Less than a month after a police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, Mayor Mike Elliott is proposing a measure to remove police officers from enforcing some traffic violations and responding to calls related to mental health. At today’s City Council meeting, Elliott will introduce the Daunte Wright and Kobe Dimock-Heisler Community Safety and Violence Prevention Resolution.
“This resolution is going to transform our system so police are not the only available response to everything,” Elliott told The Appeal. “This is responding directly to our community and what they have said their needs are and I certainly hope that our council will be united behind this resolution which is a framework for how we move forward.”
In reaction to an epidemic of police violence perpetrated against Black adults and children, numerous communities are attempting to limit the role of law enforcement, particularly when it comes to traffic enforcement and mental or behavioral health crises.
On April 11, police pulled over 20-year-old Wright, a Black man, for a minor traffic violation: expired registration tags. The officers ran his name and discovered he had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant. When he stepped out of his car, one of the officers attempted to handcuff him. Wright then got back in his car, according to body camera footage. As he did, Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter can be heard yelling, “Taser, Taser, Taser.” She then fatally shot him.
The mayor’s resolution, if adopted, would create an unarmed civilian Traffic Enforcement Department, which would enforce “all non-moving traffic violations,” including parking violations or expired registration tags.
Nonmoving violations also include infractions such as a broken tail light or having tinted windows, all of which can be the basis for pretextual (and ultimately fatal) police stops of Black drivers. However, the resolution leaves all moving violations, no matter how minor—like failing to use a turn signal—under the auspices of the police department. Various moving and nonmoving violations are classified as petty misdemeanors, which are civil violations, not crimes, and carry a maximum fine of $300. Elliott told The Appeal that his understanding is that Minnesota law requires a licensed officer to handle all moving violations.
“I think it’s a right step forward,” Columbia Law School professor Sarah Seo said of the mayor’s resolution. “I think it could do more in terms of moving violations.”
Police should not enforce minor moving violations, said Seo, author of the book “Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom.” Police should also not necessarily enforce even more serious violations, such as driving under the influence, she said.
“I’d choose somebody who was trained with how to handle substance abuse and mental illness rather than somebody who’s trained with a gun,” she said.
Under the resolution, until the measure is fully in place, the city manager would be directed to implement a “citation and summons” policy that requires officers to issue citations only, and prohibits police officers from arresting or conducting consent searches of people or vehicles for any nonmoving traffic infraction, nonfelony offenses, or nonfelony warrants. Elliott told The Appeal it has not yet been determined if the citations and summons policy would apply to nonfelony offenses and warrants outside the context of traffic stops.
“We’re still going to be working out the details particularly when that policy will apply and when it won’t apply, but we know that it will apply most specifically right now to traffic enforcement,” he said.
Taylor Pendergrass, the deputy director of campaigns for the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice applauded the resolution.
“We’re hopeful that this can serve as a model for other municipalities across the country and show that solely funding armed police officers as the first, last and only resort, especially in communities of color isn’t the right approach to ending the scourge of police violence,” he wrote in an email to The Appeal.
The resolution also would create an unarmed Community Response Department to respond to “all incidents where a city resident is primarily experiencing a medical, mental health, disability-related, or other behavioral or social need.” The department would consist of trained medical and mental health professionals. The mayor told The Appeal that if the resolution is adopted, the city will create a unified dispatch system to determine whether the call is routed to the police department or the mental health response unit.
Nationally, one in four people killed by police have an untreated serious mental health illness, according to a 2015 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center. Several communities around the country have programs that replace law enforcement with mental health professionals—initiatives that are widely supported, according to polling conducted by The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal.
It’s unclear whether the resolution would have prevented the death of Dimock-Heisler, a 21-year-old autistic man with mental illness. On Aug. 31, 2019, four police officers responded to a call from Dimock-Heisler’s grandfather for help after his grandson threatened him. When the police arrived at Dimock-Heisler’s home, he was sitting calmly and unarmed. His grandfather told police that the situation was resolved.
Dimock-Heisler told one of the officers that he had been committed before and did not want to be involuntarily committed again. When the officer said he didn’t know what would happen, Dimock-Heisler began to cry with his head in his hands, according to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, before running toward his grandmother. Two officers used their Tasers on him, and another hung on to his legs. Dimock-Heisler then retrieved a knife and attempted to stab one, according to the county attorney’s office. The other two officers—Cody Turner and Brandon Akers—fatally shot Dimock-Heisler, striking him six times. He was then handcuffed and died at the scene. No charges were filed against any of the officers.
The Appeal asked Elliott whether it would be appropriate to file criminal charges against Turner and Akers; he said he could not answer the question.
“What we’re doing here is simply expanding the tools in our toolbox so that the police are not the only available response to everything,” said Elliott.