clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Minneapolis vowed to dismantle its police department. Is change finally coming?

The city may put its police force under a department of public safety.

A painting of George Floyd reading “justice for George Floyd” hangs on a fence made of tight mesh. Red ribbons have been tied around the painting; these flap in the breeze, as the sun shines above the entire scene.
The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd continues on the 18th floor of the heavily secured Hennepin County Courthouse.
Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

For weeks, the site of the Derek Chauvin trial, where the former police officer faces murder and manslaughter charges for the death of George Floyd, has been fortified.

The Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis is surrounded by concrete barriers, chain-link fencing, and barbed wire. Nearby buildings have boarded up their storefront windows. Members of the National Guard have been patrolling the area, and Minneapolis’s mayor and police chief said the law enforcement presence at the site of Floyd’s death — as well as throughout the city — will only increase as the trial continues.

Men in camouflage with rifles walk past the boarded up doors of the Hennepin County Government Center. On a balcony of the building, more people in military uniforms stand guard.
Minnesota National Guard members patrol outside the Hennepin County Government Center during Derek Chauvin’s trial on March 29.
Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

For some residents, the increased police presence has created a welcome sense of security during one of the most scrutinized trials the city has ever seen. For others, however, it has resurfaced wrenching memories of watching Floyd cry out in pain and distress as he lived his final moments, as well as of the aggressive, and often violent, police response to the nationwide uprisings that followed Floyd’s death. It has also raised questions at the heart of the worldwide protests last year: Are law enforcement power and chain-link fortresses the best use of public resources?

“Right now on the ground in Minneapolis, we are hypermilitarized,” Sheila Nezhad — a policy organizer with the advocacy group Reclaim the Block and progressive mayoral candidate — told me. “Every morning I’m woken up by helicopters and surveillance planes that are so loud, because I live about five blocks from George Floyd Square, where George Floyd was murdered. And they spent $1 million on a barbed wire fence downtown to protect empty government buildings.”

A mass of people, mostly masked, march next to a tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire.
Demonstrators march outside the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on March 29.
Christian Monterrosa/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Since Floyd was killed nearly a year ago, cities across the United States have grappled with whether police expenses like the fence in Minneapolis are worth the cost, and have faced calls to allocate public safety funds in new ways, with activists and community members alike asking if more money might be spent on alternatives to policing.

Some protesters have called for the defunding of police, agitating for police budgets to be drained and for money taken from law enforcement to be used to fund other services, from mental health resources to education. Some have demanded police abolition, that cities completely divest themselves of police officers; still others wanted incremental reforms like chokehold bans and more body cameras.

What the tens of millions who protested had in common, however, was a belief that something was very wrong with policing, and they wanted it to change.

In Minneapolis, the majority of the city council agreed. But moving toward change hasn’t been easy.

In June 2020, 13 days after Floyd died, nine council members gathered in the city’s Powderhorn Park and promised not to defund, exactly, but to “dismantle” the city’s police department and “create a new, transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis.”

Efforts to meet that promise began quickly; the council unanimously passed a resolution on June 12 that laid out a plan for beginning “a year long process of community engagement, research, and structural change to create a transformative new model for cultivating safety.”

The community engagement and research appeared to continue apace, but the structural change element has proven more challenging. Some reforms, such as changes to the police department’s use of force policy, were successfully enacted, but the council’s most ambitious reform — an effort to change Minneapolis’s city charter, which governs the structure and size of the police department — ultimately failed last fall.

Surrounded by jeering people, most of them Black and brown, Frey, in a grey and blue long sleeve t, and wearing a mask that says “I can’t breathe,” gazes slightly above the camera.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey was booed after telling a crowd of demonstrators that he would not commit to defunding the police on June 6, 2020.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

As the anniversary of that promise looms, Minneapolis still has largely the same police department it had when Floyd died. But efforts to change that continue. Three members of the city council have introduced a new proposal to rewrite the city charter that hopes to avoid the pitfalls that ended the first effort, and a diverse coalition of activists united under the name Yes 4 Minneapolis is gathering the signatures necessary to put forward a similar charter change.

This time around, things look more hopeful. While the previous attempt was derailed by tight timelines — and was complicated by some citizens’ concerns that it would eliminate police altogether — the new proposals were introduced with these issues in mind: Cushions have been built into the approval deadlines, with community outreach to explain exactly what policing changes would happen.

Should organizers and the city council succeed, the issue of altering the city charter will be put before voters in municipal elections coming in November. And if voters decide to change the charter, Minneapolis will have taken a major step toward radically reimagining policing — and could become an example to other cities in the process.

Minneapolis has tried many policing reforms, but police violence continues

A very visible anger followed Floyd’s death — uprisings took place across the United States, and were particularly intense in Minneapolis, where vocal advocates called for defunding the police.

While not everyone in the city was behind this idea, local polling suggested most were; work fielded by the conservative think tank the Center of the American Experiment from June 15 to 17, 2020 — three weeks after Floyd was killed — found 56 percent of voters in Minneapolis, and its twin city St. Paul, wanted to defund the police.

At that time, defunding was a new idea for many people, and as Vox’s Anna North explained, the concept saw widely differing levels of support depending on how people were asked about it, with the phrase itself giving people pause, but the concepts behind it — reinvesting money that once went to police departments into social and health services — largely popular.

This was reflected in polling done by three Minneapolis news outlets last August (though national attitudes on policing have shown a shift since then). When voters were asked whether “Minneapolis should or should not redirect some funding from the police department to social services,” 73 percent said the city should. But the same poll found respondents mixed on whether the city should have a smaller police force. Fueling this result seemed to be concern that a smaller police department would make for a more dangerous city — 48 percent said shrinking the force would negatively impact safety, compared to the 26 percent who thought doing so would make the city safer.

Multiple city council members told me their constituents shared this fear with them, and last year, some residents brought up worries that police reform would result in a smaller department and more crime at listening sessions hosted by both city government and activists.

Arguing against the council’s first charter amendment, Cathy Spann, the executive director of the Jordan Area Community Council, said that by pushing forward with plans to rethink policing, officials “have put my life at risk.”

But supporters of sweeping reform argue that systemic changes are what most residents want. And they point out that Minneapolis had already been working on reforming its police department.

The department began adopting body cameras in 2014. Racial bias training was rolled out in 2015. Use of force guidelines were changed to emphasize deescalation in 2016. And it remains unclear whether these sorts of reforms are actually helpful in reducing bias and police violence; as Candice Norwood notes for PBS’s NewsHour, early body camera research seems to suggest that the devices may reduce use of force, but there’s no real evidence they reduce bias. With respect to racial bias trainings, research suggests a negligible or negative effect on mitigating implicit bias.

Certainly none of these changes prevented Floyd’s death, or others that followed in the city. “In my ward, in my first two years in office, three people were killed by the police,” city council member Phillipe Cunningham, who was elected in 2017, told me.

After Floyd’s death, further reforms were instituted, including requiring officers to explain why they drew their weapons; barring police from shooting at moving vehicles (unless there is a safety reason for doing so); mandating body cameras be left on for private, interpolice conversations while responding to a call; banning chokeholds; creating new limits on no-knock warrants; and an $8 million policing budget cut, meant to help fund violence prevention and mental health services.

But a number of activists and community members I spoke to expressed frustration with these changes, arguing that they did not do enough to address the root causes of violent and improper policing.

“The reality is reforms have not worked,” JaNaé Bates, communications director for advocacy groups ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota, told me. “There are well-documented decades of reform that the Minneapolis police department has been through. And they have also demonstrably shown that they are completely resilient to reform.”

These activists argued that a more sweeping approach is needed; they say a lack of broader reform means fear and mistrust of police remain common, particularly among communities of color.

Minneapolis is a fairly diverse city: According to the US Census Bureau, in 2019, about 63 percent of residents were white, 19 percent were Black, 1.5 percent were Native American, 6 percent were Asian, 10 percent were Latinx, and 5 percent identified as mixed race. And many activists say police don’t limit their violence to only Black residents.

Joe Beaulieu, executive director of Little Earth Residents Association, one of the organizations in the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition, said many of the Native American youth he’s worked with have had “a lot of negative interactions, with either the police stereotyping them or targeting them in the things that they’re doing,” including “police picking them up, putting them in the back of the car, and dropping them off somewhere else in the city.”

According to Bo Thao-Urabe, executive and network director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders — also a member organization in the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition — there have been repeated instances in which people have called the police expecting aid only to find “that those interactions have also been very harmful.” In particular, she cited the cases of Fong Lee and Chiasher Fong Vue, who were killed by police in 2006 and 2019, respectively, Vue after officers fired dozens of shots at him in front of his home following a domestic disturbance call.

Broadly, Bates said, “folks in Minneapolis are feeling very much overpoliced and also completely underprotected.”

But within that range of feeling lies a lot of nuance — animated not just by fear and frustration, but by a sense of uncertainty created both by questions about what public safety will look like in the long term, and by the unpredictability of the Chauvin trial.

Memories of last year’s uprisings are fresh — Abdulahi Farah, a lead organizer with ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota, told me many of the youth he works with have reflected on being shot by rubber bullets and tear gas. And as the presence of law enforcement increases as the trial goes on, so will anxiety about the trial’s outcome, particularly about what may happen should Chauvin be acquitted.

From this miasma, Kate Knuth, also a progressive candidate for mayor, said one can distill at least one certainty: “What we want is public safety; it’s not policing. Policing is in service of, and part of public safety. It is not how we truly create public safety.”

But what will a place of safety without police look like?

Minneapolis’s charter amendment proposals, briefly explained

“Policing is such a permanent part of our society that people can’t see, not only above that, but see other possibilities about what public safety can look like,” Marco Hernández, public policy director for Communities Organizing Latinx Power and Action, said.

The charter change proposals are meant to be a path forward for a new paradigm of public safety. Their creators hope they can usher in more sweeping changes than reforms have been able to so far, and that they can overcome concerns some residents raised in the wake of the city’s council’s pledge to dismantle the police department.

Six officers, all of whom appear to be white, stand in a park. They are wearing their blue and black uniforms, and are  masked, their belts heavy with zip tie handcuffs.
Police officers stand guard as a homeless encampment is cleared by crews in Minneapolis in July 2020.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Some residents have felt that they were not engaged with enough ahead of the first charter change proposal — and that its language didn’t reflect what the public truly wanted. The city council has attempted to rectify this by holding open sessions on the issue. And Yes 4 Minneapolis crafted its version of the charter change proposal following consultation with various communities throughout the city.

A key concern emerged at several of the sessions — while police violence has led to death and dismay, many questioned whether it would be possible to have a safe city without police.

City council member Jeremy Schroeder, who drafted the latest charter change proposal with Cunningham and council member Steve Fletcher, said his constituents came to him with “a lot of concern that we wouldn’t have law enforcement,” and that he exited those conversations feeling that “we need to have an answer of how we’re going to keep people safe, and how we’re going to address dangerous situations that come up.”

Council member Andrea Jenkins, who represents the ward in which Floyd was killed, said her constituents have been providing mixed feedback on plans for change, in part because “there has been a pretty significant increase in crime over the past few months,” as has been the case nationwide.

A Minneapolis Police Department report released in January found there were 83 homicides in 2020, a number double the city’s recent average, and that about 24,000 shots were fired, leaving at least 550 people wounded. Some crimes, such as rape, have been in decline, but the overall rate has led to concern about whether crime might increase further should officials make radical changes to policing — particularly given that police leaders have been vocal in arguing that a shortage of officers is limiting the department’s effectiveness at reducing crime.

“Folks are not necessarily ready for abolition, and that is something that the campaign” was responsive to, Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign manager Corenia Smith said. “This is not an abolitionist framework, this isn’t a defund framework, this campaign is not polarizing.”

The two proposals are very similar. Neither would take away armed police officers; instead, both plans would place them in a newly created department of public safety, which would also contain other safety officials, including mental health experts and anti-violence professionals.

Both plans also would mandate that the leader of this department be nominated by the mayor and approved by the city council; each leaves room for the expansion and redefinition of the department.

And perhaps most importantly, both would eliminate the staffing and budget language around police written into the city charter — no longer would the city, by law, need to have at least 0.0017 police department employees per resident.

The proposals differ in minor ways; the Yes 4 Minneapolis proposal, for instance, mandates that the department of public safety focus on “a comprehensive public health approach to safety,” language the city council plan lacks. The council proposal outlines how the police chief will be selected (by the mayor and approved by the council), details the Yes 4 Minneapolis plan doesn’t include.

In order to be instituted, the proposals need to be approved by the majority of voters, and there are plans to put the question of changing the charter on the ballot for Minneapolis’s municipal elections in November.

Each has a different path to that ballot: The city council’s proposal is being reviewed by a group of officials known as the Charter Commission. What the commission decides isn’t final — it can only issue a recommendation. It’s up to the council whether to approve the language and send it to the mayor.

But it is because of this bureaucratic step that the city council’s 2020 attempt to edit the charter failed; the commission board has up to 150 days to conduct its review — ahead of the presidential election, the commission did not complete its work in time for the issue to be included on ballots. As a result, the city council was forced to try again; this time, Cunningham, Schroeder, and Fletcher said, the council will have more than enough time to make its decision.

A person with long brown hair and their back to the camera holds a sign above their head. Near the top, in bold black letters is the name “George Floyd.” Floyd’s name is surround by dozens of other handwritten names of those who have faced police violence.
A Minneapolis police cruiser drives by as people demonstrate outside the Hennepin County Government Center on March 9.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The Yes 4 Minneapolis proposal needs 20,000 signatures to appear on the ballot; Smith felt certain that, based on the signatures collected so far, that goal will be reached.

Should both measures clear the first hurdles, there would be some effort to reconcile their language, Cunningham and Smith said, so that voters wouldn’t be presented with two nearly identical ballot initiatives.

Although the election season isn’t yet in full swing, supporters of the proposals are optimistic that voters will approve the change. Pointing to a July 2020 ACLU of Minnesota/the Fairness Project/Benenson Strategy Group poll investigating support for the first incarnation of the city council charter change, Nezhad noted 56 percent of registered voters said they were supportive of the idea, and 61 percent said they were leaning toward voting for it.

The important thing, many of the proposals’ supporters told me, is that having it on the ballot will give voters a direct choice in how they want to be policed.

“The community, I think, has a lot of great ideas on how we can improve the system, how we can improve public safety, either alongside with the police, or without the police,” Beaulieu said. “I think it’s just time that we have a say in that conversation.”

Changing policing isn’t easy — and is likely to be a slow process

If there is to be any change to policing, it will have to come from state and local governments, amid pressure from local officials, activists, and residents. And in the year since Floyd’s death, several cities have been successful in bringing structural and functional change to their police departments.

Last November, San Francisco voted to do away with staffing minimums for its police department, while Los Angeles voted to spend at least $360 million per year on alternatives to policing. Denver has had early success with a pilot program that sends mental health and medical professionals to certain emergency calls in lieu of police, and Ithaca’s mayor has proposed replacing his city’s police department with a new agency featuring both armed police and unarmed public health officials.

Those successful ballot initiatives followed concerted efforts by local activists to create public support, akin to the efforts of the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition; Denver’s pilot has had the support of its police chief, who characterized it as freeing up police officers to focus on other work. These sorts of changes are nascent, but early indications suggest that partnerships are key to bringing about change.

“As the Native community, we also need to stand in solidarity with other communities that are hurting because of the police, because we are, too,” Beaulieu said. “Too often, I feel like we get separated. And I think this is a good chance for us to all come together and hopefully be heard collectively.”

The Minneapolis charter change would not be a panacea; there would be no guarantees that the armed officers in the department of public safety wouldn’t kill any unarmed people or abuse their power.

Beneath a cobalt sky, the sign for Cup Foods, where Floyd attempted to make the purchase that led to his death is visible. In the foreground is a memorial — a mass of colorful flowers strewn about a massive metal fist raised skyward, and topped by a pan-African flag.
A sculpture of a raised fist stands near a makeshift memorial to George Floyd near the site where he died.
Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

“I’m not sure if it’s gonna be the one thing that’s gonna change policing,” Jenkins said. “I’m Black. Racism is at the core of this. So policies can change, laws can change, and people still act out of racial animus.”

But no one I spoke with said that should stop Minneapolis from trying to improve policing. “We are certainly not going to craft all of the answers in a year or two or four,” Nezhad said. “But if we don’t start on that path now, we will never get there.”

Should the charter amendment succeed, Minneapolis will join those municipalities conducting experiments into what public safety ought to look like. And it could serve as a model for other cities that are reckoning with police misconduct in the shadow of the Chauvin trial. As with Floyd’s death, the trial has reinvigorated debate on what policing should be like.

“There are just so many good opportunities for us to grow and learn from past experience, the past hundreds of years of experience that marginalized communities have faced here in this country, whether it be the police or different colonial structures,” Beaulieu said. “And it’s just time. I think it’s time.”

World Politics

More than 100 Palestinians were killed trying to get aid

Today, Explained newsletter

How Mitch McConnell broke Congress


Trump’s immigration policies are his old ones — but worse

View all stories in Politics

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.