More than 300 Minneapolis residents signed up to speak Wednesday night on a plan to shrink the city’s police department, with some pleading for City Council members to deliver the reforms they promised after George Floyd’s death and others warning it would be irresponsible to cut officers amid soaring crime rates.
The council was expected to vote on the plan late Wednesday after several hours of public comment, and 11 of its 13 members have already cast committee votes in favor of key components of it.
Supporters call the plan “Safety for All,” the latest version of the “defund the police” movement that Minneapolis and other cities have considered since Floyd’s May 25 death ignited mass demonstrations against police brutality and a nationwide reckoning with racism.
The plan would cut nearly $8 million from Mayor Jacob Frey’s $179 million policing budget and redirect it to mental health teams, violence prevention programs and other initiatives. Frey has threatened to veto the plan, which he says would irresponsibly reduce the authorized size of the force by 138 officers before enacting alternatives.
The council was prepared to allow speeches of up to a minute for any of the 323 people who signed up, though not all spoke when their names were called.
Some in favor of the plan called police officers cowards, gang members, white supremacists or terrorists. They spoke about violence that African Americans and other minorities have experienced at the hands of police.
Those against the plan said the City Council was acting irresponsibly and has bungled its attempts to bring change. They cited increasing violence, saying they don’t feel safe.
“The place I grew up this summer burned,” said Will Roberts, who grew up in the Longfellow neighborhood. “And it burned because of police misconduct.” He called the police department a “violent, occupying source,” saying, “it’s incumbent upon us as residents of this city to change that.”
Loraine Teel, of south Minneapolis, said she supports the mayor’s position, telling council members: “You cannot achieve reform without a plan that includes the cooperation of those being reformed … You have failed miserably.”
Cities around the U.S., including Los Angeles, New York City and Portland, Oregon, are shifting funds from police departments to social services programs in an effort to provide new solutions for problems traditionally handled by police. Such cuts have led some departments to lay off officers, cancel recruiting classes or retreat from hiring goals.
In Minneapolis, violent crime rates have surged since the death of Floyd, a Black man who was handcuffed and pleading for air for several minutes while Derek Chauvin, a white former officer, pressed his knee against his neck. Chauvin and three others were charged in Floyd’s death and are expected to stand trial in March.
Police have recorded 532 gunshot victims this year as of last Thursday, more than double the same period a year ago. Carjackings have also spiked to 375 so far this year, up 331% from the same period last year. Violent crimes have topped 5,100, compared with just over 4,000 for the same period in 2019.
“This summer happened because George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department and it wasn’t an accident, it’s because the system of policing we know now is not just racist, but it doesn’t create safety for all,” said Oluchi Omeoga, a cofounder of Black Visions, which supports “Safety for All” as a step toward more transformational change.
Due to austerity forced by the coronavirus pandemic, the mayor’s proposal already bakes in a $14 million cut to the department compared with its original 2020 budget, mostly through attrition. Frey aims to hold the number of sworn officers around 770 through 2021 with hopes of eventually increasing the force to its current authorized cap of 888. “Safety for All” would cap the number at 750 by 2022. The department is already down by about 120 — partly due to officers claiming post-traumatic stress disorder from a summer of unrest — with more preparing to leave amid retirements and poor morale.
“I think we need to make bold decisions on a path forward,” said Council Member Steve Fletcher, a co-author of the proposal to reduce police staffing. While acknowledging that it would mean fewer officers, he said it would reduce the department’s workload by shifting 911 calls away from armed officers to other specialists such as mental health professionals.
“Combined those investments add up to a safer city for everybody and an approach that creates a more sustainable public safety system for our city,” Fletcher said in an interview.
But Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo who say there’s no need for an either-or decision — that it’s possible to reform policing without cutting officers. The mayor and 12 of the 13 council members are Democrats; one council member is from the Green Party.
If the council approves the plan, Frey would have five days to veto if he chooses. The council could override him with a two-thirds majority, or nine council members, but it’s not clear whether those nine votes exist. The proposal to cap the number of officers passed with just 7 of 13 votes in committee Monday.
A proposal over the summer to dismantle the department and replace it with a “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention” initially had support from a majority of the council but faltered when a separate city commission voted against putting it on the November ballot. The city was paying $4,500 a day at one point for private security for three council members who reported getting threats after supporting defunding.
Source: Associated Press – AMY FORLITI and STEVE KARNOWSKI