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Sheila Nezhad Says Police Are Not the Path to Public Safety in Minneapolis

Nezhad, a community organizer, is seeking to unseat incumbent Jacob Frey on a platform of transforming public safety without police, providing housing for all, and addressing poverty through direct economic support.

Sheila NezhadPhoto courtesy of Sheila for the People. Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow.

In May, millions of people watched a video of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the back of George Floyd’s neck for approximately nine minutes, killing him. “The first thing I saw before I saw the video was what I saw out on the streets,” said Sheila Nezhad, a policy organizer with Reclaim the Block who is running for mayor. “I went two blocks from my house on Chicago Avenue to join the community in protests.”

What could have been a moment of citywide unity—and an opportunity for the police to regain trust in the community—quickly turned ugly, Nezhad said. “I expected the police to be on their best behavior, but they came out of their squads with wooden billy clubs and big cans of mace in hand,” she said. “They were looking at the community with such contempt, such pure hate in their eyes.”

After several weeks of jury selection, the murder trial against Chauvin began Monday morning. Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter for killing Floyd.

But Nezhad believes institutions, like police and the government, also bear responsibility for Floyd’s death. “If there is an individual conviction, that is not enough,” said Nezhad. She pointed to the case of Mohamed Noor, who was convicted of murder in 2019 for shooting and killing an Austrailian woman while responding to a call for a suspected sexual assault in 2017. “We have sent a Minneapolis police officer to prison,” she said of Noor, “and that didn’t change anything.” 

In recent years, Minneapolis has implemented several policies aimed at reforming police, including attempts to diversify the department, stricter body camera regulations, and ending “warrior-style” training. But Floyd’s killing—and the national uproar it caused—suggests there remains a long road ahead to ensuring true safety for the public, especially the Black community.

Nezhad hopes to lead the city in this effort. She is running to unseat Mayor Jacob Frey in November’s race, the first major local election since Floyd’s death, by advancing a platform of progressive populism, focused on reshaping public safety by eliminating the police department, emphasizing prevention, and addressing root causes of violence. Her policies are also aimed at making housing affordable for all people and ending poverty.

“I have a different theory of change about how we get to a safe Minneapolis,” Nezhad said. “It’s about changing the core conditions that lead to crime and harm happening and developing alternative ways of dealing with conflict that don’t rely on guns and cages.”

I have a different theory of change about how we get to a safe Minneapolis.

Sheila Nezhad candidate for Minneapolis mayor

For Nezhad, that means starting off by significantly reducing the role of police in society. Nezhad said most of the calls that police respond to are not violent crimes and could be better served by having trained professionals, like social workers and mental health teams, to respond to them. She said she also wants to see street-response teams and unarmed violence interrupters added to deal with potential acts of violence.

Nezhad and Reclaim the Block are part of a coalition gathering signatures for a proposed amendment to the city’s charter that would eliminate the police department. The proposed amendment would eliminate the current requirement that the city employ a minimum number of police officers—roughly one police officer for every 590 people—and would create a Department of Violence Prevention, which would replace most or all of the police department with a “holistic approach” to public safety. The City Council tried to undertake a similar effort last year but it failed. The council is trying again this year with a new proposed charter amendment that would maintain some police officers, while moving most responsibilities to non-police alternatives, like mental health and social workers.

Frey has been a serious impediment to police reform efforts, Nezhad said. She recently penned an opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune opposing Frey’s decision to request that National Guard troops be deployed to the city during Chauvin’s trial. Frey’s request, she said, was an unnecessary escalation that would likely provoke violence rather than quell it.

“We need a mayor who can get on board with change and can work with the City Council,” Nezhad said. In December, City Council President Lisa Bender blasted Frey on Twitter after a combative budget process, saying he had threatened to veto the entire budget if it did not include funding for vacant positions within the police department.

“What I’ve seen is resistance from some of our city leaders, especially our current mayor, to changing the systems we have and the result of that is we keep seeing the same cycles of police violence and failed police reform over and over again,” said Nezhad. 

But her plans go beyond policing. She aims to decriminalize sex work, drug use, and homelessness. “I think we need a mayor who can be accountable to working class folks, accountable to renters, to people of color, to Indigenous folks, and queer and trans folks,” Nezhad said.

The police department has been the “primary resource” for dealing with issues like homelessness, she said, which results in police breaking up encampments and displacing the people living there, while not addressing the underlying need for no-income and low-income housing.

“Over and over again, we saw the city deploying MPD to evict these people without giving them an alternate place to go,” she said. “So, it would just move from park to park to park.”

What I’ve seen is resistance from some of our city leaders, especially our current mayor, to changing the systems we have.

Sheila Nezhad candidate for Minneapolis mayor

Nezhad said to truly address public safety, the city needs to invest in solving problems like housing and homelessness, rather than continually sending the police department to deal with problems after the fact.

“That’s how we build safety, too, is through greater communication and showing folks that there is a path forward to building a stronger community, rather than our only path to safety is by having more officers on the street,” she said.

Nezhad said she supports investments in public housing as well as instituting a rent control policy that would create limits on the amount landlords could charge tenants for rent.

The City Council is considering proposals for a charter amendment to implement rent control in the city. However, Frey has previously opposed such measures. Frey has also supported privatization of public housing to address the city’s housing need, something Nezhad said puts the desires of wealthy developers over the needs of Minneapolis residents.

“Everyone deserves housing,” Nezhad said. “It’s a human right.”

Nezhad also said she supports addressing poverty through job training and direct support from the city government. She sees implementation of a universal basic income through direct payments to all residents in Minneapolis as a long-term goal but would like to see targeted financial support to people in need in the short term.

“We have the resources,” she said. Minneapolis has spent more than $1 million on fences and metal barricades ahead of Chauvin’s trial. “Imagine if we had put that $1 million into direct economic relief for families that are suffering right now. What would that have done to advance peace in the city?”