dismantling the minneapolis police department

Over the past 4 years, I’ve studied community perceptions of the Minneapolis Police Department. With a team of students, we conducted qualitative interviews with over 100 residents and 20 leaders of police reform/transformation/abolition groups; tracked reform efforts by the MPD; and attended city council hearings, vigils, and community listening sessions. We learned that many in Minneapolis agreed that racialized police violence was a dire social problem, but disagreed on its solution (and whether policing could ever be reformed). Some citizens and groups fought for reform through bureaucratic channels, while others pushed for police abolition or transformation.

As readers are well aware, these questions about reform vs. abolition recently became a national conversation. Following the murder of George Floyd by four now-former MPD officers on May 25, 2020, and the explosion of protests locally (and nationally and internationally), many have looked to Minneapolis to see how this conversation might produce real change.

In attempting to grapple with my own understanding of what’s happening now and what might happen next, I found myself writing—eventually producing this unwieldy post. I started by laying out my assumptions, setting the groundwork for how I think about the police. Second, I trace some of what has happened in Minneapolis over the past three weeks. Finally, I reflect on what I think might happen moving forward.

TL;DR: Policing is intimately tied to anti-Blackness and the failure of the U.S. to ever treat Black Americans as full and equal citizens—and creating a better model of public safety will ultimately require upending the racism (and entrenched inequality) that undergirds our social structure, legal and bureaucratic systems, and culture. I don’t know what will unfold in Minneapolis in the coming weeks and years, but it is a major shift that “dismantling the MPD” has emerged as an explicit and well-supported policy preference among activists, residents, and city council members alike.

***

Basic starting points for me, as a sociologist/criminologist:

1) Black people in the U.S. have never been treated as full and equal humans, let alone citizens. Structural racism produces disparate outcomes across every measure of wellbeing and power today, including education, wealth, housing, and health. Americans share implicit biases that can lead to discrimination against groups racialized as non-white, and many white Americans hold explicitly prejudiced views, though they may portray or even consider themselves “color blind.” White people also have a long history of supporting calls for change during high-profile protests for racial justice, but then getting “cold feet” about the kinds of major structural transformations that would produce real equity. Black freedom struggles have also been met with violent resistance by the (white) state; increasing Black inclusion in the 1960s and ‘70s was paired with the massive expansion in criminalization and punishment in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This means that yes, there is racial bias in police shootings. Police have always played a role in upholding white supremacy and anti-Blackness.

2) Police both respond to and create interpersonal and state harm. Police are charged with responding and preventing the category of harmful and/or immoral behaviors socially constructed as crime (e.g. theft, interpersonal violence, etc.). Because the kinds of harms inflicted by elite actors (e.g. “white collar” crime, financial predation, environmental ruin, lack of healthcare access leading to premature death, etc.) are not understood as crime, the burden of crime is concentrated in poor communities of color. Police can reduce the prevalence of these kinds of social harms, but such benefits come at a tremendous cost, from the daily harassment of young Black boys and men and violence against Black women, to mass criminalization and mass incarceration, to police killings. Abolishing or defunding the police is not just about reducing the harms of policing by slowing (and eventually stopping) police encounters through decriminalization and defunding, it’s also about supporting alternative mechanisms for individual and community wellbeing to render policing as we know it unnecessary (e.g. universal healthcare and housing, violence interrupters, cash stipends for people likely to engage in gun violence, supporting neighborhood leaders and community groups, etc.).

3) Police spend their time responding to a diverse and complicated set of demands from residents, business owners, city leaders, legislators, and police brass. Much of uniformed officers’ time is spent enforcing discretionary traffic laws and responding to nuisance-related 911 calls (e.g., loud neighbors, kids on the corner, etc.). Police are also called to manage the problems created by poverty, despair, and toxic masculinity (e.g., arresting or forcing unhoused people to “keep moving,” drug overdoses, bar fights, domestic violence, etc.). They also enforce “vice” laws (e.g. arrests for drug deals, sex work, etc., sometimes via undercover cops) and maintain residential segregation. Police spend relatively little of their time responding to “serious” violent crimes, and many are of those they respond to are never solved. (Some argue that investigators effectively clearing homicide cases would do far more to reduce violent crime in cities than visible police presence intended to deter.)

4) Our country’s gun culture, which is intimately tied up with race/racism, complicates reform efforts. It is hard, for instance, to compare our police numbers with other countries’, given both the militarization of U.S. policing and the high rates of gun violence in the U.S. That so many citizens are armed makes it harder to advocate for disarming police or to hold officers accountable for gun violence. It means that when citizens don’t feel like the police will protect them, they buy and carry guns. It also means some of the people intervening in communities in place of police may be armed and may face (and/or pose) the risk of gun violence.

5)  Localized police forcessome 18,000 individual police departments in the countrymake transformational, national-wide changes in policing nearly impossible. (Minneapolis alone has the MPD, the University of Minnesota police, the park police, and Metro Transit police, plus state and federal law enforcement.) Police policies and accountability measures are set by department policy, city regulatory rules, state policy, federal policy, and past legal rulings. It is a maze of bureaucracy, policy, law, and local practice. 

6) Federalism affects the ability of cities to increase communities’ safety and wellbeing. The money each city has to govern is raised by local taxes, as well as allocations of state and federal support. Cities are limited in how much they can pursue economic redistribution (people can easily relocate outside the city lines, taking their tax contributions with them). Over the past several decades, crime has declined, but police budgets have not—even as the funding for public education, affordable housing, cash assistance, and other programs shrunk. (Local and state governments together, however, still spend more on public welfare and education than police and corrections.) Thus, to “invest in Black communities” means rethinking local policy in addition to demanding state and federal support (including through higher taxes on the wealthy).

7) Police unions are very strong and their contracts give them a lot of protection. Unless those contracts change, attempts to fire officers will be fought vigorously (and would in many cases lead to firing the newest officers, rather than those with the worst histories of misconduct). In Minneapolis (and elsewhere) there are large divides between the reform-oriented chief (appointed by the Mayor) and the head of the federation (elected by the rank-and-file). When chiefs fire officers for misconduct, unions often fight through arbitration to win back those jobs. Police unions hold tremendous power in part because of fear of police strikes or slowdowns and because of their cultural and political resonance with the “law and order” frame. Officer unions also have a seat at the table for all reform conversations at the level of department policy, city council decisions, state law, and federal policy-making. These unions financially back campaigns and ballot measures, helping to elect certain candidates (and not others) and push certain kinds of reforms and resource allocations (and not others).

8) Police reform can push departments’ policies and practices forward, but has not ended police violence. There is a long history of cycles of police abuses, commissions and reports on such abuses, and periods of reform—and in each prior iteration of this cycle in the U.S., attempts to professionalize police have expanded the scale and role of police. In recent years, many departments, including MPD, have embraced the suite of reforms recommended in the Taskforce Report on 21st Century Policing, commissioned under President Obama. These reforms include things like implicit bias, deescalation, and mental health crisis training; stronger policies around use of force; and accountability measures like body-worn cameras. These kinds of police reform do have some impact on officers and community trust. However, this change has been slow, incremental and piecemeal, and is easily set back by union and rank-and-file resistance, leadership failures, political turn-over, well-founded community distrust, and more. Further, very few places implemented robust accountability measures to make it easier to discipline and fire officers who abuse citizens. And state and federal laws, prior court decisions, prosecutors’ reliance on police, and jury members’ deferral to law enforcement all make it difficult to successfully prosecute cops who commit murder. While some cities have decreased police shootings in recent years, there’s been little change in the annual number of Americans killed by the police in the U.S. since the eruption of the Black Lives Matter Movement—holding steady at over 1,000 people (even during the pandemic).

***

Minneapolis, MN

So, what’s happened so far in Minneapolis? A unique confluence of events (dislocations caused by COVID-19, the end of President Trump’s first term, and a horrific case of police murder caught on video) sparked a local, national, and international uprising over the past three weeks. The organizers of these protests have been tilling this ground and seeding change for years (both locally and nationally), building on a decade of work by BLM and the Movement for Black Lives that organized BIPOC community leaders and increased white Americans’ political consciousness about the realities of police violence. As a result of this work, the political playing field in Minneapolis has irrevocably shifted.

1) PROSECUTION. The four officers involved in the murder of George Floyd were fired wtihin a day. On May 29th, Officer Chauvin (who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes) was charged with 3rd degree murder by the local proseuctor (Michael Freeman), under public pressure. On May 31st, after additional pressure from protesters and Floyd’s family, Attorney General Keith Ellison took up the prosecution (in partnership with Freeman). On June 3rd, Ellison raised charges against Chauvin to 2nd degree murder (in addition to the original third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter with culpable negligence charges) and charged the other 3 officers with aiding and abetting murder.

2) CIVIL RIGHTS INVESTIGATION. The state of Minnesota, with city council support, opened a civil rights investigation into MPD on June 2nd. They immediately banned chokeholds and established  stronger obligations for officers to intervene in misconduct. The investigation is ongoing and I’m not yet sure how much leverage this investigation will give the city council and state to impose stronger reforms on the MPD. 

3) UNION NEGOTIATION. The Chief of MPD, Medaria Arradondo, stated on June 10th that he was withdrawing from negotiations with the police union (which has been working under an expired contract since January). It is unclear what this means in practical terms, other than that the prior contract remains in force. The Chief expects to have a stronger negotiating position when talks resume, and signalled that he wants the new contract to facilitate stronger use of force restrictions and include fewer protections for officers found to commit misconduct.

4) DISMANTLING MPD. The Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously on June 12th to start a 1-year study period of alternatives approaches to public safety. Against the objections of Mayor Frey, a majority of the City Council has voiced support for “dismantling” or “beginning the end” of MPD. However, many city council members continue to voice support for the Chief—with some saying they would work with the Chief to create a “new” police department. Some seem to have a Camden, NJ, model in mind (i.e., break the union and rebuild the police department with increased accountability measures), while others are more explicitly committed to abolition and/or alternative approaches (e.g., a public health model). Led by Jeremiah Ellison, a council member who is also the son of the Attorney General and a former policing transformation activist, a group favoring defunding introduced a resolution to ask the city charter commission to research a ballot amendment (ideally for vote in November) that would replace the mandatory MPD staffing numbers built into the city’s charter with a “department of public safety.” If passed, the amendment would allow the city to transfer funding away from MPD and toward other groups and institutions after the 1-year study. 

Many of these moves have been explicitly supported or led by local abolition groups (Reclaim the Block, Black Visions Collective, and MPD 150). At the same time, other police reform (and police accountability) groups have argued that the city council is grandstanding. These groups favor major reforms rather than “dismantling.” Similar debates are playing out among the left on the national stage (e.g., Biden’s call to reform police, which was swiftly critiqued for increasing police funding, and Campaign Zero’s #8CANTWAIT against #8TOABOLITION). While there are some points of overlap (especially around increasing the ability of chiefs to fire the worst cops), there is an inherent conflict between reform and abolition—many reform proposals require funding to support the hard work of legal, policy, and culture change (and work to prop up policing as a legitimate institution). Abolitionists want us to understand criminalization and policing as a system of oppression and give less money to police, instead investing in other kinds of community-building.

5) COMMUNITIES. The uprising in Minneapolis made real impacts in neighborhoods that will also continue to shift politics. Many communities had started to get more organized in response to COVID-19. This work rapidly expanded during the first week of protests, as property destruction and fires spread and police initially retreated (before the Governor called in thousands of National Guard troops). Neighborhood groups asked residents to band together and protect their communities. In North Minneapolis  (the historic heart of the city’s Black community), local residents formed community patrols to protect Black businesses. There are efforts now to formalize and build on some of these partnerships. In Powderhorn (a racially mixed neighborhood near the site of Floyd’s murder), the community came together to build explicitly anti-racist neighborhood safety strategies and are now protecting an encampment of unhoused people (who had been temporarily sheltered in an “occupied” Sheraton hotel). Throughout the city, residents saw police and National Guard members indiscriminately lobbing tear gas canisters and shooting rubber bullets at peaceful protestors and many white residents started new conversations about the danger inherent in calling the police. However, in some wealthier white neighborhoods, the conversation instead focused on “protecting” the neighborhood from people perceived as outsiders and emphasized calling the police for all “suspicious” person or vehicle sightings—potentially increasing vigilante violence toward BIPOC residents. In addition, some residents (and especially wealthy white residents and business owners) saw the looting and fires as evidence for why the city (and people like them) need the police, perhaps solidifying  their resistance to transformation/abolition. It remains unclear too how the uprising shifted public opinion outside of Minneapolis in the state.

5) STATE LEGISLATION. The MN DFL, led by the Minnesota People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, have introduced a series of police reform and accountability measures during a special legislative session that began this weekend. These measures would not solve police violence, but they would be important steps forward for more community oversight, more restrictive use of force policies, and better legal accountability policies for officers who murder citizens. So far, the Republicans in the Senate seem to be signaling they will block these measures and are using their leverage to try and end the Governor’s peacetime emergency declaration for COVID-19. (The one exception seems to be on union-busting measures, for which Republicans are unsurprisingly more enthusiastic than Democrats.)

***

OK, so after reading all of this, what comes next? I really don’t know. As of now, big moves from the state or the federal government to support BIPOC communities and/or restrain police violence seem unlikely if a Democrat doesn’t win the White House in the fall, if Democrats do not gain majorities in state legislatures, and so on. Democratic wins alone won’t be enough either—public pressure will need to continue to coalesce around these issues. At the same time, many feel this time is  “different”—there is greater awareness and energy to upend systems that produce structural racism from policing to education, housing, employment, and healthcare.

At the local level, the transformation of MPD seems to be partly on pause for the next year, as the city conducts the alternatives to safety study, collecting public input and developing and scaling-up alternatives to police intervention. It is clear that there is tremendous new support for—if not precise agreement on the structure of—police “dismantling” and new modes of public safety in Minneapolis, but also that some residents and political elites and the police union will fight these changes. Without the city charter amendment going up for a vote and passing, the power of the city council to  substantially defund MPD remains limited. Much of the city’s power to transform MPD will also be shaped by the civil rights investigation, (once resumed) union contract negotiations, and any policy changes at the state level. This struggle is also happening in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession (and rebuilding costs in the wake of the uprising), which will constrict local funding. 

In the meantime, police and residents will likely adapt their behavior, with residents perhaps less willing to call 911 on average and police responding to criticism perhaps by slowing response times and arrests. Some officers have resigned from the force, and recruitment in the next year may prove difficult, perhaps producing budget shrinkage through declining officer numbers (if not compensated with additional over-time). Likewise, the decisions of the Minneapolis Public Schools, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, and University of Minnesota to reduce their connections to MPD will reduce MPD funding.

The metaphor that comes to my mind for best describing this moment is the day after an earthquake—an explosive start of a new period of contestation over public safety that disrupts the ground but follows old fault lines. History shows us that these periods of rupture rarely produce total abandonment of the status quo, but activists, political leaders, and others can use such openings to shift the direction of government policies and practices and the broader culture. This wave of police reform/transformation already looks different than earlier iterations, with abolition and reducing police budgets explicitly on the table. By looking beyond reform to dismantling or transforming the police, Minneapolis is working to turn the tide on a process of criminalization, surveillance, and punishment that has ramped up for decades.

Thank you to Letta Page and Joshua Page for thoughtful edits and suggestions.

Author: michellesphelps

Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.

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