MINNEAPOLIS — Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council — a veto-proof majority — pledged on Sunday to dismantle the Police Department, promising to create a new system of public safety in a city where law enforcement has long been accused of racism.
Saying that the city’s policing system could not be reformed, the council members stood before hundreds of people gathered late in the day on a grassy hill and promised to begin the process of taking apart the Police Department as it now exists.
For activists who have been pushing for years for drastic changes to policing, the move represented a turning point that they hope will lead to a transformation of public safety in the city.
“It shouldn’t have taken so much death to get us here,” Kandace Montgomery, the director of Black Visions Collective, said from the stage at the rally. “We’re safer without armed, unaccountable patrols supported by the state hunting black people.”
The pledge in Minneapolis, where George Floyd died 13 days ago after being pinned to the ground by a white police officer’s knee, reflected calls across America to rethink what policing looks like. Protesters have taken to the streets with demands to shrink or abolish police departments, and “defund the police” has become a frequent rallying cry.
Officials in other cities, including New York, have begun to talk of diverting some money and responsibilities from police forces to social services agencies, but no other major city has gone as far in reaction to the protests as the Minneapolis officials have promised to do.
Council members said in interviews on Sunday that they did not yet have specific plans to announce for what a new public safety system for the city would look like. They promised to develop plans by working with the community, and said they would draw on past studies, consent decrees and reforms to policing across the nation and the world.
Protesters who gathered at the windswept rally, with a view of Powderhorn Lake, said what mattered most was that elected officials had finally committed to a sweeping overhaul of policing, even though they had not offered specifics of how a dismantling would work.
“There needs to be change,” said Paola Lehman, a 23-year-old actor and educator in Minneapolis.
As the council members each read a line of the pledge to the crowd, Wintana Melekin, 32, clasped her hands above her head wrap, her mouth open in stunned silence beneath a sagging mask with the inscription “Defund Police.”
“I knew it was happening, but I didn’t believe it,” she said.
When the final portion was read, a roar went up among the hundreds in the crowd. Many people raised their fists in the air and chanted, “Defund MPD!”
Though the City Council controls the police budget, the department answers to Mayor Jacob Frey, who has a veto over the council’s actions. Council members said they had enough votes to override a veto by Frey, who was booed out of a rally by hundreds of people on Saturday after he said he did not believe in abolishing the Police Department. Frey quietly exited through an angry crowd as many shouted “Go home, Jacob Frey!” and “Shame! Shame!”
Councilwoman Alondra Cano, who leads the council’s public safety committee, said that scene made her think about the need to create space for discussions — a truth and reconciliation commission of sorts — to develop solutions to the city’s policing issues.
“Protesting is good and needed, press conferences are good and needed,” she said. “That third space is needed where we are committed to each other, and not the camera.”
Frey said on Sunday that while he opposed dismantling the Police Department, he would “work relentlessly” with the city’s police chief and the community “toward deep, structural reform and addressing systemic racism in police culture.” He added that he was “ready to dig in and enact more community-led public safety strategies.”
The City Council voted on Friday to accept a civil rights investigation of the police by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and to amend the Police Department’s use-of-force policy to ban chokeholds, among other measures.
Protesters’ cries to defund or abolish the police are often not meant literally. Rather, they are demands to rethink a law enforcement system from the ground up and to grapple with deeply ingrained issues, including employing officers who do not live in the city they police — as is done in Minneapolis — and sending armed officers to respond to situations that turn out not to be crimes, as when a mentally ill person is in distress.
Some proposals have focused on ending heavy-handed police tactics like no-knock search warrants and military-style raids on the homes of suspects, restricting the flow of military gear to police departments and banning the use of military equipment on protesters.
A common thread has been the tendency of police departments to consume ever larger shares of city budgets.
“We’re really saying we want to grow our community, and we want to invest in the things we actually need,” said Montgomery, who led the protest on Saturday and grilled Frey on his views, leading to the chants that prompted him to leave the scene.
Council members and activists pointed to examples of different styles of policing in places like Austin, Texas, where the operators who answer 911 calls inquire whether a caller needs police, fire or mental health services before dispatching a response, and in Eugene, Oregon, where a medic and a crisis worker with mental health training are dispatched to emergency calls.
Many have called for relying more on self-policing by the community, in the way attendees often do at events like music festivals, with the police stepping in only when a true emergency arises. Some cited as an example how, in the days after the killing of Floyd, teams made up of dozens of members of the American Indian Movement patrolled streets and directed traffic in the Little Earth housing community in Minneapolis.
Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and chair of Reform L.A. Jails, said the move by the Minneapolis City Council members had shifted the movement to rethink policing from the fringe to the mainstream.
“This is massive,” Cullors said. “This is the first time we are seeing, in our country’s history, a conversation about defunding, and some people having a conversation about abolishing the police and prison state. This must be what it felt like when people were talking about abolishing slavery.”
Many advocates note that city budgets are already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down business and tourism, sharply reducing tax revenue, and that police budgets may be especially vulnerable.
The city of Minneapolis is looking to cut $200 million from its $1.3 billion overall budget, according to Lisa Bender, the president of the City Council. She said she hoped to reallocate some money from policing, which received $189 million in the 2020 budget, to other areas of need in the city.
Councilman Jeremiah Ellison, who represents North Minneapolis, said he would not frame what the council was doing as defunding the police, but rather as “funding a different safety strategy.”
He said: “Is the goal to execute some kind of vendetta against MPD? No.”
Lt. Bob Kroll, the president of the Minneapolis Police Union, did not respond to requests for comment.
Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said he supported reforming rather than defunding the police. While he welcomed additional investment in social services for mental health, domestic violence and homelessness, he said, the traditional police force “is an essential service and must still be funded.”
“When someone is in immediate danger, fearing for his or her life, would these victims still have a place to call and a person who is willing and able to help?” he asked. “If so, then we’re open to more discussions.”
Activists have been calling for change in the Minneapolis Police Department for a long time. Outrage over police killings prompted many of the current City Council members to run for office.
“We warned them years ago that this will become the next Ferguson,” Nekima Levy-Armstrong, president of the Racial Justice Network, said of city officials. “They didn’t listen.”
Levy-Armstrong said she was worried about completely abolishing the Police Department, fearing that city leaders would make decisions without sufficient input from minority communities.
“If they want to disband the police,” she said, “they need to come up with ways and methods to keep our people safe.”
After the accusations of police brutality through the years, the failed past attempts at reform and then the horrific footage of Floyd’s killing — as well as the police response to protests that has included rubber bullets and tear gas — major changes to policing in Minneapolis are now inevitable, said Kenza Hadj-Moussa, a spokeswoman for TakeAction Minnesota, an advocacy group.
“No one feels safe calling the police, period,” she said. “They’re not doing their basic function of public safety.”