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Guest column: The responsibility Minneapolis has in leading the future of civil rights reform

The Minneapolis City Council faces a golden opportunity to reform community policing in a way that prioritizes its Black citizens. It would be negligent to not take advantage.
Nine Minneapolis City Council members declared their commitment to defunding and dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department alongside community groups Black Visions and Reclaim The Block to a vast crowd at Powderhorn Park on Sunday afternoon, June 7, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Liam James Doyle for MPR News)

Two factors have always been necessary to produce significant civil rights change in the United States: a heightened legislative priority on issues of civil rights and a productive working relationship between activists and the elected officials that represent them.

Both factors presented themselves following the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis Police Department officers. My hope is that the story of the opportunity in Minneapolis inspires an immediate and aggressive nationwide change to community policing, a change from a system that enables police brutalization to one that highlights why it was never necessary.

The Minneapolis City Council and the Minneapolis Charter Commission are at the heart of the potential that the city has to implement groundbreaking change. Based on the Council’s public commitment and legislative effort to disband the MPD, traditional forms of policing are being reconsidered. It’s an exciting prospect that could permanently advance the 21st century fight for civil rights.

Understanding the City Council and Charter Commission

The Minneapolis City Council has 13 seats with 12 currently active members to represent each of its wards. Ward 6’s council member Abdi Warsame resigned in March of this year to accept another position in the city government. The Council operates as the city’s legislative body, sending bills for passage to the mayor’s office. In the effort to defund the MPD, it has proposed an amendment to the city charter. The charter operates as the city’s constitution, delegating powers and regulative authority over the various administrative departments, including the MPD. Amending the charter is an action that must be reviewed by another legislative body: the Charter Commission.

The Minneapolis Charter Commission consists of 15 members who are all appointed by the chief judge of the Hennepin County District Court. All proposals passed by the Council are sent to the Charter Commission for review. The Charter Commission has 60 days to review proposals from the Council and provide its recommendation. A key power to note, and a major focus point for the future of this proposed reform, is that the Commission can take an additional 90-day extension to review a proposal if it chooses to do. 

Looking ahead: Minneapolis’ potential for reform

Grassroots organizations and city council members recognize the gravity of the current moment in the city and the presence of the two factors needed for change. 

“It’s clear that we’re not going to solve police brutality or systemic racism in America by focusing on individual officers,” said Tony Williams, an organizer for Reclaim the Block in an interview with WBUR. “The whole system is rotten to the core.”

Grassroots organizations Reclaim the Block, Black Visions Collective (BLVC) and MPD150 are notable groups in the city’s Black activism scene that have captured the public’s frustration vividly through massive protesting. Private citizens, who have been waiting for their grievances to be heard, protested for weeks demanding meaningful change. The extent of the pain they felt from police presence was reflected in burning the MPD’s 3rd Precinct, an event highlighted in the demonstrations that caught international attention. Protests in George Floyd’s name spread across communities in all 50 states in the U.S. and in dozens of countries, including France, Nigeria and New Zealand.

In the years leading up to this moment, Reclaim the Block and BLVC and the Council were planting the seeds of reform.

For the City Council’s previous two budget cycles, Reclaim the Block and MPD150 had pushed for a reapportionment of funds away from MPD. The outcome of the initial defunding initiatives fell short. Only a decrease to the rate at which the MPD expanded their budget was passed. The MPD’s overall budget increased from $179.4 million in 2018 to $193.3 million in 2020.

“The government had failed, and we needed to do something pretty dramatic,” Ward 2 Council member Cam Gordon said in an interview with me.

Gordon expressed that from these experiences a silver lining arrived in the form of a cogent working relationship between the groups, Reclaim the Block and BLVC, and the Council. 

“For our city council members, they have been much more responsive, and many of them have actually committed to us to really disband the Minneapolis Police Department and transition over the next few years away from having policing in Minneapolis,” said BLVC’s Kandace Montgomery in a June interview with The Intercept.

BLVC and the Council then agreed to produce the Powderhorn Park rally on June 7, where nine of the council’s members publicly announced their commitment to defund and restructure the MPD through the city charter.  

Next steps: Amending the charter and balloting the measure

On June 26, the Council took the first steps necessary and passed a unanimous proposal to remove the police department from the charter entirely. Upon the passage of the proposal, the City Council has proposed an alternate program, called the Community Safety & Violence Prevention Department (CSVPD), which the Charter Commission is currently reviewing.

There are two facets of the proposed charter change: altering the structure of the police department and altering the system of police oversight.

Restructuring the MPD with this alternate program means giving the Council power to reallocate current MPD funds toward community wellness programs. For example, Gordon has already proposed cutting a combined $105,000 from the MPD’s current budget to fund multiple programs, including a Cedar-Riverside youth program, a program for low-income housing and a Health Department program to assist those with HIV and AIDS, among other programs. 

Also, reducing the MPD’s role in the city charter would remove a standing funding formula that mandates for every Minneapolis resident, the city must fund 0.0017 police officers. Currently that minimum number of officers stands at 723. 

Of the newly proposed CSVPD, Gordon highlights that it would have a “different charge to it, focused more on nonviolent kinds of public safety initiatives.”

On the council’s oversight agenda is transferring disciplinary powers over police officers who commit infractions such as excessive force. A New York Times report highlighted that since 2015, roughly 11,500 instances of use of force by the MPD have been documented. About 6,650 of those instances came in situations with Black residents versus roughly 2,750 with their white counterparts. Yet Black people only comprise roughly 19% of the Minneapolis’ population.

Currently, the charter delegates disciplinary authority to the mayor’s office, which is then informally passed on to individual police chiefs across precincts. The amendment proposal seeks to transfer this power to a third party not affiliated with law enforcement. It is unclear whether this third party will be privately owned or exist under the direct supervision of the Council, a choice that matters in preserving transparency. 

A clear path to passage would exist if not for one caveat: the 90-day extension rule puts the possibility of the measure appearing on the ballot this November in danger because of how easily the Charter Commission can procrastinate on the issue. While the Council is not legally bound to abide by the Charter Commission’s recommendation, it must wait until the review is complete before continuing internal language edits of the measure to be sent to the mayor’s office for signature. 

The Council members who rallied at Powderhorn Park understand they represent a veto-proof majority in the city legislature. This means they would be free from any scrutiny to proceed on the measure without fear of failure, including from Mayor Frey, who has already opposed it. 

Legislatively speaking, the lack of bureaucratic hurdles represents a test of competence and good faith governmental practices. With an incredibly simple path to place the charter amendment before voters this November, the sanity of Minneapolis’ government is under a microscope. 

Plainly said, there is a moral responsibility in the city legislature to improve quality of life for Black Minneapolis residents. Anything other than full, uninhibited support of this responsibility signifies a betrayal of the demands of the city’s grassroots organizations and the Black lives they publicly claim matter. 

Both of these factors lead directly to one point: Minneapolis city officials are on the precipice of civil rights history, and it’s up to them to finish the job.

On a July 21 teleconference meeting, the Charter Commission took opinions from Minneapolis residents. Minority dissenters argued the proposal should not be placed on the ballot because they felt it was rushed and too vague. Majority supporters of the amendment pointed to the MPD’s over 150-year history of targeted racial violence and urged the question be placed before voters to preserve a healthy democratic process in the city. 

Commission Chair Barry Clegg has expressed that in its meeting on Aug. 5, the Commission will either make a decision or elect to take an extension, preventing the proposal from reaching the ballot.

The Charter Commission and City Council are currently taking written comments about the charter proposal via email at [email protected]. Let them hear your thoughts. 

This guest column was submitted by Wildany Guerrero, a clerk in IP law who is based out of Hackensack, New Jersey.

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