Minneapolis continues contentious debate over future of police

A demonstrator holds a sign with a Minneapolis Police Department logo modiifed to say Muderous Police, at a protest in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 4, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Mayor Jacob Frey, the Minneapolis City Council and key community groups are divided over the direction of the Police Department amid a crime wave, pandemic-induced recession and historic racial reckoning after the police killing of George Floyd. 

Under the sway of defund police activists in the wake of Floyd’s death, the City Council  was unanimous this summer when it tried and failed to get a major public safety amendment on the November ballot. 

Frey, who has authority over the Police Department, is aligned with Police Chief Medaria Arrandondo in calling for incremental reforms. 

The City Council now has a chance to use its budgetary authority to force change in the department, but the summer’s consensus has fractured, especially over how to pay for the alternatives to conventional policing. 

They were unable to reach agreement on policing during a meeting Thursday where they could amend the mayor’s budget proposal.

Frey proposed a $1.47 billion budget that cuts $12.6 million from the Police Department but includes an extra $5 million in overtime to compensate for the historic number of officers lost to attrition and disability leave post-Floyd.

A plan released last week by City Council President Lisa Bender and fellow Council Members Steve Fletcher and Phillipe Cunningham would cut the Police Department budget by $8.3 million, chiefly through a $5 million cut to its overtime budget. Money would instead be spent on a 24/7 emergency mental health response, violence prevention and neighborhood safety programs, in an effort to offload some of the department’s current workload.

The Office of Violence Prevention would get a $1.7 million boost, which would fund seven full-time employees and programs like community de-escalation and restorative justice training. They would also allow attrition to reduce the size of the police force to 750 in 2022, which the mayor and police chief oppose.

Calling it “Safety for All,” the Bender proposal would also create an $8.2 million staffing reserve fund that the police chief could tap into with council approval, to create more accountability and transparency, Fletcher said.

Fletcher said the mayor’s budget would allocate “far more (overtime) than we have ever budgeted for,” but their proposal would take significant pressure off the department through things like mobile mental health teams.

Council Vice Chair Andrea Jenkins and Linea Palmisano — the chair of the council’s budget committee — proposed taking $5 million in one-time revenue for pilot programs, with a priority on dispatching mental health professional and EMT teams to certain 911 calls; training dispatchers in assessing mental health calls; embedding mental health professionals in 911; training non-police staff to take theft and property damage reports and collect evidence and transferring parking-related calls to traffic control.

An influential group of activists from groups like Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block say the council is nibbling around the edges and support a proposal called “The People’s Budget.” That plan calls for over $53 million in  cuts to the Police Department and “a major transfer of resources into Black communities.” 

During the virtual budget hearing Wednesday, Minneapolis resident Wendy Darst called to voice her support for the People’s Budget: “I do not believe that reducing policing duties is defunding them. I speak in favor of the decrease in law enforcement budget to allow for the allocation of resources toward public safety in the form of ending the practice of police-only responses to mental health calls,” she said. 

Council Member Lisa Goodman urged her colleagues to get to the point.

“C’mon, everyone knows what this is about, this is like a semantic game we’re playing here, let’s just get to it,” she said. “I don’t think anyone on the council objects to any of the early but important changes that we want to make, I think there’s a lot of unanimity surrounding that, it’s really just a question of how it’s going to be funded.”

Council Member Cam Gordon said he supports Bender’s proposal, and said it was “disappointing news” that Jenkins co-authored Palmisano’s amendment instead.

“I can appreciate that there are probably some things that look nice about (the amendment), but it certainly doesn’t have the level of detail and doesn’t even offer that anything realistic is going to even happen,” Gordon said.

The council has another budget meeting Friday and will revisit the policing issues Monday, so they can try to reach a compromise over the weekend.

Palmisano said after the meeting that she, Jenkins, Alondra Cano and Jamal Osman will bring forward another proposal Monday that “will allow us to move forward on a number of the goals within the Safety for All proposal without causing more disruption to our emergency response efforts.”

“We want to make investments into alternative emergency response programs and violence prevention efforts and we can do that while refilling our complement of officers to better respond to priority 911 calls and conduct criminal investigations.”

More than 400 callers testified in the last public hearing Wednesday on the city’s 2021 budget.

Sharon Sayles Belton, Minneapolis’ first Black mayor and first woman mayor, called in to support the mayor’s budget proposal. 

“One of the primary responsibilities of the City Council and the mayor is to provide for the public safety of citizens and properties within the city. When it comes to public safety we cannot be a city divided,” Sayles Belton said. “This is not the time for the City Council to second guess or experiment with people’s lives. We must support Chief Arradondo. We must provide Arradondo with the resources he needs.” 

Callers also voiced support for the Safety for All budget proposal from Bender, Cunningham and Fletcher. 

“I know firsthand how many calls law enforcement officers are sent to that would be better handled by other professionals,” said Bree Dalager, a volunteer with the Hennepin County Sheriff. “It’s a waste of law enforcement time and provides worse outcomes for constituents. The reallocation of the $8 million to a mental health crisis team and a violence prevention team is the right move.”