A decision about whether to create a Department of Public Safety in Minneapolis is on the ballot November 2 as “Question 2.” The wording: “Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions by the Department of Public Safety, with those specific functions to be determined by the mayor and Minneapolis City Council by ordinance; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?”
An explanatory note indicates: “This amendment would create a Department of Public Safety combining public safety functions through a comprehensive public health approach to be determined by the mayor and Council. The department would be led by a Commissioner nominated by the mayor and appointed by the Council. The Police Department, and its chief, would be removed from the City Charter. The Public Safety Department could include police officers, but the minimum funding requirement would be eliminated.”
Minneapolis residents might agree that the current justice and public safety system does not work, but what is the solution? Tearing it down? Testing new models? Electing different leaders to reshape the structure from within? Should a public safety budget equally focus on policing and public health needs? Who decides?
On November 2, Minneapolis voters will have made that decision.
Viewpoint: Senator Patricia Torres Ray
I asked four people I trust as community leaders who I believe have had transformational values for racial justice and equity for decades. Two said they are voting yes, and two are voting no.
I had a deeper conversation with one of them, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, who said this: “I am a strong yes, no hesitation. Minneapolis is a large, bureaucratic, and complex city. There are very affluent communities bordering low-income, with very different needs around housing and safety from block to block. As policy-makers, we hear about needs for enforcement, policing, intervention. Right now everything goes to the police. Whether it is issues around homelessness, substance abuse, domestic abuse, people are accustomed to calling the police. We have to change that.”
This is not about abolishing police, she says. It is about creating a Department of Public Safety to develop clear boundaries between very different types of services — an umbrella system under which the police still function.
“People are afraid of what they do not know,” Torres Ray says. In many parts of the world, policing is handled very differently. Some investigators do not carry guns. “How we think in this country about protecting ourselves is a militaristic approach. It gives comfort to some people.”
Torres Ray is originally from Colombia, where some of her family still lives. “There are gated communities, and private security with law enforcement trained by the military. And it is one of the most unsafe countries in the world.”
What works instead, she says, is for community to rethink its approach to public safety. “It is not a new concept in the world, but it is for us — to begin to provide safety and direction for prevention of crime. That is where we fail. We have to shape that. It will take time to learn to evolve into taking care of our neighbors, to participate in shaping that model. It won’t happen overnight.
On October 12, Racial Justice Network presented a forum hosted by Nekima Levy-Armstrong, featuring the views of six Black community leaders. The forum featured three “yes” proponents: D.A. Bullock (filmmaker and story-based community organizer), Mel Reeves (Spokesman-Recorder columnist), and Jerrell Perry (mayoral candidate), and three “no” proponents: Sondra Samuels (Northside Achievement Zone director), Teto Wilson (Wilson’s Barbershop in North Minneapolis), and AJ Awed (mayoral candidate and co-director of Cedar-Riverside Community Council).
Editor’s note: To streamline, we paraphrase the speakers’ views in the overall conversation, rather than directly quoting them. This is a condensation of their views, taken from 14 pages of notes, and is not in chronological order of the discussion. Find the full conversation here.
Nekima Levy-Armstrong: Moderator
I see how fear is driving what is happening on both sides. During the media propaganda of the crack cocaine epidemic decades ago, there was a crackdown on communities who were experiencing the most stress, rather than investing in what would make people healthier.
This is an issue of trust. I don’t trust the mayor to take steps to overhaul the police department. I don’t trust the Council either, which has not looked at past cases of accountability, even though they have the power to do so. Even among activists there are differences in perspectives. It is not about shaming, whether we answer yes or no. We are entitled to our opinions, which are formed by where we live, what we have dealt with. This is a welcome discussion on policing and differences in perspective.
D.A. Bullock: “Yes”
Today’s city charter structurally provides a guaranteed police contract that offers a certain number of officers per resident a guaranteed amount of taxes collected in the city, regardless of performance. That limits the amount of change we can do with the budget. We cannot trust the mayor, City Council, and police chief to change that system, since they never have — including in the 17 months since George Floyd was murdered by police. If we want to change the limitations around investment in public safety — give the same benefits and structure to prevention as to policing — we have to vote “yes.” Sasha Cotton is in charge of the Minneapolis Office for Violence Prevention. There are seven people in that office now — and more than 500 people in the police department. No one else in city government, except the police, have a guaranteed budget, so let us use a charter change to realign priorities.
If residents have a say, through their representatives on the City Council in the future, to ask for the $180+ million police budget to be split evenly between policing and prevention, this charter change can help that to happen. If we split up the current policing budget and spend $91.5 million on policing, and some of the other half on people coming out of the prison system who want to give back to the community and intervene with youth today, wouldn’t that give us a better system? Currently the police system catches people after the community has been victimized and traumatized. That is not protection. We need intervention before violence happens.
Why are we not leaping at the opportunity to put some of that system in place? To say that we can, without changing the charter, begs the question — then why haven’t we? There have been seven police fired after arbitration, including the four who killed George Floyd. There have been 1,200 complaints filed just since Mayor Frey took office. That is the low-level of accountability in our system now. Why do we trust that?
I reject the notion that the current system is the best we can ask for and that we should be fearful of changing that. We have internalized that we cannot do better, that there is no plan — when we have worked for hundreds of years reaching for better options. We don’t have access to make that happen in the current system. Many people want to keep things the way they are because they have access to the right connections and have influence in their world. We need to equal that playing field for everyone — secure safety for all, not just those living in Linden Hills or downtown.
No one can point to a history of reform happening in Minneapolis. Billions of dollars on policing over the past few years has not made Black people any safer. Instead, we are over-policed and under-protected. If we asked Black people in a poll if they want to be served better by public safety, what do you think the answer would be? If we don’t make change happen, we are simply begging for the same low-quality protection.
Sondra Samuels: “No”
This amendment is about eventually abolishing police, not about creating better safety and systemic change. Those are goals we can reach without changing the charter. Currently the police chief cannot get rid of the Chauvins in the police force. We have a flawed system that has to get fixed but now, with the height of violence of Black bodies we are seeing, is not the time to abandon the prospect of reform. Our children in North Minneapolis cannot walk freely outside, not simply because of cops, but because of the violence of other people who look like them. We miss the opportunity to make changes if we take this narrow approach. Well-meaning progressive people in southwest Minneapolis want to be antiracist and feel if they don’t vote “yes,” they won’t be allies to us. But we cannot lead with 14 bosses — 13 City Council members and the mayor — and no plan for what comes next.
In 2019, we had 876 police officers, 48 homicides, and 269 people shot. In 2021, with so many police officers stepping away because of trauma [and/or avoidance of discipline, according to Bullock], there are 578 officers, more than 75 homicides, and over 500 people shot. That does not include the car-jackings and other violence. We differ on what the solution is.
I do what I do because all of our systems have failed us — not just policing, but responding to domestic assault, housing, education, jobs. I still have not given up on changing that. If we want to blow up the police, why not all of it? The death of George Floyd has given us an opportunity to be more holistic in our approach. Recently, as police were tending to someone with an addiction, an elderly woman in the neighborhood was run over nearby and they responded to that, too. We might think it is cleaner to send in people who work with mental health issues, and addiction, and homelessness. But many professionals don’t feel safe going into some communities right now.
A new mother in my neighborhood had to protect her six-month-old baby from being shot in her car. An 18-year-old man we know was shot in the neck. People are taking antidepressants and afraid to leave home. People in the roughest parties of North Minneapolis cannot take it anymore and are moving. A leader in the Black community moved after his third grader was nearly shot. There are shootouts near schools. How do we keep our babies safe if we are not in partnership with those who can enforce the laws? That does not mean we do not keep working for reform and demand change, but we need enough police to also make communities feel whole.
Jerrell Perry: “Yes”
Wards 10, 12, and 13 have more power in city government because [historically each] mayor knows, numbers-wise, those are the voters who are a bigger factor in elections [partly due to population density]. That means those voters are catered to in a different way. If they do not care about the policing — or education or housing — in North Minneapolis, there is no leverage for change.
Currently 30 percent of homicides in the city are being solved; 85 percent of those lives are Black. In order to change this, families from all 13 wards must work together for full public safety. That does not happen. A charter change gives us more leverage. And let’s not be held captive by narratives from others. We were told George Floyd died of a medical condition, but that was not true. We were told Winston Smith was killed because he was a murderer, but that was not true. If we are afraid of lawlessness right now, the mayor is in charge of public safety and is allowing that. If this ballot measure fails, how do we stop lawlessness if nothing is being done now?
The charter change still would allow funds for law enforcement. Why are we fighting over the ballot language compared to the hell we have been forced to live in? Yes, there are unknowns, as there was after slavery was ended, with the Jim Crow decision, with the civil rights movement. But we are people of faith, spiritual people, who can believe in the power of love, having a sound mind, and not let fear keep us stalled. We can walk in the unknown if there is the possibility that our babies can have better lives than what we have right now. If this passes, we can make a system that is bigger and better and more effective.
Few police officers live in the community. The current system enables policing to hide body cam footage, as they did again recently for two years. We need more accountability than that.
Teto Wilson: “No”
I was witness to the Jamar Clark murder and understand the emotions here to dismantle. But we are dealing with enormous crime in our communities. The City Council was on TV a year ago saying they would engage the community in reshaping or reimaging policing — and none of it was done. Deciding to experiment with how to do that now is too much of a risk. The people who represent us could have worked in the past 16 months with the mayor and police chief to make major reforms, but they have not.
If we dismantle the structure we have now, more people — involved in speeding, carjacking, violence — will feel like they have no one to answer to. It is our job to get the right City Council in place, then work with the police chief and mayor to bring about changes we want to see.
I am less concerned about my kids being pulled over by the police than I am about being a victim in our community. Whether it passes or not, we have work to do together. There is too much at stake and work to be done before we try an experiment while we are all more vulnerable to crime. This is not something we can trust to chance.
Mel Reeves: “Yes”
The charter, as it exists now, is a hindrance. I am nervous about what it means to move to a new structure if this passes — changing the structure will not solve our problems without true community actions. But for actual reform to happen, this charter gives us a start that won’t happen without it. Police have never been expected to solve the problem of crime in the community. Their job is to reinforce stereotypes as the first line of defense of the power structure. Black-on-Black crime, violence against women and the LGBTQ+ community are not priorities.
As the book “Black on Black Violence” reveals, we are shooting each other as a violent reaction to an inability to neutralize the power of white structures. Black men have internalized oppression into self-destruction. Policing won’t solve that.
The Black Lives Matter movement did not call for abolition of policing; a small number of people did. Maybe it is more about abolishing capitalism. People are using the term “defunding” as a straw man to divide us. We take accountability off the table when we are focusing on the word “defunding.”
We are all asking for the same thing. We know the system is guilty. Things changed in Ferguson, Missouri, [and the system was] slowly replaced with a better [one]. I am an old-school revolutionary. If folks are determined not to change the police, not agreeing on accountability, there will be no change. If a child is misbehaving, and you don’t discipline them for it, they will keep doing it. How else will we get this city to hold people in uniforms accountable?
AJ Awed: “No”
I was a high school dropout, in a gang, and went to law school because of community and opportunity. As someone running for mayor, talking to voters, this is our moment, our issue, to lead with allies. If there was a magic button to get experienced policing the way white people do, we would be happier — that is what we are looking for. We want to be granted dignity and respect, and to know that anyone who abuses and murders Black people will be held accountable by the system. That does not come from a structural change. We need Black people in leadership, with white progressive allies. We cannot assume all will simply happen if there is a Department of Public Safety.
More cops on the ground will deter more crimes. The City Council that we have is erratic at times. The progressive movement is a cause of that. We have the second worst racial disparities in the country, more than southern states, and we are living in what is considered a progressive haven. To think that our City Council will make us all safer, by overseeing a Department of Public Safety, is simplistic. It will lead to confusion and harm. We have to be responsible as Black leaders, scholars, elders. We are obviously not a monolith, but who our leaders are matters if we are to implement public safety in a way that leads to transformation for the next generation. We can fill the Minneapolis police department with new recruits, led by a mayor who opens the door to change the culture and move engagement. Leadership matters.
Levy-Armstrong: Moderator (who explained in a separate recording that she will vote “no”)
This City Council gave $20 million to the family of a white woman who was killed in Linden Hills, with no video, in what was likely an accidental shooting. When unarmed Jamar Clark and Terence Franklin were killed, on purpose, those families received $1 million combined. There is no equity in that decision. Why would we give the City Council more power?
Bullock: Even if we push police reform to the side, if we ask what our billion-dollar investment in policing the last few years has brought us, do we know how safety is doled out in the city? Can we answer the question of how many police are based in the 5th precinct in the southwest compared to the 4th precinct in the north?
Levy-Armstrong asked if the current spike in crime might be related to the pandemic, as it is around the country — if so, is our fear of crime right now exaggerated and temporary? Do we make a mistake if we treat this like a permanent issue?
Bullock: We paid for Shot Spotters on blocks to listen for gunshots. Why can’t we invest in better lighting? We don’t have access to that conversation. Let’s embrace the possibilities of the future we desire. In Chicago, where I am from, there are more than 12,000 police; there were 774 homicides last year, and 85 percent were Black. With double the officers per capita than we have, that is not solving their problem. There are conditions that create these issues that have not been addressed. Why do we essentially have a million-dollar jobs program for police who don’t like us and don’t want to live around us, instead of investing in those who got displaced from public housing?
Titilayo Bediako, an undecided voter involved with Racial Justice Network, listened to the conversation, asked questions of each side, and ultimately wondered if we can come together with concrete plans to help change the trajectory that exists in the community. She asked: What models exist that we want to see going forward? It is easy to see what does not work, but what systemic models can we magnify as direction to build the joy that we deserve in community? That kind of joy does not happen by accident, but by deliberate actions that we take collectively together. If we cannot agree on what accountability looks like, how will we come together after this election?
Levy-Armstrong concluded: I understand the enthusiasm for getting something new. I think we need to put that energy into deciding first what that looks like and getting together to strategize and advocate to replace what we have now. Regardless of the final vote, there is work to be done. We know that if we do not exercise our voices, our community will remain on the bottom. We will stay in this fight, push for justice and accountability for what happens in our city, and slow down crime and violence that happens because of people in survival mode or without hope. All of us have a role.