Minneapolis debates police department reform in virtual hearing

Proposal to create a new Department of Public Safety sparks debate at meeting and beyond

Several dozen Minneapolis residents attended a virtual public hearing Thursday to contest and discuss the proposed plan to replace its current police department, but after several hours one outcome is certain: the debate promises to continue.

The proposal, from three members of the city council, calls for a new Department of Public Safety which would integrate the police with the city's other public safety units. It would also remove a requirement to maintain a minimum number of police officers based on the city's population. 

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported Friday that almost 100 people spoke at the virtual public hearing, and were largely split on the plan. The proposal by City Council Members Phillipe Cunningham, Steve Fletcher and Jeremy Schroeder submitted at the end of January, is similar to one that was blocked in August of 2020. At that time Minneapolis' Charter Commission decided to take more time to review the proposal which prevented it from advancing to the November ballot for people to vote on it.

The two proposals share a common goal: eliminate the police department in its current form.

Thursday’s three-hour hearing started with the input of people who were predominantly against the three members' plan. Several argued that it didn’t include needed extensive reforms following the May 2020 death of George Floyd, according to the Star-Tribune.

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Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo addresses the media on preparations for the upcoming Derek Chauvin trial on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021 in Minneapolis. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP, Pool)

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo addresses the media on preparations for the upcoming Derek Chauvin trial on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021 in Minneapolis. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP, Pool)

One resident, identified in the newspaper as Brandi Bennett, called the latest proposal, "nothing more than a power grab" and added: "This reeks of activism and not good governance."

But another significant portion of the people who spoke was in favor of the plan, with many arguing that changes were needed to address the mental health issues in the community and the issues residents have with Minneapolis Police Department, the Star-Tribune reported.

"It's no secret that the MPD has failed. An MPD training officer murdered George Floyd," Khadar Muhumed was quoted during the hearing. 

"The police are expected to protect and enforce the laws equally," Muhumed reportedly continued. "The MPD has broken the social contract."

Floyd, a Black man who was handcuffed, died May 25 after former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is White, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck even as the handcuffed man said he couldn’t breathe.

Floyd’s death sparked protests and led to a nationwide reckoning on race. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter and is scheduled for trial on March 8. Three other former officers are charged with aiding and abetting and are scheduled for trial in August.

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While there have been calls to dismantle the department after Floyd’s death, some residents have begged the city to hire more officers, citing longer response times and an increase in violent crime.

The city’s charter requires Minneapolis to maintain a police department with a minimum number of officers based on the city’s population. Any change to the charter has to go through the Charter Commission, and then be put to voters.

If the proposal passes, it could have implications for police oversight and accountability.

Under the current charter, the mayor has "complete power" over the police department’s operations. The new proposal eliminates that language. In the past, Mayor Jacob Frey raised concerns about requiring police to report to the City Council, citing problems with having the agency report to "14 different elected officials with divergent public safety priorities."

"Yes 4 Minneapolis," a coalition of local community groups, is also collecting signatures in favor of putting a similar proposal on the November ballot.

The Star-Tribune reported the "Yes 4 Minneapolis" committee is being fueled by a half-million-dollar grant from the Washington, D.C.-based group Open Society Policy Center, which is associated with billionaire George Soros. Organizers hope to collect 20,000 signatures by March 31.

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"We have a policing system that doesn’t work for us and we need alternatives," said Rachel Bean, who signed the petition Saturday. "I’m a social worker and I feel like we have lots of tools that we could try to create more community safety."

Like the other proposals, this petition seeks to remove police department language from the city’s charter and create a public health-focused Department of Public Safety, "including licensed peace officers if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.