As the Chauvin trial begins, policing in Minneapolis remains largely unchanged

City Council urges patience; voters could vote on new public safety agency this fall

By: - March 9, 2021 9:29 am

A supermajority of the Minneapolis City Council committed to dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department before a crowd gathered at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 7, 2020. The decision came after protests and riots in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The event, “The Path Forward: Community Meeting with City Council Members,” was organized by Reclaim The Block and Black Visions. Photo by Tony Webster.

As the historic trial of Derek Chauvin begins nearly a year after George Floyd died under Chauvin’s knee, Minneapolis has made some incremental steps to reform its police department and shift money away from traditional law enforcement to prevention. 

But aside from those relatively minor changes, the city’s public safety agenda is mired in bitter in-fighting — between Mayor Jacob Frey and the City Council, between factions of the City Council, between the council and the unelected Charter Commission, the police administration and its union, all vying for control of a city in crisis. 

“I think that we’re still fairly directionless,” City Council Member Linea Palmisano said.

The long, winding and to this point mostly fruitless road began on a warm day in early June, when nine members of the City Council stood on a stage in Powderhorn Park and agreed to begin the process of dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department. 

For now, the most substantive changes have come from court order stemming from a civil rights investigation launched by the state’s Department of Human Rights in the days after Floyd’s death.

Under that agreement, the Minneapolis Police Department banned chokeholds and neck restraints, although it offers no special training on alternatives. It also requires police officers to intervene if they witness a fellow officer use excessive force, prohibits the use of crowd control weapons unless approved by the chief and allows the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department to audit body camera footage.

Minneapolis is trying to recruit people who live in the city to be officers — 92% of officers lived elsewhere in 2017. When a deputy chief voiced fear that their overall recruitment efforts would lead to getting “the same old white boys,” he was demoted.

The department’s disciplinary system remains lethargic, with Police Chief Medaria Arradondo acknowledging in January that not a single officer has been disciplined for misconduct during last year’s civil unrest even as the council received a report last week that detailed 16 traumatic brain injuries and numerous other face and neck wounds sustained by demonstrators and journalists.  

Even as Floyd’s death sparked a national racial reckoning, the slow pace of change in Minneapolis’ public safety system illustrates how hard it is. At least here. 

“Any time you’re trying to make systems change, there will be tension,” said Council Member Steve Fletcher.

The conflict is not just on the council, but citywide, Fletcher said. “I think the tension on the council and the disagreement on the council is reflective of the tension in the city, and the disagreement in the city,” he said.

Council Member Phillipe Cunningham said there’s nothing wrong with democratic debate, especially compared to the usual way of doing things behind closed doors. “This is really the first time we’ve had such robust public conversations,” he said. “It is a culture shift to have hard conversations out in the open.”

Still, the lack of progress on police reform is striking.

Within days of Floyd’s death, Portland unanimously voted to cut $15 million from its police budget, a 6.5% cut. The Austin City Council cut its police budget by a whopping $150 million, or one-third, mostly by shifting responsibilities away from police and diverting funds to social programs. New York City shifted about $1 billion from its $6 billion police department operating budget.

The Minneapolis City Council cut about $8 million from Frey’s police budget in December, diverting the money to create a 24/7 mental health response unit and invest more in violence prevention programs.

The $8 million cut is about 4.5% of Frey’s proposed $179 million police budget, which the mayor had already reduced from $193 million, or about 7%, to deal with the pandemic-induced recession. Other city agencies also took steep cuts.

The city avoided laying off police officers or staff because so many officers left the department following the civil unrest. But the council and Frey came to an impasse over the size of the police force in future years with the mayor threatening a veto and ultimately securing a larger head count if the budget picture improves.

Despite the council’s cut to the police budget, they did set up an $11.4 million contingency fund that the police chief can tap into for overtime and police recruit classes, with council approval.

Cunningham said while he’s proud of the Minneapolis council’s work so far, he’s frustrated to see other cities accomplish more, such as Ithaca, New York, which is considering replacing its police department with a new department entirely.

Cunningham blames the mayor. Frey wants reforms that don’t go far enough, Cunningham said. 

“We are navigating a situation in which we have a council that’s committed to transformation and a mayor who is committed to reform,” Cunningham said. “And that misalignment — while there are opportunities for collaboration, collaboration has to work two ways and that’s a huge barrier.”

A spokesman for Frey said he has worked with the community and police chief on reforms, a culture shift in the police department and a more just approach to community safety. 

“The mayor appreciates the difficult position some council members are confronting after their Powderhorn Park pledge,” Mychal Vlatkovich said. “He wishes those same individuals would spend more time engaging in good faith conversations and pursuing reform work with our team.”

It’s not clear Arradondo is completely satisfied: He was a finalist to be top cop in San Jose before withdrawing in January after his candidacy was leaked. 

Nor is Arradondo’s police department administration beloved by the rank-and-file. Union leaders are openly contemptuous, and a wave of retirements, resignations and disability claims has thrown the department into crisis. 

The council votes again Friday to send a proposed amendment to the Charter Commission, in hopes of getting it on the November ballot. Last year’s attempt was thwarted by the Charter Commission, which led to bitter recriminations about the unelected, mostly white commission’s role in keeping the measure from the voters. 

The latest proposed amendment would take authority away from the mayor and give more power to the council, which would supervise a new public safety agency after the current department is dismantled. (Even then, there would be a division of peace officers, and labor law could prevent the council from firing the cops currently on the force or doing away with the union.) 

All this sets up a consequential November election in which voters will determine the fate of Frey, all 13 council members, the police charter amendment and potentially another amendment that would strengthen the office of the mayor.

As the City Council approaches the one-year anniversary since nine of them stood on the stage at Powderhorn Park, they are urging patience. 

“No one meant we were going to abolish the police next Tuesday or even within any short time frame,” Council President Lisa Bender said.

Bender, who is not running for reelection, has been attacked from both sides. Anti-police activists wanted the council to cut $45 million from the department, Bender said, but she refused.

She is accused by other voices — numerous if not as loud — of cutting the department even as the city endured a 21% increase in violent crime last year. 

“People are saying ‘You cut the police department!’” Bender said, noting that it was a relatively small reduction after years of significant increases.

The police budget is $30 million more than when Bender took office in 2014, she said.

Black Visions, a police abolitionist group that was a driver behind the council’s defund police pledge, hailed the budget cut as a victory, even if there’s more to be done. Kandace Montgomery, co-director of Black Visions, said Minneapolis council members made a commitment in Powderhorn Park to begin the process of defunding police, and many of them have stayed true to that commitment.

“A few of them have unfortunately fallen off of that commitment, but it was an important moment to really bring public awareness and make council members make a public commitment in front of thousands of people about their intention to not really offer lip service but actually take real action,” she said.

Some council members think they’ve gone too far. Alondra Cano, Andrea Jenkins and Palmisano largely sided with the mayor in his feud with the council. 

Palmisano said she gets that people don’t think an $8 million budget cut is much, but the city is down nearly 200 cops.

“The biggest thing this City Council has achieved since George Floyd has been to bleed our law enforcement capacity dry,” she said. “This is one of the biggest things my colleagues have focused on. From my perspective it greatly limits our ability to improve it.”

Council Member Jeremy Schroeder said the city hasn’t done enough to focus on what led to Floyd’s killing — after all, Chauvin was a field training officer — but the council has limited power over police. The case was a failure in discipline, supervision and training, he said.

“I’m not happy with where we’re at,” Schroeder said, but added, “I think we’ve done absolutely everything we can within our power.”

Bender said it has been difficult to build support within city government for reform without the mayor’s support, and some of the dissension stemmed from council members trying to align with Frey.

“If the mayor supported transforming our system of safety authentically, and put the weight of his office behind these efforts to think bigger about safety, to make sure every member of our community is safe, we would be much farther along with much less discord within the council,” she said. “We would be much farther along if those leaders who say they believe in transforming safety actually worked together with us, helped bring community members to the table, helped bring people together, instead of stoking division and fear.”

Fletcher said in many cities that have moved more aggressively on police reform, the work was led by the mayor. He also pointed to Minneapolis’ idiosyncratic city charter — which gives the mayor sole authority over the police department, except for its budget — as an impediment to rapid change.

“Even with a majority who are very committed to transformative structural change, I think it’s important to note the structural limitations that make that hard,” Fletcher said. “I think there are certainly things that the mayor could have done.”

Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said while he thinks more should be done, a lot of his constituents are not interested in cutting the police department with no plan for what happens next.

For Palmisano, the trouble began on that sunny day in June at Powderhorn Park. 

“That wasn’t a vote, it was a Sunday in the park, but that’s not where we take votes,” she said. “Nine of my colleagues got caught up in the moment and said some things that maybe they didn’t mean.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.