Minneapolis City Council questions strong show of force ahead of Chauvin trial

Barbed wire fencing went up around Minneapolis City Hall in preparation for the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Minneapolis department leaders answered pointed questions from the City Council for the first time publicly on Monday on their preparations for the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who’s charged with killing George Floyd in May.

The city has fortified areas of downtown with barbed wire ahead of the trial, which begins next Monday, and invited other police agencies and the National Guard to protect key infrastructure from potential arson and rioting. But some residents and members of the City Council expressed concern that the military-style preparations sends the wrong message and could be retraumatizing during a trial centered on police violence.

Council President Lisa Bender said she felt city leaders still lacked a “shared understanding” of the trauma Floyd’s death at the hands of police caused, and the change it effected in city halls and state capitols across the country.

“The response to his death has echoed around the world and I just don’t think that the city is stepping up to meet the moment,” Bender said.

The debate illustrates the difficult political and policy balance city leaders are managing as they try to prevent violence and property damage while also listening to activists who seek to dismantle the police department and replace it with a softer, public health-minded approach to public safety.

Floyd’s death sparked days of protests and riots, which city leaders fear could reignite during Chauvin’s trial as international attention turns back on Minneapolis. Fencing has gone up around City Hall and the Hennepin County Government Center, where the trial will be held, while many other businesses have boarded up their windows in anticipation of riots.

The city has announced it has partnered with outside law enforcement agencies to bring in around 1,100 additional officers, while the National Guard will send in 2,000 soldiers.

Bender said that police escalated tensions with protestors following Floyd’s death, which she says in turn led to more outrage and created the conditions for rioters and arsonists — many from outside the city — to come in and cause damage.

“I still think too many city leaders, despite all of this, dismiss the work of trying to create a different system of safety as childish or silly. That too many city leaders think that the most grown-up response to a problem is always with force,” Bender said. “I just don’t agree. I don’t think we can police our way out of police violence.”

Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, both of whom oppose efforts to dismantle the police department and create a new one, have led the city’s muscular response to trial preparations.

More than one council member asked the police chief what the city was doing to prevent journalists and protesters from being injured by the police. At least one journalist and one protester lost eyes after being hit with less lethal rounds from police, while many others were hit with projectiles. A CNN reporter was also arrested live on television by State Patrol officers in riot gear while covering the protests.

Minneapolis Council Member Phillipe Cunningham questions the police chief on preparations for the trial of former officer Derek Chauvin.

Arradondo said they were focusing on “media credentialing” and “making sure that we can readily identify those folks who are going to be covering the trial.”

He also said they were working with the media to provide information on what journalists can expect when given dispersal orders.

During the Floyd protests, the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds without providing dispersal orders, taking both protesters and journalists by surprise and ratcheting up tensions.

Council Member Cam Gordon wanted to know the cost of the barbed wire fencing going up across the city. The city coordinator said he didn’t know, but it was a shared cost with the county.

How much the additional security will cost and who will pay for it is still up in the air. Gov. Tim Walz and a majority of Democrats in the Legislature support creating a $35 million account to cover the mutual aid costs of local law enforcement agencies during emergencies. While the idea of a state fund has the support of law enforcement groups and some Republicans, the DFL-backed bill failed to pass the House.

The city council pressed the police chief for information on what training outside law enforcement officers were receiving in deescalation.

Council Member Phillipe Cunningham expressed concern of a lack of cultural competency from mutual aid officers who may not have experience working with communities of color.

“Peaceful protests also include Black rage from the ongoing trauma and pain that has been the result of structural and systemic violence,” Cunningham said. “But that kind of emotional expression is very upsetting to Minnesota’s sensibilities.”

Arradondo said he has been talking to mutual aid partners about “guiding principles” and that police leaders have had conversations with rank-and-file officers about people’s reasons for protesting.

He noted that peace officers receive training in deescalation and crisis intervention as part of state requirements for licensure. He also said he must authorize the use of tear gas and other crowd control tactics as part of a court agreement made with the state’s Department of Human Rights following last summer’s unrest.

“If we know that the vast majority of folks that are going to be gathering are peaceful, we really want to make sure that we’re doing all we can to remove any bad actors or people that would want to cause harm,” Arradondo said.

On Friday, the City Council approved spending $1.5 million to contract with outside law enforcement agencies if the bill SAFE Account doesn’t pass the Legislature.

The council also approved spending about $1.1 million to pay community groups to provide additional security, “conduct proactive and responsive community engagement” and share accurate information and resources.

The City Council also approved a plan to pay “trusted messengers” with large social media followings to share city messages and dispel misinformation, but the city canceled that plan after a wave of public criticism.

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.