Defund/abolish/restructure the Minneapolis Police?

Chris Juhn

Will Minneapolis voters vote on policing changes on November 3? That depends first on the August 5 vote of the unelected Minneapolis Charter Commission. If the Charter Commission makes a decision that day, the action moves to the Minneapolis City Council. If the Charter Commission delays its vote, that pretty much kills the chance for a November 3 vote.

What is at stake

Shocked into action by the killing of George Floyd, the Minneapolis City Council voted to restructure policing. To do so, they need an amendment to the city charter, which is basically the city constitution. That’s because the Minneapolis City Charter has very specific things to say about the police.

First, the city charter says Minneapolis must have a police department. Then the charter puts “complete power” over policing in the hands of the mayor. Finally, the charter requires a minimum number of police. That number is “at least 0.0017 employees per resident.” That figures out to about 730 police officers for the current Minneapolis population. No other city charter has a requirement like this.

The city charter must change in order to change policing in Minneapolis.

City Council members Jeremiah Ellison, Alondra Cano, Steve Fletcher, Cam Gordon, and Lisa Bender wrote a charter amendment in June. Their amendment would create a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. The City Council would be required to “establish, maintain, adequately fund, and consistently engage the public” about the department.

The new department would prioritize “a holistic, public health-oriented approach.” The Council could maintain a division of law enforcement services within this department. This division would be “composed of licensed peace officers.” It would be under the supervision of the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.

The City Council proposal would completely rewrite the police provisions of the charter. It would eliminate the requirement for a specified minimum number of officers. It would also give control of the new department to the City Council and mayor jointly, rather than to the mayor alone.

What this would look like in practice

The city council proposal does not “abolish” the police department. Instead, it changes priorities. Law enforcement would still be a tool for community safety. It just would not be the only tool or the first one used.

That proposal would NOT immediately eliminate the police department. It would begin one year of discussions on moving forward. Any change would come after community input.

MPD 150 has worked for years to change policing in Minneapolis. Its website offers a good description of how change could work:

“Police abolition work is not about snapping our fingers and instantly defunding every department in the world. Rather, we’re talking about a gradual process of strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility ​away​ from police and ​toward​ community-based models of safety, support, and prevention.

“The people who respond to crises in our community should be the people who are best-equipped to deal with those crises. Rather than strangers armed with guns, who very likely do not live in the neighborhoods they’re patrolling, we want to create space for more mental health service providers, social workers, victim/survivor advocates, religious leaders, neighbors and friends– all of the people who really make up the fabric of a community– to look out for one another.”  

Complicated road to a vote

Whether Minneapolis residents even get to vote on the proposal in November depends on the Minneapolis Charter Commission. Members of that 15-member commission are appointed, not elected, for four-year terms. They are appointed by a chief judge in Hennepin County District Court. Currently, the commission has only one Black member. All of its members live in Minneapolis, but none live on the North Side.

The City Council took the first step toward a vote. In June, they sent the proposed change to the Charter Commission.

Charter Commission member Alvaro Giraud-Isaacson proposed a different change. That proposal would have removed the minimum police officer requirement from the charter. The commission voted down this proposal on July 29. The vote was 8-6.

The next step: the Charter Commission votes on whether to recommend the City Council proposal. That vote comes on Wednesday, August 5. They can vote yes or no or to extend its time.  

If they vote yes or no, the proposal goes back to the City Council. The Charter Commission vote is not binding on the City Council. Even if the Charter Commission says no, the City Council can vote to put the proposal on the November ballot.

Instead of voting yes or no, the Charter Commission could vote to give themselves more time. That is the surest way to kill the proposal. In order to get on the November 3 ballot, the proposal must be approved by the City Council by August 21.

If the proposal goes to the City Council, they would likely approve it. Then the mayor can sign or veto the proposal. Mayor Jacob Frey has already said he opposes this proposal. If he vetoed it, the City Council could override the veto with a two-thirds vote.

Bottom line: What are the chances that there will be anything on the ballot in November? We’ll find out on August 5.

If the Charter Commission votes to take more time, the City Council proposal will not go on the November ballot.

If they make a recommendation, then the next step is up to the Minneapolis City Council and Mayor. They will need to act quickly to get anything on the November 3 ballot.

Partial Text of the City Council Proposal

(a) Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. The City Council must establish, maintain, adequately fund, and consistently engage the public about a department of community safety and violence prevention, which will have responsibility for public safety services prioritizing a holistic, public health-oriented approach.

(1) Director of Community Safety and Violence Prevention Department. The Mayor nominates and the City Council appoints a director of the department of community safety and violence prevention under section 8.4(b). Individuals eligible to be appointed as director will have non-law enforcement experience in community safety services, including but not limited to public health and/or restorative justice approaches.

(b) Division of Law Enforcement Services. The Council may maintain a division of law enforcement services, composed of licensed peace officers, subject to the supervision of the department of community safety and violence prevention.