George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Days later, the City Council pledge to dismantle its police force, saying that it cannot be reformed. Although they failed to deliver on that pledge, they cut the police budget and officers began leaving. Crime went up, and residents were force to sue their own city just to get the minimum number of police required by the City Charter. But the plaintiffs, called “the Minneapolis 8,” actually managed to force the City to refund the police. This victory for common sense may cause a change in the conversation around policing.
Minneapolis Defunds the Police
Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on May 27, 2020, causing national outrage and protests in Minneapolis. Instead of blaming the officer that killed Floyd, many activist blamed the police force as a whole. They wanted to punish everyone at the Minneapolis Police Department by defunding the police. Instead of having an honest conversation about the consequences, local leaders decided to go along with the tide of resentment against the police.
But there were warning signs from the start. Jacob Frey was the mayor of Minneapolis on June 6, 2020. Thousands of protesters outside his house asked whether he supported defunding the police. He said, “I do not support the full abolition of the police.” He was met with chants of “shame!” and “Go home Jacob, go home!” He fled his own house as the protesters chanted at him.
The City Council did not take the lesson. The next day, on June 7, 2020, members of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.” They described the “police-free future.” The MPD “cannot be reformed and will never be accountable for its actions.” Councilmember Alondra Cano said, “we should and can abolish our current Minneapolis police system. Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said, “This council is going to dismantle this police department.” They were standing above a sign that read, “DEFUND POLICE.”
The outright abolition of the MPD would require an amendment to the city’s charter. That’s because the charter requires a police department. Section 7.3 provides: “The City Council must fund a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident.”
In August, efforts to change the charter failed. The city’s Charter Commission voted to block an amendment that would dismantle and remove the city’s police force. This is a group of city volunteers appointed by a judge. They pointed out that the proposal did not comply with several different laws, including public input laws.
Then, a proposal to cut the size of the force by 15% was voted down by the Council.
By the fall, crime was up 25%, driven by big jumps in car burglaries and shootings. In September, many council members backed away from their pledges. But the council continued to try to weaken the department.
On December 10, 2020, the Minneapolis City Council cut the Minneapolis Police Department budget by 4.5%. The Council used they money to fund an Office of Violence Prevention, a group of mental health professionals who would respond to calls for service without the aid of the police. The council’s pledge caused many officers to quit.
Crime Went Up After the Police Were Defunded
The spike in crime during and after the Council’s defund pledge was “extraordinary,” according to U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald. Gun violence surged in the summer of 2020. Violent crime was up 17% across Minnesota in 2020. There were 48 murders in Minneapolis in 2019. There were 84 in 2020, and there have been 67 as of September 11, 2021. Murders in 2021 are on pace to surpass murders in 2020.
The murder count represents only a small fraction of gun crimes. Data show a record number of gunshot wounds reported since last year. In the first six months of 2021, Minneapolis surpassed shots fired citywide in all of 2019, according to ShotSpotter activations, shooting reports and other data tracked by local law enforcement agencies. This year is on track to surpass 2020s record-high 9,600 gunfire reports. The past 20 months now account for almost a quarter of the 70,000 gunshot incidents reported in Minneapolis since 2008.Frontline, Minneapolis’ bloody summer puts city on pace for most violent year in a generation, (9/11/2021).
City residents became increasingly frustrated with rising crime. Cathy Spann and seven other Minneapolis residents sued the city. They pointed out that the City Charter required a minimum number of police in the city. Efforts by the City Council and activists had reduced the size of the police force below that minimum. “It is about all of us coming together to make a difference to stop the gun violence that is in our city,” said Spann. “We walked outside and I pulled this bullet out of my house. Out of my home, out of my siding,” said another plaintiff. “Every single night on any block in this neighborhood you can hear gunshots!” Spann said. “Every single freaking night!”
The defendants argued that no plaintiff had standing to bring a lawsuit, since none had actually been hurt. The judge rejected this claim and allowed the lawsuit to go forward.
In June, Judge Jamie Anderson granted a writ of mandamus: the Minneapolis 8 had won. In her decision, Anderson said the Minneapolis residents were able to prove that the city’s rising crime rate was caused by a lack of officers. The City Council had violated the charter by “their failure to support and fund the police.” The Council conceded that “the City Charter creates the obligation for [the Council] to properly fund the police force.” Mayor Frey, who was booed out of his own house in 2020, was deposed in the lawsuit. He “acknowledged” that “the uptick in violence we are seeing” “is because police officers are needed.”
The judge concluded that the council “[has] failed to perform an official duty clearly imposed by law.” She ordered the city to hire more officers. Specifically, she ordered the city of maintain at least 730 officers, up from 690 as of April.
Where Are We Now?
The City Council and activists haven’t given up. Advocates of defunding police support a ballot initiative this November. Under the Yes 4 Minneapolis initiative, the Minneapolis Police Department would be replaced with a Department of Public Safety, eliminating the city’s required minimum number of officers per capita and replacing some with social workers, mental health experts and crisis managers — effectively defunding the local police by reallocating funds to other city services. Critics say the initiative would simply rename the police force and allow the Council to declare victory. Even the website for this initiative says that the amendment neither abolishes nor defunds the police.
Other cities watched the Minneapolis experiment closely. For example, Los Angeles also moved to defund the police at the city and county levels. But crime is on the rise in Los Angeles too. And many local politicians there want to avoid the embarrassment suffered by the City Council in Los Angeles. For those of us that pay attention to crime and public policy, the Minneapolis experience seems to demonstrate that defunding the police is like cutting off the nose to spite the face. The effect of such a policy is only more pain in poor communities of color. Compassion for those communities requires more resources, not less, devoted to them. And physical safety is a bedrock government service. Without safety, other services are impossible.
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