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These 3 cities began boldly reimagining policing after George Floyd’s murder

Progress in each has been fitful and difficult. But that hasn’t blunted resolve to truly change policing.

A Black woman holds up a giant black flag, with “Black Lives Matter” written on it in white. She, and the flag, are framed by the sun, which is shining brightly in a blue sky.
A woman raises a Black Lives Matter flag at the Minnesota Capitol, one day before the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.
Kerem Yuce/AFP/Getty Images

A year after George Floyd’s murder and the worldwide protests it sparked, more than half of US states have passed reform bills, altering policies like use of force, creating new rules about tracking misconduct, and mandating officer interventions during aggressive encounters. Major cities even made moves to aggressively reimagine policing.

Some of these changes have been tentative; some have been reversed; others have run up against lawsuits and backlash and red tape; some have been far less than what local protesters have called for. Changing policing, it has become apparent, will not be instantaneous or easy.

“I tell people, this is long, hard work,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, the city commissioner of Portland, Oregon, and a longtime activist.

Although the protests are no longer as large as they were last summer, the will to continue that work seems to still be present: An Associated Press/NORC poll conducted April 29 to May 3 found that 45 percent of Americans see police violence against the public as a serious problem. While that number is down 3 percentage points from the height of 2020’s protests, it is up 13 points from July 2015. The same poll found that 95 percent of Americans believe the criminal justice system needs to be changed, with 68 percent saying the system needs a complete or major overhaul.

As cities have begun enacting these sorts of major reforms, they have broadly fallen into three categories: reallocation of police funds into social services and community programs; citizen-based oversight initiatives; and plans to rethink how police departments look and function. Vox looked at three cities’ journeys toward making radical changes to how policing is done.

“We have to stop being afraid of going against the grain and do something new,” Austin Justice Coalition founder and executive director Chas Moore told me. And now, one year after Floyd’s death, some cities are trying to do just that.

Austin significantly cut its policing budget

More than 20 of the US’s largest cities voted to reduce their police budgets in 2021. Seattle cut about $70 million from its police budget, and has pledged to allow citizens to decide how some of that reduction will be spent; New York eliminated about $500 million (though it may increase the department’s budget for 2022); and San Francisco has pledged to reallocate $120 million in the next two years.

The city that has committed to making the largest cut, as Fola Akinnibi, Sarah Holder, and Christopher Cannon note for Bloomberg, is Austin: In August 2020, the city council there agreed to remove $153.2 million from the Austin Police Department’s 2021 budget — a reduction of about one-third.

At the moment, about $108.1 million of that money has been allocated to two tranches. One is a $31.5 million fund focused on distributing money to organizations and programs aimed at decreasing the need for police — for instance, Cate Graziani of Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, an organization that supports those working with substance abuse, said her group recently received money from this fund. The other $76.6 million fund covers civilian oversight of police, and helps make certain agencies independent of the police.

“Now we have an independent forensics lab, we now have a stand-alone 911 call center that isn’t run by the police department,” Austin council member Gregorio Casar told me. “Just yesterday, we voted to double our family violence shelter capacity in Austin using the reinvestments from the police budget. Over the course of the last few weeks and months, we’ve purchased housing for folks experiencing homelessness. We’ve hired mental health first responders, so now if you call 911 in Austin, you hear, ‘Do you need fire, police, EMS, or mental health?’”

These are significant changes — there is hope, for instance, that making the forensics lab independent will help it avoid further backlogs in rape kits, and activists have been calling for years for more mental health and homeless services.

But some Austin activists have questioned whether they go far enough, and whether they can appropriately address the scale of the city’s issues. On the matter of homelessness, for instance, Grassroots Leadership’s criminal justice organizer David Johnson pointed out that “the city has voted to further criminalize homelessness again,” after city residents voted to ban public camping, and Graziani noted that many of the homeless Austin residents she works with have not had positive experiences with the homelessness services on offer. A significant amount of the money set aside for reallocation also has not yet been spent.

“The headlines would make it seem as if we’re one of the model cities when it comes to defunding the police,” Graziani said. “It’s a lot of headlines, without a lot of substance.”

Graziani, Johnson, dozens of other activists, and several city representatives worked as part of a city-backed group called the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force to provide the substance Graziani says is lacking, researching ways to spend the third and final tranche of money Austin promised to reinvest from its police budget: $45.1 million.

Led by Communities of Color United’s Paula X. Rojas and the Austin Equity Office’s Brion Oaks, these activists put together a report that gives recommendations on how to address the problems caused by poor and violent policing across eight areas, including providing more services to those affected by violence; making significant changes to police training, staffing levels, and patrol practices; and expanding community engagement.

The task force recently presented its recommendations to the city council, and is working with representatives from the city to conduct an analysis of the feasibility, financial effects, and legal basis of the recommendations.

Casar told me that, the analysis aside, he plans to introduce a resolution in June that would codify some of the group’s recommendations into city ordinance: making new housing, mental health, and violence prevention investments — as well as modifying city policy on certain traffic offenses, including nonmoving violations.

Beyond the analysis and resolution, it’s unclear what’s next: “At this point in time, we as a task force are partially waiting — we want to see what the city is going to do next with this,” Johnson said. “However, we can’t afford to sit back and wait, because the community that empowers us empowers us to do this work whether or not the city goes along with us.”

In a spray painted mural, a woman in a green, nun-like robe spreads her arms as if to embrace the viewer; between her arms are four red roses, a sepia-toned portrait of Ramos in a cap and hoodie, and underneath him, the name “Mike Ramos.”
A tribute to Mike Ramos, who was killed by an Austin police officer on April 24, 2020.
Montinique Monroe/Getty Images

A new model for police oversight in Portland

Also ongoing is the work to provide greater oversight of local police forces through police accountability boards — it’s a task activists have been hard at work on for nearly a century.

In theory, these committees, which are often staffed by community members with no ties to law enforcement, can improve the quality of local policing through inquiries into misconduct, by issuing policy recommendations, and by conducting reviews of departments’ internal investigations.

In practice, however, boards have historically run up against limitations that infringe on their ability to effect meaningful change.

University of Chicago law professor Sharon R. Fairley outlined the most common of these limitations in a 2020 study. Some issues include the fact that in many localities, boards are required to be advised by the city's legal counsel — the same lawyers who are defending cities and their departments against misconduct lawsuits. And many boards lack subpoena power, forced instead to do their work using whatever testimony and documents departments agree to provide, if any, and police unions can stop or weaken oversight through lawsuits and contract negotiations.

These are just some of the limitations that have led to committees with relatively narrow abilities, like those in Nashville, Chicago, and New York, that can recommend discipline following accusations of misconduct but that cannot mete out that discipline; or boards like those in Tampa, Baltimore, and Buffalo, which can suggest policy but cannot institute it themselves.

Portland is trying to take a different approach. In November 2020, 82 percent of the city’s voters approved the ballot initiative Measure 26-217, which changed the city’s charter to create a new community police oversight board that, once set up, will be the country’s most powerful.

“The system we have now, they call it independent police review, but it’s not independent, it doesn’t really review the police,” Hardesty said. “It is a system not built on accountability.”

A protester raises their middle finger at a group of heavily armored Portland police officers riding on a troop transport vehicle.
Police breaking up a group of protesters in Portland in October 2020.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

At the moment, Portland’s Citizen Review Committee has the ability to receive complaints about policing, advise the city’s oversight agency, and field appeals from citizens and officers on complaints and investigations. The new board will have powers beyond this: It will be able to investigate police misconduct — and, to complete its work, will be able to subpoena documents and compel the release of evidence, witness testimony, and the cooperation of sworn officers. Rather than recommend discipline, the board will impose it itself — it will even be able to fire officers, including those found to have lied when presenting evidence or testimony during the course of the inquiry.

And the new board will have the ability to make policy; should the department reject a rule created by the board, that rule will automatically be sent to the city council for a vote, and the council could vote to institute it.

To ensure board members have the resources needed to do their work, the measure tied its funding to the police department’s budget: The board must be given at least 5 percent of the police department’s budget each year — far more than the 0.5 percent and 1 percent of local police budgets boards in Albuquerque and Chicago receive, respectively.

“Creating a truly independent police oversight board is something this community’s been asking for for decades,” Hardesty said. “That has always been the No. 1 thing, because what the community knows is that as long as police police police, there will never be accountability in the system.”

Darren Golden, a political consultant in Oregon, said the board should be up and running in about 18 months, although it has already hit a snag: Despite passing with overwhelming support, the police union has worked to stop the charter change from going into effect.

“This is a drastic change, which is why the Police Association was against it,” Golden said. “The issue that arose was the board has to be reflected in the contract between the city and the Police Association. And since that discipline is attached, it’s a mandatory bargaining item.”

The next step would ordinarily be for an independent arbitrator to help the city and the union reconcile police contracts; however, Golden said, that arbitrator is bound by precedent — and with this change being unprecedented, there was some concern that arbitration would result in November’s vote being overturned.

Instead, the city found what it believes will be a workaround: an amendment to Oregon’s Public Employees Collective Bargaining Act. That amendment, SB 621, Golden said, states that an “independent community police oversight board can be implemented into a contract without mandatory disciplinary bargaining, if the board was voted on and passed by a majority of the people in that area, and if it was done after July 1, 2020.”

The charter change meets both those requirements, and seems poised to go into effect — SB 621 has made it through the state’s Senate and House Judiciary Committees, and advocates for the amendment believe, given current vote counts, that it will become law.

And should that happen, the city will begin the process of standing up the board. Hardesty said she and Portland’s other commissioners have already received more than 100 applications from citizens who want to be part of the 20-member group that will decide the specifics of how the board will operate.

Once it begins its work, it is unlikely to completely solve all of Portland’s problems with policing — but its proponents believe it will create real improvements, particularly given the breadth with which it has been given to operate. Still, Hardesty said its success, and the success of future efforts to better policing, will depend on the community’s continued involvement.

The new oversight board itself is the product of this approach, Hardesty said: “This is work that has been deeply desired by the community for the whole 30-plus years I’ve been working on this issue. I like to tell people, you know, 30 years of work for overnight success.”

Minneapolis plans to recreate its police departments from scratch

A few cities have begun to contemplate whether reforms like oversight and defunding go far enough — and whether their police departments ought to be completely rethought instead.

Brooklyn Center, Minnesota — the Minneapolis suburb where 20-year-old Daunte Wright was killed during a traffic stop in April — recently voted to do just this, authorizing the creation of a new Community Response Department tasked with answering all calls for help related to a “medical, mental health, disability-related, or other behavioral or social need,” as well as a civilian-staffed traffic enforcement department that will handle all nonmoving violations. It also ordered the police department to work with these departments under the umbrella of a new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention that has to be led by someone with “public health expertise.”

A Black woman with long curly hair holds up a fist; behind her is a dense crowd, many of the marchers holding up black and white portraits of Daute Wright, wearing a baseball cap that says “Chicago.”
A Minneapolis march held in remembrance of George Floyd and other victims of police violence on May 23.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

In April, Ithaca, New York, resolved to similarly reorganize its police department, and to create a civilian-led Department of Public Safety that will feature unarmed officers, who will be sent out to nonviolent emergencies. The city will still have armed officers as well but plans to reduce their list of duties, having them focus more on violent crime, while experts in things like mental health handle related crises.

Perhaps the city that has made the most progress toward this sort of reorientation is Minneapolis.

In June 2020, 13 days after Floyd died, nine city council members gathered in Minneapolis’s Powderhorn Park and promised to “dismantle” the city’s police department and “create a new, transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis.”

Efforts to fulfill 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.”

That process saw some early successes, including changes to the police department’s use of force policy, but the push to dismantle the police department — a reform that would require amending Minneapolis’s city charter, given that document’s language mandating the city have a police department of a certain size and meeting certain characteristics — failed last fall.

But the activists and politicians advocating for dismantling have not given up: 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 recently gathered the necessary signatures to guarantee that a ballot initiative on changing the charter, and dismantling the department, will be put before voters during municipal elections this fall.

“The reality is reforms have not worked,” JaNaé Bates, communications director for the advocacy groups ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota, said. “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.”

Because of that, Bates — and many other activists — told me that the sweeping change represented by the charter amendment is necessary.

The council members’ and Yes 4 Minneapolis’s proposals are very similar. As with Ithaca’s plan, neither would take away armed police officers; instead, both 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.

Each has a different path to November’s ballot: The city council proposal made it out of committee in March, and will ultimately need to be approved by the mayor, or a veto-proof majority of the council. The Yes 4 Minneapolis proposal needed 20,000 signatures; it crossed that threshold, was validated by the Minneapolis clerk in May, and is now undergoing legal review by the city.

In order to be instituted, the proposals only need to be approved by the majority of voters. And while there are currently two ideas circulating, the council members and activists plan to reconcile their language before ballots are printed 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. In a July 2020 ACLU of Minnesota/Fairness Project/Benenson Strategy Group poll investigating support for the first incarnation of the city council charter change, 56 percent of registered voters said they were supportive of the idea, and 61 percent said they were leaning toward voting for it.

As with the defunding and oversight proposals, 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.

“I’m not sure if it’s gonna be the one thing that’s gonna change policing,” council member Andrea 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.”

The push for police reform and other systemic changes will continue

Many I spoke to about their city’s reform efforts agreed with Jenkins, arguing that while police reform is necessary, it ultimately is one part of a larger system that has traditionally disadvantaged people of color, women, low-income people, and others, a system that was put in place before anyone alive now was born and that was legally structured in a way meant to ensure the rights and privileges of white landowning men and the continued viability of the use of slave labor.

The harm police visit on communities, Austin Justice Coalition’s Moore said, is a symptom of the fact that “the formula for American pie is white supremacy, and racism, and homophobia, and all that shit.”

“We need an American pie that does not use those ingredients,” Moore said. “Let’s get in the fucking kitchen. And let’s whip it up.”

From left to right: a Black woman holds up a black and white portrait of Breonna Taylor; a Black woman in a yellow hoodie holds up a slightly Cubist portrait of George Floyd, and a Black woman in a white t-shirt holds up a sign that says in black and red: “Nothing to lose but our CHAINS.”
A march to mark the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

As the pace of progress on police reform has proven, whipping up a new pie is likely to take significant time and effort — should the will to do so be found. Larger issues of racism and structural inequality aside, though, there is currently will to revise policing, and that’s where so many activists and communities around the US are focusing their energy now.

“People have to understand that police is just the front door into a broken system,” Hardesty said. “Yes, we must change policing, because it is the front door. But we have to change the entire system. ... That’s the hard work ahead. Revolution takes a long time.”