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How George Floyd’s Death Is Pushing Minneapolis to Rethink Public Safety

The police killing has accelerated a years-long effort by advocates and lawmakers to shift resources and money away from law enforcement.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty images.

For more than eight minutes in May, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the back of George Perry Floyd’s neck. Several officers stood by and made no effort to help as Floyd gasped for air and begged Chauvin to get off him until he died.

“We don’t feel like he deserved to die the way he did because he was a human being,” Floyd’s aunt Angela Harrelson, told The Appeal. “He will always be Perry to me, six-foot-eight comedian. I miss him dearly.”

Nationwide, Floyd’s death sparked protests against police brutality and a conversation about the role of law enforcement. And mayors, state legislators, and members of Congress have faced increasing pressure to address police brutality and police spending.

In Minneapolis, lawmakers and advocates say Floyd’s death is a rallying point in a years-long effort to transform policing in the city. The killing—a painful scar that will be revisited shortly when Chauvin, who was charged with murder and manslaughter, will be tried next month—has pressed the case for reforms, like diverting law enforcement funds to social programs and non-police alternatives. Still, efforts to implement such changes have faced challenges.

“We might have been on a five-year track, or a 10-year track or a 25-year track, but we don’t have that kind of time,” City Council member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents several northern Minneapolis wards, told The Appeal. “We’ve got to grow these programs now.”

Recent movement within city government to reform the police department began in November 2015, when Minneapolis grappled with another high-profile police killing of an unarmed Black man, according to Elianne Farhat, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing progressive policies in the state.

That month, officers shot and killed 24-year-old Jamar Clark while responding to a domestic violence call. His death, the 2016 death of Philando Castile, and the 2017 death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond led to mass protests in Minneapolis, and police violence became a central topic during the 2017 mayoral race

Jacob Frey, then a candidate and now the city’s mayor, responded by calling for some reform, including more diversity in police hiring, and for police to live within the communities they patrol as a way to build the relationship between police and residents. “I want to make community policing more than just a catchphrase,” he said in 2017. “I want to give police officers the time to engage in the community and the impetus to do so.” 

Once elected, Frey banned officers from taking “warrior-style” training classes, which critics say lead to officers using excessive and sometimes deadly force. In 2018, he and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo implemented new consequences for officers who failed to properly use body cameras.

The City Council also voted that year to move $1.1 million from the police department’s budget to create an Office of Violence Prevention, increase funding to the Office of Police Conduct Review, and provide more stable funding to a pilot program that paired mental health professionals with police officers.

But not enough has been done, said Farhat. “Minneapolis is in many ways the poster child for police reforms,” she said. “All the reforms that folks say are supposed to end police violence and improve public safety and trust, Minneapolis has tried and, as we saw in Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd, failed.”

Frey did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment.

Floyd’s killing has created a new urgency in making significant changes to how police and public safety operate in the city, said Ellison.

In June, Ellison was one of a veto-proof majority of councilmembers who vowed to disband the police department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety and Violence Prevention that would be responsible for “public safety services prioritizing a holistic, public health-oriented approach.” However, that plan quickly ran into problems.

Because the police department and a minimum number of officers—at least one officer for roughly every 590 residents—are enshrined in the city’s charter, the City Council alone cannot disband the police department; it must put the question before local voters. 

Although the council voted in June to approve a ballot question, that initiative was blocked by the Minneapolis Charter Commission, which approves ballot initiatives. Commissioners voiced concerns that the proposed change did not give voters an “informed choice” and that the amendment gave too much power to the City Council. The city attorney’s office also released a report in August stating the proposed amendment may violate state law that says only police can perform some law enforcement functions.

Critics say the charter commission overstepped its authority and ignored the will of Minneapolis voters by blocking the amendment. 

The council was able to pass an $8 million cut to the department’s 2021 budget and reinvest that money into a mental health crisis team, additional training for 911 operators, and other non-police actions to reduce violence.

Council President Lisa Bender took to Twitter after the passage of the budget and blamed Frey for blocking larger reforms. Bender said that Frey—who is up for re-election this year—threatened to veto the entire city’s budget if it did not include funding for 140 vacant police positions.

Sheila Nezhad, who is running to unseat Frey, told The Appeal that police violence “is one of the top issues I hear from constituents about.”

Nezhad, a community organizer, said she wants to fundamentally change how public safety is achieved by moving away from policing and investing in addressing root causes of crime and violence like creating stable housing, providing youth programming, and making mental health care accessible to all.

“Right now, we’re locked into a bad contract where policing is our primary model that we have to use,” she said.

Ellison said he intends to “drastically reduce the role police have and reinvent public safety altogether.” However, he said the City Council cannot agree on a clear path at this point.

In January, council members Phillipe Cunningham, Steve Fletcher, and Jeremy Schroeder introduced a plan aimed as a workaround to the concerns about state law with the original proposal to disband the police department. It would create a Department of Public Safety that includes the police department and would allow the council and mayor to change the size of the department as they see fit. It would also provide a path for eventually disbanding the use of police except for in a limited number of circumstances as required by state law.

But last week, the City Council voted unanimously to spend $6.4 million to hire dozens more police officers. The number of officers employed by the department has fallen by roughly 200 since Floyd’s killing as officers quit, retired, or took extended medical leave since late May. Ellison told The Appeal the money was allocated in the 2020 budget and does not affect the $8 million cut for the current fiscal year.

Farhat said TakeAction is part of a coalition working to get voter signatures for a charter amendment that would eliminate the requirement that the police department employs a minimum number of officers based on the city’s population and create a Department of Violence Prevention.

Nezhad is also part of that coalition.

Farhat said “a person of good conscience and who cares about human life” can’t let “a system that allows for people to be treated and for Black men to be killed in the way George Floyd was to continue and not do anything.” 

“You are either on the side of the status quo that hurts and harms Black and brown people or you’re on the side of changing it.”