There’s no doubt public safety change is needed

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But the push to ‘defund the police’ leaves many unanswered questions

Since the tragic killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, the news has been dominated by stories of police and community relations both locally and nationally.  Rightfully so—far too many people have died needlessly in interactions with police officers.  Things must change. 

Socially we are struggling with a myriad of issues right now. A pandemic. Record unemployment. An affordable housing crisis. Rising homelessness. Local and State governments struggling to bear the unexpected costs of COVID-19. An economy strained by all of the above. People were already on edge.  

The eyewitness footage of Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee crushing George Floyd’s neck as Floyd was pinned to the ground was heart-wrenching and visceral. Floyd’s pleas for his life went unanswered as other officers present failed to intervene. Instead, Floyd’s pleas became a collective call to action for a community long at odds with its police force.

The scene was all too common and is endemic of the racial and socio-economic divide that continues to beleaguer not only our Twin Cities, but our country. 

In the days following George Floyd’s death our community reeled. People gathered in solidarity and protest of our broken system, of the two disparate Americas which exist and the growing divide between them.

Protesters were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Growing unrest gave way to destruction. For several nights fires raged, and pockets of the city were turned to ash and rubble. Neighbors and community groups banded together to protect homes and businesses.         

Protests spread throughout the country. Floyd’s death became the catalyst rekindling important conversations about racial disparities, social justice, and policing practices nationwide.  A cry to defund the police has been echoed from coast to coast, growing louder over time.

As these conversations have unfolded, many people have questioned what it means to “defund the police.” Interpretations vary widely.  Some point to the need to reduce police budgets, reallocating funds to education, social services, and prevention initiatives that aim to reduce socio-economic disparities.

Others call for a complete defunding and dismantling of police departments. One thing each end of the spectrum appears to have in common is a desire to reimagine how public safety functions in our society.  

While communities debate defunding initiatives, people wonder what would replace police officers. Gun violence in Minneapolis is at record levels this year.

According to police department records, as of July 25 at least 275 people had been the victims of gunfire in Minneapolis already this year. This is higher than the annual totals of all but two of the last 10 years. Residents worry this will only worsen if the police are defunded.

A month after George Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to revise the city’s charter to allow for the dismantling of the Minneapolis Police Department. They proposed a charter amendment which would abolish the current law enforcement structure, opting instead for a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. The department would have responsibility for public safety services prioritizing a holistic, public health-oriented approach. 

Proponents of the plan have advocated for rapid, sweeping changes. Some have claimed that problems with the Minneapolis Police Department are far too entrenched for any reform efforts to be successful. 

Others, including Mayor Jacob Frey, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, and State government officials have advocated for a more measured approach. 

Opponents of the plan are concerned that politicians are rushing the process. They advocate for public hearings, community input, and more information before a change to the city’s charter is put to voters.

Against the backdrop of this debate, the city council voted July 24 to approve cuts of more than $1.5 million from the police department budget for the year. Most of that money will be diverted to the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention.    

On August 5, the Minneapolis Charter Commission, after weeks of debate and public comment, voted to delay consideration of the ballot measure for 90 days to allow more time to address specifics of the plan. This delay prevented the Minneapolis City Council from meeting an August 21 deadline to put the proposed charter amendment on the November ballot.

One thing is certain: Elected officials, civic leaders and residents are divided on how to remake policing in Minneapolis and how rapidly change needs to occur.

About Clarence Hightower

Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104

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