Thousands of people marched through the streets in northeast Minneapolis during a rally to defund the Minneapolis police on June 6, 2020. Credit: Ben Hovland | (c) 2020

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In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, many Minneapolis residents believed profound change would soon come to the Minneapolis Police Department. After all, just last June, nine members of the City Council appeared at a rally in Powderhorn Park, where, under a giant sign that read “DEFUND POLICE,” they publicly pledged to dismantle the MPD.

That did not happen. 

Immediately after the council moved to put the issue of a “re-imagined” public safety approach before voters in last November’s election, it ran into a roadblock: the Minneapolis Charter Commission. Declaring that the proposal wasn’t sufficiently thought out, the commission declined to vote yes or no in time to include the measure on the ballot.

But tight deadlines aren’t a problem this year. The odds are strong that Minneapolis residents will get a chance this November to vote on one, two, or possibly three different proposals that promise to dramatically alter both the structure of the city government and its approach to law enforcement. 

“We stood up at Powderhorn and we said we want to end policing as we know it,” said Ward 3 Council Member Steve Fletcher. “We’re serious about changing the system. And the next thing you do if you set out to do that, you figure out what are the barriers.” 

One of the barriers, he said, is the city charter, which mandates the existence of the Minneapolis Police Department as well as a minimum staffing level. So the council advanced a charter amendment to address these issues.

For Anwulika Okafor, a coalition organizer with the community group Reclaim the Block, this pace of change has been too slow.

“We literally have an autonomous band of heavily armed people that move at their own pace, and can make whatever problems they want and hold themselves accountable to it or not,” she said. “That’s just insane to me. If they weren’t police we would call them the mafia, or a militia, or a gang.”

Yes 4 Minneapolis, a coalition of community groups including Reclaim the Block, is circulating petitions to advance a similar charter amendment. Both proposals are moving forward for possible inclusion on the November ballot.

Before that happens, these competing plans will have to make another stop at the Charter Commission.

Wait—what’s a “charter commission” anyway? OK, let’s do this!

So what’s the deal with the Charter Commission?

The Charter Commission is the entity charged with vetting proposed changes to the city’s charter: that is, the municipal equivalent of a state or federal constitution. The charter provides the blueprint to the structure of city government. Any fundamental reorganization of the MPD—including its elimination and replacement with a new entity—would require changes to the charter. 

The commission consists of 15 volunteer members, who serve four-year terms.

How are they picked?

Commissioners are appointed by the chief judge of the Hennepin County District Court. Interestingly, 10  of the current members were appointed or re-appointed by former Chief Judge Peter Cahill, the presiding judge in the Derek Chauvin trial.

If the commission has so much power, shouldn’t members be elected?

The fact that commissioners are unelected bothers critics, who argue voters should have more direct say in shaping city government. They also complain that the current board is unrepresentative of the city as a whole–too old, too moderate, too white. Three of the current 15 members identify as persons of color.

Defenders of the current system, including commission members, counter that their unelected status insulates their decision-making from undue political pressures. They say this allows for a more thoughtful analysis of any proposed change to the structure of city government.

So is the push to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department dead?

Not by a long shot. The City Council has revived its plan to replace the current MPD with a Department of Public Safety. This new entity, according to the City Council proposal, would “oversee and lead a continuum of public safety efforts that prevent, intervene in, and reduce crime and violence.” 

The plan, dubbed the Transforming Public Safety Charter Amendment, would eliminate the current mandate that the city employ a minimum number of sworn law enforcement officers. That is a top goal among critics of the MPD, who complain that the minimum staffing requirement was foisted on the city by the Minneapolis Police Federation, the city’s police union. 

The proposed amendment also would give the council more power over the Public Safety Department than it has over the MPD, which currently answers only to the mayor. The new department would be headed by a commissioner, nominated by the mayor and appointed by the council. Under labor laws, it would consist of the same officers currently employed by MPD, Fletcher said. The commissioner would have hiring and firing authority over the chief of a law-enforcement division. 

“That Department of Public Safety has the potential to be a very different department than what our current police department is,” Fletcher said. For example, this newly constituted department could handle responses to mental health calls and traffic accidents through unarmed personnel–a “coequal” alternative to current police deployment, all reporting to one commissioner.

But what actually happens if this plan passes depends on future actions from the city council. If the city council wanted to keep the department exactly the same under a different name, they could. And every city council seat is up for election this year. 

“We’re addressing a structural barrier that will allow us to make meaningful changes in public safety,” Fletcher said. “It is not in itself the changes to public safety.” That is to say, a charter amendment—either a citizen petition or the City Council proposal—represents a necessary first step on the possible path to a  broader department overhaul. 

In March, the council voted 11–2 to send this proposal to the Charter Commission.

So can the Charter Commission just kill it again?

Not likely. The commission has until mid-August to review and make a non-binding recommendation to the City Council on whether the measure should be placed on the ballot. If the council then votes to put the question before voters, Mayor Jacob Frey could exercise veto power. (Mayor Frey was not immediately available to answer questions from Sahan Journal by press time.) 

But the council can override a mayoral veto with a super majority. That would take nine members. Given the current level of support for the proposal—including the 11–2 vote in March to refer the matter to the Charter Commission—such an override would seem likely.

But what if the City Council fails to override? Does that mean voters won’t get a say on the future of the MPD? 

No. Supporters of charter amendments in Minneapolis can also also force a ballot question through a citizen petition process. Backers are required to collect enough signatures from registered Minneapolis voters to equal at least 5 percent of votes cast in the most recent general election. 

This year, that would translate to about 12,000 signatures. 

What’s the likelihood that there will be enough signatures for a citizen petition?

High. A broad coalition of more than 25 progressive groups organized under the banner “Yes 4 Minneapolis” launched its signature gathering operation in February, an effort bolstered by a $500,000 donation from the Open Society Policy Center. The coalition says it has already achieved its goal of collecting 20,000 signatures. Under state law, these signatures must be submitted to the city clerk by May 1 for verification.

How does the City Council proposal compare to the Yes 4 Minneapolis proposal?

Yes 4 Minneapolis says its proposal “is not in conflict” with the City Council’s, but that the citizen petition is “the strongest way to guarantee that people get to vote.” 

For Anwulika Okafor, the coalition organizer for Reclaim the Block, the most exciting part of the citizen petition effort is the potential to mobilize community members block by block to discuss their vision for public safety. Those conversations could help shape the future Department of Public Safety.

Still, there is one notable distinction. In its proposed amendment, Yes 4 Minneapolis opens the door to police abolition, an expressed goal of Reclaim the Block and some other organizations. The new Department of Public Safety would employ licensed police officers, the amendment states, “if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department.” 

There is no such wiggle room in the City Council’s proposal. In a press release, the council said that under its amendment sworn peace officers would remain “responsible for core functions of law enforcement.”

Still, it would be up to the City Council to determine what that department looks like. And with their own proposed amendment, council members have signaled support for maintaining law enforcement officers as a key part of the public safety strategy.

“Our true vision is to abolish the police altogether,” Okafor said. Yes 4 Minneapolis’ proposed charter amendment, she added, “is a step toward it.”

So what happens if voters approve both ballot questions?

Confusion and chaos? According to Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg, council members have indicated that they will likely withdraw their proposed amendment if the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign qualifies for inclusion on the ballot. “Right now it’s a game of chess to know which amendments will be on the ballot,” Clegg said last month.

Fletcher told Sahan Journal that the council would likely withdraw its proposed amendment if the petition effort garners enough signatures and the city attorney doesn’t identify any legal problems with it. That way, only one of the two similar efforts will reach the ballot.

Will anything else muddy the picture?

Yes. There are multiple paths to amending the city’s charter. Proposed ballot questions may be initiated by the City Council, citizen petition, or the Charter Commission itself. 

Currently, the Charter Commission is pushing a proposal to change Minneapolis to a so-called “strong mayor” system of governance. (Right now, the mayor has limited power to oversee departments; the City Council effectively controls the budget and administration of the city.) That amendment is likely to be finalized within the next two months. In a nutshell, this charter proposal would give the mayor more authority over city departments and weaken the council’s role.

While Minneapolis currently has a weak mayor system, there is an ironic exception: As it stands, the mayor has total authority over the chief and the police department. The “strong mayor” and the council’s Department of Public Safety amendments would be a “strange combination,” said Fletcher. But they are not necessarily in conflict. Taken together, they would still increase the council’s oversight over law enforcement, while decreasing the council’s power over other departments.

Additionally, there is a third public safety-related charter amendment, seemingly a longshot. This one is being pushed via citizen petition by the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar. The proposal would keep the current MPD in place, eliminate the minimum staffing rule, and create a Civilian Police Accountability Commission, which would have oversight and discipline authority over the department. The 13 members of the commission would be elected. 

When will Minneapolis voters know more about their options?

The ballot questions will be formalized in August. In addition to the public safety amendments, voters will likely see two additional charter questions on the ballot, both backed by the City Council. One would permit Minneapolis to institute rent control regulations by ordinance. The other would allow citizens to use an initiative/referendum process to promulgate rent control laws.

Takeaway? Voters in Minneapolis will soon have a nearly unprecedented opportunity to change the governance and supervision of the Minneapolis Police Department. But they may need to study up on the labyrinth of city governance to get there. One way or another, the November elections will determine the course for the future of policing in the city. 

Mike Mosedale

Mike Mosedale is a freelance reporter based in Minneapolis. A New York City native, he worked for newspapers in New Milford, Connecticut, and Superior, Wisconsin, before moving to Minnesota. A longtime...

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.