Can Minneapolis Reimagine Policing?

A proposed new department would include professionals like mental health workers alongside cops.

Nathan Goldman
October 29, 2021
Aurin Chowdhury of the Minnesota Youth Collective addresses a crowd of supporters of the public safety ballot initiative at a rally organized by the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign, September 17th, 2021.
Mohamed Ibrahim/Report for America via AP

Next Tuesday, voters in Minneapolis will decide whether to implement a plan to fundamentally reimagine the role of police in the city where police killed George Floyd more than a year ago, igniting a national uprising against police violence and racism, and introducing the idea of police abolition into mainstream American discourse. The proposal is the subject of a referendum that asks residents if they wish to amend the Minneapolis city charter “to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach,” to be jointly controlled by the mayor and City Council. While the change to the charter would not eliminate police from Minneapolis—the ballot question specifies that the new Department of Public Safety could include “licensed police officers”—it would dramatically transform the way the city conceptualizes public safety. In addition to creating a new department in place of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) that would employ professionals such as social workers and mental health experts, the measure would relieve the mayor of unilateral control over police and remove the minimum staffing requirement for police currently specified in the charter.

This proposal—developed and championed by a group called Yes 4 Minneapolis, which worked with dozens of local partners to gather signatures from 20,000 residents to put it on the ballot—has been a subject of heated public debate. All of Mpls, a political action committee, formed in part to fight the measure, which has been opposed by Mayor Jacob Frey, Gov. Tim Walz, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, all of whom are Democrats. (Proponents include Rep. Ilhan Omar and state Attorney General Keith Ellison, also Democrats.) Though the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign denies that the amendment would “defund” or “abolish” the police, the All of Mpls website claims that the campaign’s backers “want to make Minneapolis into the national experiment for defunding and abolishing the police.” This local battle has taken on national significance; indeed, it is perhaps the most significant proposed change to an American police department with any likelihood of passing since Floyd’s death. (Full disclosure: I live in Minneapolis and signed the petition to get this issue on the ballot, and my wife helped collect those signatures.)

For this week’s newsletter (subscribe here!), I interviewed Minister JaNaé Bates, the communications director for Yes 4 Minneapolis. We discussed exactly what the proposed amendment would do, how the campaign understands itself in relation to calls to defund or abolish the police, and why the campaign believes changing the city charter is necessary to transform public safety in the city. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Nathan Goldman: How did the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign come together?

JaNaé Bates: Yes 4 Minneapolis is really a big tent coalition. Nearly 70 organizations are part of it, including several dozen small businesses, as well as legislators and labor unions. These are folks across the city who vary on political ideology but who are committed to the people of Minneapolis being safe. Over a year ago, when the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd, people across race and age and income and gender divides poured into the streets to declare that Black lives matter. And the people of Minneapolis said not only that we want to proclaim that Black lives matter, but that we want to put policy in place that proves it.

At that time, there were some pushes to tackle issues around the Minneapolis Police Department specifically. But an unelected body of bureaucrats called the charter commission ended up blocking any real reforms. Yes 4 Minneapolis was birthed out of organizations that had been pushing for reforms that actually had teeth. In January, we decided to get this on the ballot through a citizens’ petition by collecting signatures, which is pretty uncommon in Minneapolis. We needed to have a little under 12,000 signatures, and we got over 22,000. These signatures had to be collected by hand, so we’re talking about knocking doors in the middle of January and February in Minnesota, with temperatures well below freezing. Folks were really galvanized and excited about the idea of having a humane public safety system.

NG: What exactly will the charter amendment do if it passes?

JB: The charter change would expand public safety by allowing us to create a department that has a public health approach, which means that it views people as whole human beings, rather than just as criminals and non-criminals. It would allow us to add qualified professionals—mental health professionals, homeless outreach coordinators, substance abuse specialists—who would be able to work with the police.

This would enable us to tackle something that even police have been naming as a problem. Currently, we call on police to be everything in public safety; they have to be social workers, counselors, and all of these other roles that they’re not trained or qualified for. So they show up in situations they probably shouldn’t be showing up to, and then we see issues around escalation, and sometimes harm happens.

This would also change the structure of oversight for the Minneapolis police. Currently, the mayor has unilateral and complete control of the department. As a result, the people of Minneapolis have no idea what kind of policies MPD has to operate under, because the City Council has zero control over the department. The Department of Public Safety, which would oversee police officers, would be set up the same way as every other department in the city, with full citywide democratic representation. You would have a department commissioner, who would be nominated and appointed by City Council members. Policymaking would be an open process. Community members would get to be involved and to see how these policies are being made, how they’re implemented, what the safety mechanisms are, and how they’re being funded. Unfortunately, MPD is the only department in the city that does not currently have that system. It’s also the only department that has issues of abuse and mistrust that sometimes result in murder.

In 1961, the Police Federation recommended an arbitrary number of police officers per capita for the city, and put that number into the city’s charter—something that no other city in Minnesota has. So they have the equivalent of a Police Federation contract in the city’s constitution. By changing that, the city would get some real leverage when it comes to collective bargaining with the Federation. Right now, MPD is operating under a contract that expired in 2019, and the Federation has no real incentive to negotiate with the city around transparency, training, and accountability. They don’t have to, since really their contract is in the city’s charter, with this requirement which is completely inflexible. It requires an armed police-only response instead of what we are asking for: a mix of strategies and people to fit the actual safety needs of the city in 2021, and not what the Federation prescribed over 60 years ago, even before the major gains of the civil rights movement. This change would finally make it possible for the city to have a say about public safety.

NG: Say the amendment passes. What happens in the next day, the next month, the next year?

JB: In the first 30 days, the City Council and the mayor would nominate and appoint an interim department commissioner. Then, they’d need to have a data-driven community engagement process to determine who these qualified professionals who should be a part of the Department of Public Safety are, which would take time. There is a state mandate, which wouldn’t change, that police officers must respond to a whole series of situations, and there is also a city ordinance that establishes the police department, and that would continue on for as long as necessary to ensure the police are still patrolling and responding to 911 calls. The MPD would no longer be within the charter, but it would still be a real entity—until that community engagement process is completed, when they could fully integrate the police officers into the Department of Public Safety, along with those other qualified professionals.

We’ve seen many different examples of how this works across the country. In Denver, for example, they piloted a program where for six months, the city diverted almost eight hundred 911 calls to specialists who were trained in substance abuse and homeless outreach and mental health. Zero of those calls required police response or ended in an arrest. So now the city of Denver is scrambling to try to figure out how they get it to scale, and how they build the infrastructure. Minneapolis benefits from this research—we get to build the infrastructure through the Department of Public Safety so that we’re ready.

NG: Shortly after the police killed George Floyd, the majority of Minneapolis City Council members came out publicly in support of defunding MPD. How did that relate to the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign?

JB: I think that was a reflection of where a lot of the country was at that time. They wanted to do something concrete—to show that they were taking seriously both police brutality and the harm experienced by community members, and especially Black community members. Using a slogan like “defund” made it serious. But their proposal was really just to expand public safety—to make it possible to add other professionals to the department and to have real transparency and accountability with police officers. That doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. Quite frankly, when you say “defund,” different people will give you very different answers about what that means.

NG: The Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign doesn’t use the language of “defund” or “abolish” or claim that either one is its goal. But some of your coalition partners—such as Black Visions Collective, Twin Cities DSA, and Reclaim the Block—have endorsed defunding or abolishing the police, and your opponents have also framed the campaign in those terms. How do you see the charter proposal relating to those frameworks and movements?

JB: When we talk about our coalition partners and their different political ideologies, it’s always important to note where we all align. We all share the value of keeping people safe. But we’re in a time when progressive policies that center whole human beings tend to get weaponized. And this fixation on slogans like “defund the police” has been a complete disservice to the people of Minneapolis.

This is an analogy I like to use: What if there was a person who, for their entire life since infancy, had only been offered rice to eat? They wouldn’t be healthy, but the human body can survive on rice alone. And what if, as an adult, a group of people came to that person and said: “If you say yes, we will gradually also get you some fruits, some vegetables, and some proteins, so that you can get to a point where you’re healthy? And we’ll also test your rice—we’ll make sure the arsenic levels aren’t over the top and that it’s regulated.” Meanwhile the folks who have been supplying the rice the whole time are just screaming, “They want to take your rice!”

That is the bad faith debate that we’re having right now. It’s intentional, and the point is to distract people from the substance of how the actual charter change will positively impact the day-to-day lives of the people of Minneapolis.

NG: Until the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision in September, just before early voting began, it looked like this proposal might not appear on the ballot at all. A judge had ruled earlier that month that it should not appear because the language was “unreasonable and misleading.” How do you understand the efforts by the court to keep this off the ballot?

JB: It’s important to note the reason that we even had to go to court, which is that a handful of very wealthy and powerful people never wanted this to make it on the ballot. We were trying to have a good faith argument for months about how to make the ballot question clear, so people would understand what they’re voting on. And the whole time we’re having this debate, their entire purpose in going back and forth with us was to remove the question from the ballot. They knew they couldn’t sway the vote of the people, so they just decided to steal it. We were incredibly grateful that the Minnesota Supreme Court sided with us, saying that the people of Minneapolis actually deserve to have a say about public safety.

NG: Mayor Jacob Frey opposes the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign, but he has also advocated for a Department of Public Safety. What’s the difference between Frey’s proposal and yours?

JB: It is clear that Mayor Frey wants to uphold the status quo. Just take a quick glance who’s been funding him: His allegiance lies with the wealthiest and whitest Minnesotans. This is a huge reason why the infrastructure of the police department needs to change. As you said, Mayor Frey is absolutely for a Department of Public Safety. He’s also absolutely for removing the minimum number of officers from the city charter. The only thing he opposes is losing his complete and unilateral control over the police department—which is a huge reason we don’t have transparency and accountability when it comes to public safety.

NG: Critics of the campaign, such as All of Mpls, push back on the idea that the campaign comes out of local organizing by pointing out that much of your funding comes from groups outside the state. For instance, the Open Society Policy Center gave the campaign $500,000, which is almost half of your funding. How would you respond?

JB: It is laughable that All of Mpls tries to critique our funding, considering that they’ve hidden theirs. This campaign came out of the community: We have the receipts for the tens of thousands of conversations we’ve had with community members over many months to develop the language for the charter amendment. But while we definitely had the people power and the political will, we didn’t necessarily have the dollars to match. And because this campaign has been heavily focused in Black and brown communities, we have to have an honest conversation about the kinds of resources that those communities do and don't have. We’re talking about communities that have had their wages extracted and exploited for a very long time. So to demand a campaign of this level to be completely dependent on Black moms working two jobs to survive is asinine.

People around the country who support this movement knew that we were going to be up against the Police Federation—and not just in Minneapolis, but nationwide. They knew that we were up against the Chamber of Commerce and big corporate landlords, the majority of whom are not based in Minnesota. So we’re incredibly grateful for everyone across the country who saw what was happening and wanted to support the people of Minneapolis in doing this thing we’ve been trying to do for decades.

NG: A September poll found that 49% of voters support creating a Department of Public Safety. But it also found that 55% of voters, and 61% of Black voters, oppose reducing the size of the MPD. How do you think about those numbers?

JB: I take those numbers seriously; it’s important to know where the people of Minneapolis are. But we also know that this poll was deeply flawed, because it asked those two questions as if they were related. The reality is, this charter amendment change does speak directly to a Department of Public Safety, but it does not speak directly to the number of officers that would be a part of it. That conflation was a methodological error. I also think it’s important to note that the police department is currently fully funded to have more officers than the charter prescribes. The feeling that there are fewer officers is real—there are fewer officers, because some have left due to PTSD, saying that they’re overtaxed, and some have left because we as a city decided to hold them accountable.

Of course, it’s a reality that the Black community is under-resourced, and has never gotten the level of public safety they deserve, especially when you’re talking about, for instance, North Minneapolis. And police officers are just one type of professional among many that actually should be responding to issues in the city. If you ask on a poll: “Do you want less of something when you are already feeling the strain of not feeling safe?”, it makes sense that people say: “No. If that’s all you’re offering, give me more of that.” But I would argue that if the poll also said, “What if we made sure you had mental health professionals and homeless outreach and substance abuse professionals?”, the results would look different.

NG: If the amendment doesn’t pass, what’s the next step for trying to reimagine the role of police in Minneapolis?

JB: If it doesn’t pass, people will keep pushing to implement a lot of the reforms that we’ve been advocating for years now. Hopefully, whoever is mayor and most council members will push to create a Department of Public Safety. But it is pretty much guaranteed that they’ll run into the same issues of not being able to get it to scale, to have teeth. And when they see that happen, maybe they’ll go back and say, “Oh, we do need to change the charter, and make this really comprehensive.” Then I think a lot of the work that Yes 4 Minneapolis has done—and all of the research on the problem that has happened over the past decade or more—will finally start to get implemented. Eventually, we will change the charter so that people can be safe.

Nathan Goldman is the managing editor of Jewish Currents.