council Members proposed shifting $7.9 million from the mayor’s $179 million Police Department budget, to fund a 24/7 mental health response unit, expand violence prevention programs and increase civilian oversight of police behavior.

After a failed attempt to get an overhaul of the Police Department on the 2020 ballot, the 2021 police budget is the City Council’s first chance to make substantial changes to the department since the police killing of George Floyd in May triggered protests nationwide and led nine city council members to pledge to dismantle and transform the Police Department.

Despite calls by activist allies of the council members to “defund the police,” the proposal doesn’t eliminate a single police officer in the coming year, although the size of the force is expected to shrink due to significant attrition.

“This will help us move toward a Police Department that is smaller and more focused on preventing and responding to violence, while other needs, like mental health and homelessness, are handled with the appropriate response or service,” said Council President Lisa Bender, who authored the budget amendment with Council Members Philippe Cunningham and Steve Fletcher.

Although the $7.9 million pulled out of the Police Department is just 4.4% of the total police budget, the reduction would come on top of cuts to police staff driven by a city-wide hiring freeze and exodus of officers following the summer’s protests and riots.

The city expects more than 140 officers to leave the force by the spring of 2021, more than triple the typical annual attrition rate. The city had 879 sworn officers at the beginning of the year with a couple dozen on leave. As of the end of October, the department is down to 833 sworn officers with 124 on leave.

Neither the mayor nor the three City Council members propose hiring new officers to fill those vacated positions in 2021 — keeping the average number of officers around 770 — since plummeting revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the city to make reductions across the board. But they don’t agree on what should happen once the city’s revenue rebounds.

The proposal from Bender, Fletcher and Cunningham aims to shrink the number of sworn officers to 750 in future years, while Frey’s budget proposal maintains the number of authorized sworn officers at 888, allowing the Police Department to expand back to typical levels once the city’s revenue is restored.

“The mayor would have significant concerns if his council colleagues attempted to make such large, permanent cuts to the number of officers in the department without sound data or community input to support such a decision,” Mychal Vlatkovich, a spokesperson for Frey, wrote in a statement.

Of the $7.9 million, some $2.44 million would be directed to a new mental health response unit that would respond to 911 calls 24/7 across the city, beginning as soon as this spring. The funding would cover two teams including a mental health professional and an EMT to be on call at any given time. It would be the first of its kind in Minnesota, although similar units have been created in other cities including Eugene, Ore. and Denver.

Small businesses in Minneapolis made a push for such a unit earlier this month, joining a chorus of police reform advocates seeking to offload mental health crises from police departments. The city is currently piloting a “co-responder” program, which sends an armed officer with a mental health professional to certain calls but isn’t available everywhere around the clock.

The plan put forth by Bender, Fletcher and Cunningham would also send non-policy city staff to non-emergency 911 calls like reports of theft and property damage, freeing up armed officers to focus on violent crime.

The proposal is in line with City Council moves since 2018 to increase the city’s mental health response and reform its 911 dispatch to send non-police personnel to non-violent emergencies.

These changes probably would not not have prevented the death of Floyd, who was accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at Cup Foods.

Council Member Fletcher says they still have their eyes on making more sweeping changes, including sending a significant overhaul of MPD to the voters.

“There’s a need to push ourselves further than what we’re ready to pilot today,” Fletcher said. “That’s what the community engagement and transformation process that we’re embarking on will hopefully get us to.”

The council plans to bring forward another charter amendment proposal to be put on the ballot in 2021 that would dismantle and replace the Police Department with a new department of community safety and violence prevention.

If approved, that would give the City Council the power to make sweeping changes to a department they currently only control through the budget. The council’s efforts to put a similar initiative on the ballot this November were thwarted earlier this year by the city’s unelected Charter Commission, who pocket vetoed the plan by voting to take more time to consider it.

Mayor Jacob Frey’s budget proposal also calls for reducing the Police Department’s budget. The spike in attrition allows him to slash the budget by $12.6 million in his proposal without layoffs. His proposal does, however, increase funding slightly to pay to expand the city’s “co-responder” program. The City Council proposal keeps this program funded at its 2020 level with the aim of phasing it out once the mental health crisis response unit is fully active.

The proposal from the City Council pays for additional mental health and violence prevention services without layoffs by reducing the department’s overtime budget by $5 million.

But the city estimates the council’s plan would reduce the police department’s workload by as much as 15% by shifting some non-emergency 911 calls like property damage reports to other city staff and deploying mental health professionals to respond to some of the most time consuming calls.

“I really do think that this is the right way to respond to the moment that we’re in,” Fletcher said. “We are going to have fewer officers than we’ve had in prior years, and so it is our job to figure out how we’re going to take some work off their plate.”

The proposal from City Council Members Bender, Cunningham and Fletcher also directs $2 million to expand violence prevention programs and $1.94 million for neighborhood safety programs.

These initiatives aim to decrease gun violence — which has soared this year amid the pandemic and civil unrest and already claimed more than 70 lives — by intervening in cycles of violence and providing social services to people most at risk of committing violence.

Finally, the council members aim to spend $335,000 increasing police oversight capacity in the city’s Civil Rights Department and bringing the Early Intervention System proposed by the mayor under that department rather than the Police Department.

The technical language of the proposal will be released on Thursday. The City Council is slated to vote on the final budget on December 9.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.