MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Any attempts to amend the Minneapolis City Charter to dismantle its police department will have to wait for 2021.
The Minneapolis Charter Commission opted to take 90 days to review a proposed amendment which would have replaced the police department with a city council-overseen Community Safety and Violence Prevention Department, effectively tabling the idea until after the 2020 election.
At the Wednesday evening meeting, charter commissioners debated what role they ought to play in considering the amendment, but almost universally decried it as hurried and ill-conceived. Most complaints were procedural, although one commissioner foretold a municipal apocalypse of crime and falling property values should the amendment be allowed to go to a vote.
Five of the 15 commissioners objected to the decision to delay, citing concerns that citizens would perceive such a move as political gamesmanship. While none suggested that the commission offer support for the amendment, all acknowledged that the city council would likely send the question to voters even if commissioners recommended against it.
“It sounds like we’re going to delay, and take ninety days. I hope there’s a plan out there that’s going to get us to either approving, rejecting or offering an alternative. Because our role here is not to safeguard the city council amendment from the charter. That’s not our role, the way I see it. Our role is to make a recommendation to the city council,” Commissioner Al Giraud-Isaacson said. ““It sounds to me that everybody on the commission has an opinion of yes or no on the charter amendment. So taking an additional 90 days to include studies is going to do what?”
The Commission signaled its intent on July 29 when it voted down a proposed amendment by Giraud-Isaacson which would only have eliminated the charter’s minimum-staffing requirement for the police department. Minneapolis’ charter currently requires that the department employ 0.0017 employees per city resident, totaling about 725 employees by 2018 population estimates.
The 90-day delay was one of four options available to the commission at the Wednesday night meeting. It could either reject or accept the amendment, making a recommendation either way on whether voters should be allowed to vote, or substitute its own recommended election. The delay is the only option that would definitively keep the question off the ballot this year.
The process of getting the proposed amendment to the ballot has brought the Charter Commission to many Minneapolitans’ attention for the first time. Commissioners are appointed by the chief judge of Hennepin County District Court rather than elected, and that status has led some to ask why their approval is needed at all.
“There have been signs that the unelected and mostly-white commission may stifle the voices of the people and squelch racial and community justice,” activist group Black Visions Collective tweeted earlier this week. The Charter Commission is indeed mostly white, with only two members of color on the 15-member commission.
Commission chair Barry Clegg pushed back on that idea.
“A lot has been made of the fact that charter commissioners are appointed by judges and not elected. That’s not a legislative accident. It’s in the state constitution. Charter commissioners are appointed by judges to preserve their independence,” he said.
“The real question is what constitutes an appropriate amendment, and I can understand the reason for confusion around that, because there’s no statutory or case law guidance on it. Charter commissioners are left to their own devices,” he added.
Clegg put forth his personal list of criteria: whether the amendment was germane to the charter, which he said it was; whether it was well considered or specific, which he said it was not; and whether it took away rights from the public, which he argued it did by placing the future of the charter-mandated police department in the hands of the city council.
City Council president Lisa Bender, whose council unanimously approved the proposed charter amendment, emphasized that the council was not done working toward reimagining policing.
“The Charter Commission's vote is disappointing and creates barriers to change but it will not stop our work to re-imagine public safety in Mpls,” she tweeted. “Our work always was and remains multi-pronged, including a 911 workgroup, MPD staffing study, investment in violence prevention & more.”
She also said the commission was not as isolated from politics as they claimed, citing the failed 2013 campaign of one member for city council and another member’s involvement in a political action committee that donated to some sitting council members’ opponents.
The decision is a win for the city’s embattled police force, which has been the subject of protests and calls for abolishment since the death of George Floyd on May 25. The force has faced still more public outcry this week after a black man suffering a diabetic seizure wound up in intensive care after paramedics allegedly dosed him with 500 milligrams of ketamine while they and Minneapolis police repeatedly pressed his girlfriend with questions about whether he was on drugs.
Police response times have also climbed across the city as the department faces a staffing shortage, and crime has seen an uptick since Floyd’s death. Many officers have taken sick time, citing post-traumatic stress from the riots that followed it.
But according to a poll taken earlier this week on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union and workers’ rights nonprofit The Fairness Project, that hasn’t been enough to change the minds of those who would defund the department. The poll found that 56% of Minneapolis residents supported the charter amendment as proposed by the city council, and 79% believed the department’s budget was too large.
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