Commentary

The heads-I-win, tails-you-lose arguments of the City Council’s opponents on police reform

December 14, 2020 6:00 am
Minneapolis police squad car.

A Minneapolis Police Department squad car. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

When first voting on several amendments to next cycle’s Minneapolis budget, City Council members were forewarned by opponents that their proposals pertaining to the Police Department were uninformed and could lead to more crime. The City Council’s response: We’re in charge of the budget here and we’re going to act.

One might wonder if the City Council would have left the budget alone if not for the Charter Commission’s refusal to allow the voters to decide on the City Council’s proposed charter amendment, which would have created a power sharing arrangement between the council and the mayor over the Police Department. The arguments which led to the refusal to put the charter proposal up for vote in 2020 covered some procedural and substantive range, but tended to most often be presented as follows:

  1. The chief of police (who the community should stand behind) is opposed because it is difficult to have many bosses; better it’s just the mayor.
  2. The City Council already does have significant oversight power it can exercise through its control of the budget.

The problem with argument #1: Many city department leaders report to a committee and always have. Moreover, some city residents may find it more difficult than others to access the mayor about police concerns, and so shared power with their more available City Council representative would advance equity. 

As for argument #2, the City Council seemed, at the time, to consider their budget power inconsequential. But now a few have led the majority to run with the concept, finding the budget process to indeed be an entry point for the police reform conversation. This was a significant shift, especially with pressures from the publicity given to increases in violent crime in the backdrop. (Though no actual evidence was offered for how greater spending on police would necessarily reduce crime.) 

Before the initial vote, the attack on the council budget motions not only involved framing the issue as insensitive to safety, but also as ill-informed and premature — especially given that a pending staffing study could be used to determine how many police might best be needed. Nor could the council know enough about overtime pressures, or how shifts get staffed.

But the very reason the council could not be as sufficiently informed as demanded was due to their absence from police management supervision that the charter amendment had attempted to remedy – a reform the same lineup of critics had earlier opposed. After being told all summer that the council could drop their charter amendment for some authority over the Police Department because they already had some power — the budget – the council was now being told that they should never mess with the budget because they were too uninformed to competently do so.

In the face of this Catch-22, the council rejected going dormant and raised the stakes on their power to impact policing. What else could they do and face constituents expecting them to be police reformers?

The late night 7-6 reversal on one key element — the projected police force size in 2022 remaining at 888 instead of 750 — allowed a unified public message with the mayor, who withdrew the implication that the council was proceeding with willful ignorance. The key issue of planning future reduction of the police was stalled an extra year.

But this delay has a cost for those who would like to do more than the piecemeal shifts agreed to by the mayor and City Council.

Had the council’s initial reduction in the Police Department gone forth, they would have essentially been tasking the chief (with mayoral support) to come up with the informed, detailed plan consistent with its budgetary guideposts and personnel caps. (In this regard, it was wrong to suggest they were antagonistic to Chief Medaria Arradondo for dismissing his preferences; they were enabling him the opportunity to be an innovative and visionary leader.)

The objective: To figure out how to restructure public safety utilizing a lower overall number of armed and licensed officers, but with enhanced numbers of non-licensed personnel to perform specialized functions. 

Key questions that could have been worked out in 2021 would have included:

  • What is best contracted out and what would best be handled by city employees?
  • If it’s city employees, is it better to:
  1. Create a new civilian public safety department?
  2. Spread work to different departments component by component?
  3. Restructure the MPD so that it can accommodate significant non-licensed units to handle public safety roles?
  4. Have the benefit of flexibility, but risk of accountability and competition problems, by mixing some of the above?

Last summer, I sketched my own design for public safety in Minneapolis, a basis to move a conversation forward in which licensed officer roles were reduced. The council’s first action led me to anticipate welcoming the advancement of other necessary and creative visions, including from Arradondo.

But with the late night amendment to retain the currently allowed police size in 2022, there’s no urgency for the police chief or mayor to come up with their own fully formed design, especially if they fundamentally oppose police force reduction, which appears likely the case. 

So any future counsel incursions, such as a budget proposal next December to reduce police size in 2022, will be met with the same earlier criticism: You are acting without sufficient knowledge and planning.

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Michael Friedman
Michael Friedman

Michael Friedman is the former executive director of the Legal Rights Center. He previously served as chair of the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority, serving in that capacity for three years.

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