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Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender and Mayor Jacob Frey Address the Challenge of Unifying the City With a Public Safety Plan
by Eric Ortiz, Wedge resident & LHENA board member
The city leaders shared their public safety perspectives at a Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association forum.
Minneapolis is at a crossroads. In terms of public safety, longtime residents say crime and violence across the city have never been worse, even when Minneapolis was dubbed "Murderapolis" in 1995 after a record 97 homicides. The 2020 crime trends show the need for a comprehensive public safety plan that brings about transformative change. But the city is divided on how to address the issue.
Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender and Mayor Jacob Frey discussed their public safety visions at a Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association (LHENA) public forum on Nov. 23. This forum with Council President Bender (who represents Ward 10) and Mayor Frey was the second in a LHENA series of public conversations on public safety. It allowed Bender and Frey to share their plans and take questions from the community.
The first LHENA public safety forum looked at how community leaders with "boots on the ground" are tackling public safety and showed the discontent Minneapolis residents have regarding the city’s response to public safety after the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day. Bender responded to people's concerns that the city council is not listening to them and acknowledging their experiences and moving with more immediacy to stop crime and violence.
"I think people really underestimate the amount of influence city staff have over how fast things move, what is recommended or not, especially when we are looking at big bodies of work, complex policy change, things where elected officials may not really be a hundred percent on the same page, or are still hearing from their constituents," Bender explained. "So all of those things factor into decisions like policy change, budgets, ordinances, the work we directed staff to do, community engagement. I know that we have to have these difficult conversations about policing and public safety in Minneapolis. And they will need to continue for many years. And it will only work and be successful if folks, yes, from across the city but also from within the same neighborhoods, the same wards, are really able to listen to each other."
The city is divided about public safety plans and how money should be allocated to implement those plans. The budget for the Minneapolis Police Department has increased every year since Bender took office in 2013. It is at $186 million in 2020, and Mayor Frey's proposed MPD budget is for $178 million in 2021. Some city council members, including Bender, support a more reduced police budget and a long-term reduction in officers to 750 or 770 by 2022. In 2019, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said the city needed 400 more officers by 2025, so around 1,200 total. "This would be the first reduction in MPD's budget in recent history," said Bender. "It's at an all-time high."
Bender would prefer to reinvest funding into mental health crisis response and violence prevention methods. Minneapolis has been working on community safety and violence prevention since 2006. Much of that work is now done through the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention, which was established through council action in 2018.
"This work is based on proven work from Minneapolis and cities around the country that acknowledges that violent crime is perpetuated by a small group of people. They are almost always group involved through networks, and the violence is happening for all kinds of reasons that are related to those relationships and networks. So this is not some sort of long-term, multi-generational interruption of violence. This is strategic, on the ground, very, very, very short-term, effective action. It's what reduced violence in the '90s when Minneapolis crime was so high."
The city is working to provide the right response to a call for help. Shifting report-only calls from 911 to 311 has been underway since 2018, and Bender supports citywide mental-health response for mental health calls. She also would like to see future investments in community safety and violence prevention. This funding would expand the violence prevention program, create a more coordinated homeless response, increase neighborhood crisis organizing, build more mental health crisis teams, and shift nonviolent calls for property crimes and parking complaints away from MPD into other departments.
"That is based on the knowledge that police are responding to everything from report-only calls to mental health crises, homelessness, opioid overdoses," said Bender. "It's exposing people to potential harm from police violence. It is not the appropriate response. Police are not trained to do that. … Police say they are not the best response for those calls. So shifting that work will allow our police department to focus on the most important that we need law enforcement for related to homicides and violent crime. And in my mind and the majority of the city council's mind, law enforcement is one part of a violence response that really starts with prevention."
In June, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a resolution to transform safety in the city. The resolution outlined specific action steps to ensure the safety of all members of the community.
"We also proposed a charter amendment," said Bender. "I think [it] reflects what I heard from a lot of Ward 10 constituents, which is we want a different kind of approach to public safety. We believe in prevention. We believe that police are not always the right response to mental health, to overdose, to these kind of community concerns. That law enforcement should be smaller and more focused. And that's what our charter amendment said"
Minneapolis needs to find some common ground with the city's strategic approach to public safety. Everyone might not agree with every aspect of the final plan, but the way to create solutions is for everyone to work together toward shared goals.
"I really think that there is a very large difference of opinion in the community on how we're talking about policing and public safety, and we're talking about how fast we want to change," Bender said. "I also think there is a huge overlap of agreement that we need to change and some specific things we can get consensus and support to do.
"The thing that is hard for us as legislators, the city council is a legislative body, we pass these detailed resolutions, with very specific action steps, with this charter amendment that was very specific, and I know that folks aren't reading our resolutions, aren't reading the specifics of our charter amendment. The overly simplified headline version does not often capture the detailed work that is happening that is based on many years of work at the city and that I know will continue in the future. I know we are going to change our system of public safety in Minneapolis because we have to. The community is demanding it in one way or another. So we just need to keep having these conversations, implement the changes, measure how it's going and keep working to improve."
People across the city, including panelists from the first LHENA public safety forum, have expressed trust in Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, but the opposite as it concerns the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis and its president Bob Kroll. In August, Kroll said that Chief Arradondo should resign if he doesn't challenge police defunding. Mayor Frey talked about ways to support the chief while pushing back on the police federation, which many people feel has "too much influence [on] the disciplinary process for officers accused of misconduct," according to a Star Tribune/KARE 11/MPR poll.
"I want to distinguish between the leadership, the compassion, and the work that our Chief Arradondo is doing and the rhetoric that Bob Kroll has pumped out," said Frey. "My relationship with the police federation and Bob Kroll has not been a good one, has not been a positive one. For someone that complains so often about the lack of public confidence in the police, it's sad because Mr. Kroll is one of the main reasons for it. His rhetoric, the way he conducts himself, is not beneficial to the community, nor is it beneficial to our police officers.
"Now conversely, Chief Arradondo, I think, has the right mentality. He leads with compassion. He is instilling procedural justice in everything that we do, and I back him fully. Now the police federation themselves, they do not get involved in the particular policy reform and change discussions. However, they are involved in what's called concurrence. So right now, we have a policy change. We have many policy changes, that are working their way through the docket. And once a draft and even a final policy change is created by the contract, we have to send that change to the police federation. Now, they can't veto it. But they do get to review it. And then, subsequently, that draft can go out to the public and be formalized."
The police federation is involved in union negotiations and negotiations of the city's collective bargaining agreement. Frey said that he and Chief Arradondo and others have made clear that many aspects of the collective bargaining agreement need to be changed.
"I can't get into the specifics due to the privacy that is required under the law of the negotiation process, but we are working very hard not to have just a reset but to have a total revamp of the contract that we've been working under."
Police reform groups have been working on solutions that would provide real accountability for police misconduct since before George Floyd was killed. Many have called for an end to the Office of Police Conduct Review, which replaced the Civilian Review Authority. One of our speakers from the last forum, Charles Caine of Brothers EMpowered, mentioned this and suggested that neighborhood associations be brought into the work of bringing accountability to police misconduct and rebuilding trust between the police and community. Mayor Frey agreed that getting community voices into the negotiation and accountability reform for MPD could help.
"These are great suggestions," said Frey. "There are many different ways to structure an Office of Police Conduct Review. The important piece to recognize, however, is that the OPCR is not necessarily the inhibitor of disciplinary actions and terminations taking place. One of my main frustrations as mayor, and I know that this is a frustration that was shared by everyone from Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton to R.T. Rybak to Mayor Betsy Hodges, is that we have an arbitration provision at the state level — it's a mandated arbitration — that says that after we, the chief or I, make a decision to terminate or discipline an officer, it has to work through a whole rigamarole, which ends with a mandatory arbitration.
"Now, here's the thing you got to remember, in that arbitration, 50 percent of the time, the officer that the chief or I terminated and/or disciplined gets sent right back to the department to continue violating community trust. Fifty percent of the time. We've had some really horrid instances where the chief of police or I have made what I believe, and I know, to be a correct determination. And the police chief has said repeatedly that there is nothing more debilitating than terminating an officer and having them come right back again. So I'm very open to different changes or structures out there. But one of the biggest impediments is even if a favorable recommendation is made by OPCR and then adopted by our chief, we still have so many of these individuals that are horrible for generating community trust come right back to the department."
Like Council President Bender, Mayor Frey supports having mental health co-responders citywide with police on help calls, because "not every single call needs an officer with a gun responding."
"In having mental health co-responders, you want to do several things. One, you want to siphon off the calls that are clearly nonviolent, that could be responded to without an officer's presence. Right now, we have a mental health co-responder program in place. The issue is the mental health co-responders themselves. They do not want to attend to a 911 call without the presence of an officer, at least initially there, because they are concerned for their safety.
"And so I think there is a mechanism, siphon off some of these 911 calls that are clearly nonviolent, and in issues where we're not so sure, have the presence of an officer there along with a mental health co-responder so that they can properly address it because it's just truth, police officers they can't possibly be trained in all of these different aspects of being a social worker to a mental health expert to a homeless advocate. I think it makes sense to have other areas of expertise that we're valuing, and I think it makes sense to fund them. That's in the process of moving forward right now. I support it."
That's not the only aspect of safety beyond policing the mayor is proposing. Over $2 million of the city's 2021 budget is earmarked for the MinneapolUS violence interrupters program. A recent change also was made to have theft report calls not go to an officer, but go to 311. Frey also supports having police officers.
"My position has remained very consistent," he said. "Which is, yes, we need a deep culture shift. Yes, we need a deep change in how our police department operates. We need safety beyond policing, and we need law enforcement and police officers."
Frey talked about what we've seen in the Minneapolis Police Department in the last six months. Over 160 MPD officers have left through attrition (resignation or retirement), compared to 40 or 45 officers leaving through attrition on an average annual basis. With that high number, the city has had to make adjustments.
"There are a number of things moving forward," explained Frey. "One, right from the get-go, a couple of months ago, the chief and I made what was a difficult but necessary decision to divert units within MPD to do some of the traditional law enforcement work. For instance, we had to disband the community engagement team, which does great work. We had to disband several units and move those individuals, move those officers, to do a combination of 911 response and investigations. That was the first thing.
"Second, in my budget for 2021, are three recruiting classes. While there is a citywide hiring freeze, exceptions can be made to that hiring freeze. And I agree about additional recruiting classes, and I will advocate for them to come on board in 2021. Now those recruiting officers can't come on immediately. You got to recruit them, train them in, swear them in. You got to make sure they're ready to go, and then they're officers. That takes a little bit of time. In the interim, we still have this gap. And so there was a vote that happened about a week-and-a-half ago, in which our chief and myself, we requested some support from outside jurisdictions. Right now, our chief is working with Hennepin County to get some assistance, at least for the remainder of the year. To offset some of the attrition and make sure that we can provide for public safety.
"Now, beyond that, every precinct has a routine plan that is submitted to the chief. And each precinct has plans that are tailored to what every subsection of the city is facing. That may be additional carjackings. That may be violent crime. It could be a number of different pieces. So I am literally talking with our chief like every single day about how we can make sure that people throughout our city feel safe. There has been an uptick in crime. We need to acknowledge it. There is no one single cause. There are numerous causes. There are cities around the country right that are experiencing that uptick in crime, and we are also feeling it here in our city. And so there are a number of different ways to address it. There are root causes. So we can't take our eye off the ball with respect to homelessness, the necessary investments in affordable housing, economic inclusion, jobs for those that need it. We cannot take our eye off that. And we need to address the problem right now as well. And that requires aspects of safety beyond policing. And it requires law enforcement and police."
Now is a time for all hands on deck. All voices need to be heard with neighborhood associations and community members, and everyone has to work together to help figure out and implement solutions.
"I think neighborhood associations are crucial partners," said Frey. "You all have been doing so much of that boots on the ground work and especially through COVID-19. I'm well aware that you've been actively involved in engaging food drives and serving over a hundred families over a two-week period. That's awesome. Please keep doing that. I know you've got your neighbors helping neighbors program, which is bringing people to either the grocery store or to pick up their meds. Please keep doing that. It might not seem like it, but all of these community investments and resources, all of the work you are doing, that does in a way help with safety, so many different aspects. And I think there are additional ways where you could be providing to us what you are seeing on the ground, whether that is working through this community engagement process, which we're now pushing through. Or that's contacting me or a councilmember. We do want to hear from you. And I very much appreciate your work."
Minneapolis has been in the news a lot since George Floyd's death, with many negative national headlines. But adversity can present an opportunity.
"We need deep culture reform and culture shift," Frey said. "We need deep structural change to how we operate. We also need law enforcement. … So the way I divide up the necessary police changes, I think about it in three different categories. One, I look at it in terms of policy changes or policy reforms. The second I look at is culture shift, which to me means personnel. It means getting the wrong people out of the department and the right people into the department. And the third piece I think about is aspects of safety beyond policing. I think we need to address all three of those to ensure that marginalized communities don't see the kind of discrimination they've seen. I also think it's important to acknowledge the truth, which is we do need to make some big changes. Chief Arradondo has said it repeatedly of the harms that have happened to our Black and brown communities."
There is no one silver bullet to fix public safety in Minneapolis. It's going to take a coordinated effort of teams of people working together. The city already has made reforms in the last couple of years in terms of police reform and policy change, and Mayor Frey ran down the list:
"Is any one of those things going to shift the culture and suddenly or dramatically change things with respect to accountability with our Black and brown communities?" Frey asked. "No. One of those things will not do it alone. It's got to be combined with the work that is underway in terms of the culture shift. It's got to be combined with this arbitration provision. It's got to be combined with safety beyond policing work as well, so we are not sending officers into situations they are not equipped to handle.
"An officer is more likely to make a bad decision or use force unnecessarily when they are tired. If they are hungry, if they are sick, or if they are forced to make a split-second decision, they are more likely to one) have more implicit bias that comes out or two) more likely to use force. There is an ongoing concern of having officers continuously do lots of overtime. If they are tired and not up to proper wellness, bad decisions are more likely, and we need to help guard against that."
Frey closed the forum by reminding us that 2020 has been an unprecedented year in almost every way. Still, we can be inspired by the work that has been done and will continue to be done. People are stepping up and will continue to step up to help out. A better future is possible for Minneapolis.
The Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association (LHENA) is starting a community mentorship network in Minneapolis. If you are interested in being a youth mentor and supporting community mentorship programs, please take this survey and let us know.