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The Minneapolis City Council voted Thursday morning to confirm the appointment of Cedric Alexander as the city’s first community safety commissioner.
Council President Andrea Jenkins said after the vote that it is a historic day for Minneapolis.
“We’ve been talking for two and half years about reimagining public safety, creating a continuum of public safety, bringing all aspects of our public safety responses together in one department, and today that has happened,” Jenkins said. “After much consternation and vitriol, we have reached that day.”
Alexander, 67, oversees the city’s police, fire, 911, emergency response and violence prevention efforts. Alexander has 40 years of law enforcement and public service experience, including serving on former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and as head of public safety in DeKalb County, Georgia.
Eight of thirteen council members voted to confirm Alexander’s appointment. Council members Jeremiah Ellison, Aisha Chughtai and Robin Wonsley voted no and council members Jason Chavez and Elliott Payne abstained.
In a statement following the vote, Alexander said enacting change in the city’s public safety system is going to take effort from all parties.
“We need to move policing forward and rebuild relationships in the community,” Alexander said. “We need to redesign our approach to public safety so everyone is working together.”
Chughtai said before the vote that Alexander’s answers earlier this week about how he’d handle police shootings in the past were “broad and evasive.” She also was not satisfied with his responses to questions about an allegation of sexual harassment against him at a former post, which Alexander said “were “unfounded and without merit.”
Wonsley questioned the lack of concrete details in Alexander’s answers, saying the new Office of Community Safety seems more like a “rebranding of MPD.”
Mayor Jacob Frey responded that articulating concrete plans before Alexander had the chance to meet with the heads of the agencies he’ll be leading would have been premature. Frey said Alexander has the experience the city needs and has been dedicated to creating positive change during his long career.
“Our communities right now are calling out for help, they’re calling out for safety, they’re calling for change,” Frey told the council, urging them to vote yes.
Before the vote, Ellison told the mayor that he came to the meeting prepared to vote yes, but that unity on a public safety plan needs to be a collaboration between the mayor and the council.
“Dissenting voices on this dais are ostracized are scolded, are not allowed to exist,” Ellison said, “That is deeply frustrating.”
Frey responded that dissenting opinions be retorted if they’re inaccurate or there’s disagreement. “I respect your opinions, I respect your dissent,” he told the council. “I ask us all to move forward together.”
At a public hearing Tuesday, Alexander admitted that he had very few connections to the city of Minneapolis, but said the world was still watching what could happen in the city where George Floyd was murdered by a police officer.
“The only way we effectuate change is we have to be willing to do something different, have to be willing to take some risks,” Alexander said. “Here’s what I will not do, I will not come here and be part of the status quo.”
Nekima Levy Armstrong, who is head of the nonprofit Wayfinder Foundation, was one of just a few residents who signed up to speak at Tuesday’s public hearing. She said politicians need to get serious about addressing violence and provide basic public safety in areas that have been traditionally neglected by the city. Levy Armstrong, a longtime critic of police misconduct, said she supports Alexander’s appointment.
“I don’t think that we will find someone of his caliber who can take on the task that’s on hand, which is helping to transform a police department and department of public safety, that’s seen in a very negative light nationally and internationally, into world class institutions,” Levy Armstrong said.
Council members pressed Alexander on how he would bring change to the Minneapolis Police Department. Alexander said he’ll ask the heads of each city agency he oversees how they plan to improve public safety and policing in the city, and take a more active role in recruitment and training.
“We’ve got to move past George Floyd, we want to look into the future,” Alexander said. We know we need reforms, we know that we have got systematic issues within our public safety platforms—and I’m here to help you do that.”
Under questioning from Council Member Robin Wonsley, Alexander said programs aimed at youth need to prevent them from getting into trouble, rather than just responding after they have problems.
Council Member Aisha Chughtai asked him about how he handled previous fatal shootings by police officers.
“Whatever happens in this community around officer-involved shootings, what I know, I will share with you,” Alexander said. “One thing I’m not going to do, I’m not going to lie to you.”
Chughtai asked Alexander about an incident where Alexander was accused of sexual harassment during his tenure in DeKalb County. Alexander said there was nothing to hide, and that a three-month investigation found it “was unfounded and without merit.”
The council’s Committee of the Whole approved Alexander’s nomination. Council member Chugtai chose not to cast a vote and council members Jeremiah Ellison and Andrew Johnson were absent.
Alexander was chosen to oversee a department created by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who gained more executive power when voters approved a charter amendment last November.
During that same election, voters rejected a proposed charter amendment that would have created a similar public safety structure as the one recently created by Frey.
Frey, who opposed the charter proposal that was voted down by voters, has said his proposal differs from the amendment because the new agency’s commissioner would report to the mayor rather than the 13 members of the city council.
Kenza Hadj-Moussa, public affairs director for the group TakeAction Minnesota, which was part of a coalition last year that supported the amendment, said her group supports an office of community safety in general, but that there are substantial differences between the mayor’s plan and the plan they proposed during the campaign.
“We’re seeing a department that is likely to be far less transparent or accountable than we’d been pushing for in previous campaigns,” Hadj-Moussa said. “One of the reasons for that is having one commissioner at the top who reports to the mayor, who has no oversight from the city council, is just going to make all functions of public safety fall heavy on that one person.”
Hadj-Moussa also said her group would like to see the mayor and council eliminate the minimum police staffing requirements in the city’s charter, which she said would “allow the new commissioner to not be focused so much on police retention and recruitment because of arbitrary staffing levels.”
Details about the new governmental structure, including the public safety reorganization, still need to be worked out by the mayor and city council. Alexander’s first day in office will be Aug. 8.