The Minneapolis city council has pledged to disband the city’s police department and replace it with a new system of public safety, a historic move that comes as calls to defund law enforcement are sweeping the US.
Speaking at a community rally on Sunday, a veto-proof majority of council members declared their intent to “dismantle” and “abolish” the embattled police agency responsible for George Floyd’s death – and build an alternative model of community-led safety. The decision is a direct response to the massive protests that have taken over American cities in the last two weeks, and is a major victory for abolitionist activists who have long fought to disband police and prisons.
“In Minneapolis and in cities across the US, it is clear that our system of policing is not keeping our communities safe,” said Lisa Bender, the Minneapolis city council president, at the event. “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period. Our commitment is to do what’s necessary to keep every single member of our community safe and to tell the truth: that the Minneapolis police are not doing that. Our commitment is to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”
Nine council members announced their support and represent a supermajority on the 12-person council, meaning the mayor, who earlier this weekend opposed disbanding the department, cannot override them. The remaining three council members are broadly supportive of the effort as well, but were not ready to sign on, activists said. While the mayor has oversight over the police, the city council has authority over the budget and policy, and could work to dismantle the department through cuts and ordinances.
The formal effort to abolish a major-city police department in America and replace it with a different model of safety would have been unthinkable even weeks ago and is a testament to the impact of the protests that began with Floyd’s death on 25 May. The unarmed 46-year-old was killed by Minneapolis police when an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes as he pleaded for him to stop. Four officers now face criminal charges.
“This is a moment that’s going to go down in history as a landmark in the police and prison abolition movement,” said Tony Williams, a member of MPD150, a Minneapolis group whose literature on building a “police-free future” has been widely shared during the protests. “There’s a groundswell of support for this. People are grounded in the history of policing in a way that has never happened before. It’s visible that police are not able to create safety for communities.”
The council members are expected to face opposition from law enforcement officials and the police union, though activists emphasize that the veto-proof majority has the authority to move forward regardless of opposition.
“It’s pretty clear the political will is here, and they can’t stop it,” said Williams, noting that even if police officers opposed the move, a vast majority of them live outside Minneapolis and cannot vote on their elected leaders.
Spokespeople for the Minneapolis mayor did not immediately respond to inquiries on Sunday. The police department declined to comment.
After Minneapolis’s mayor, Jacob Frey, would not commit to abolishing the police at a demonstration on Saturday, protesters shouted, “Go home, Jacob!” and “Shame!” until he left. Minneapolis is also home to a powerful union leader who has aggressively resisted any reforms to the department despite the agency’s history of racial abuse.
Lawmakers and advocates across the US will probably be closely watching what happens next in Minneapolis. It is unclear how quickly this process could move, and what the transition could look like. Supporters are pushing for the council to start with taking money away from the police budget and investing in other government departments, social services and programs, while launching a community process for creating alternative systems.
An alternative safety model, advocates say, can start with finding “non-police solutions to the problems poor people face”, such as counselors responding to mental health calls and addiction experts responding to drug abuse.
Like many US municipalities, Minneapolis was already facing a budget shortfall due to the Covid-19 crisis, and defunding police could help address some of those gaps. There are a handful of examples of governments disbanding troubled local police agencies in the US over the years, though the authorities have had other regional law enforcement entities take over policing.
Police reforms around the country
While the effort in Minneapolis is the most radical, a number of other US mayors and local leaders have reversed their positions on police funding. The mayor of Los Angeles said he would look to cut as much as $150m from the police this week, just days after he pushed forward a city budget that was increasing it by 7%.
Following days of protests and widespread accounts of police misconduct in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday that some funding would be moved from the police to “youth initiatives and social services”. Some council members and others, however, have been pushing for a $1bn divestment from the NYPD.
“The details will be worked out in the budget process in the weeks ahead, but I want people to understand that we are committed to shifting resources to ensure that the focus is on our young people,” De Blasio said. “And I also will affirm while doing that, we will only do it in a way that we are certain continues to ensure that this city will be safe.”
De Blasio also announced that enforcement of regulations involving street vendors – many of whom are persons of color and, or immigrants – should not be handled by police. “Civilian agencies can work on proper enforcement and that’s what we’ll do going forward,” he said.
In Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, San Francisco and other cities, local policymakers have expressed support for some form of defunding or opposing police budget increases in the last week.
For years, abolitionist groups have advocated for governments to take money away from police and prisons and reinvesting the funds in other services. The basic principle is that government budgets and “public safety” spending should prioritize housing, employment, community health, education and other vital programs, instead of police officers.
Advocates for defunding argue that recent police reform efforts have been unsuccessful, noting that de-escalation training, body cameras and other moves have not stopped racist brutality and killings. Police in America kill more people in days than many other countries do in years.
Amid the current protests, abolitionist groups have put forward concrete steps toward dismantling police and prisons, arguing that defunding police is the first move, and that cities need to remove police from schools, repeal laws that “criminalize survival” such as anti-homelessness policies, provide safe housing for people and more. Colleges, public school systems, museums and other institutions have also increasingly announced plans to divest from police.
The Minneapolis announcement could inspire other cities to follow, Williams said: “I do believe we are on the precipice of a major global shift. I’m really hopeful in this moment.”