(Bloomberg Opinion) — Barbed wire, concrete berms, and heavy fencing ring the austere government building where former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin will be tried, starting this week, over the death of George Floyd last May. Across the street, the lower levels of city hall are wrapped in fencing and boards to protect windows and doors.
Three floors up, Mayor Jacob Frey is seated at a long conference table. It’s mid-afternoon on a recent Saturday, and he’s just returned from visiting the Urban League, a predominantly Black church and a shopping mall that caters to the city’s Somali community. In all three venues, Frey tells me, constituents had public safety on their minds. Some wanted to talk about what he calls “deep structural change” in the Minneapolis Police Department. Others wanted more assistance from the police. Frey also noticed what wasn’t said. “Not a single time did I hear people talk about abolishing or defund,” he tells me.
Last summer, that’s all anyone wanted to discuss. After Floyd’s death, a majority on the city council publicly committed to ending the police department altogether. Frey pushed back, arguing for maintaining both staffing and funding, while boosting support for violence prevention and other programs. It was an awkward position for the progressive mayor of one of America’s most progressive cities. And Frey, a 39-year-old elected in 2017, appeared to be in peril. Conservatives from around the country mocked him for being weak; local progressives lambasted him for not committing to their agenda.
Yet nine months later, on the verge of Chauvin’s trial, the police budget has been subjected to only modest cuts, staffing levels will remain steady into 2022, and the city is heavily fortified to repel trouble. It’s a surprising turnabout. Minneapolis, after all, is the place where the “abolish the police” slogan got its most vivid expression. Thanks to Frey, it may turn out to be the place where the movement meets a more modest and constructive end.
Minnesota has long been plagued by racial disparities in policing. Even today, the picture is often bleak. Between 2012 and 2014, Black people in Minneapolis were 8.7 times more likely to be arrested for a low-level offense than White people. Although there have been efforts to address these problems, they haven’t amounted to much. In 2002, the police department agreed to federal mediation after officers shot and killed a machete-wielding, mentally ill Somali man. Some of the agreed-upon reforms happened. But many others, including measures to discipline officers accused in community complaints, did not.
“When the chief or I fire somebody, or discipline them … 50% of the time they get sent right back to the police department,” Frey says, growing animated as he discusses a police arbitration system protected by unions and powerful non-urban interests in the state legislature.
That’s no secret to Black residents of Minneapolis. When they watched Chauvin press a knee into Floyd’s neck last May, they may not have known that 18 complaints had been filed against the officer over a two-decade career. But they were certainly aware that the police department had enabled significant misconduct. The Third Precinct, where Chauvin worked, had a particularly bad reputation for unaccountable cops; famously, it was burned in the unrest that followed Floyd’s death. (Three other officers involved in Floyd’s arrest are also facing charges.)
The persistence of such problems has led to growing frustration. In June, a civil-rights group led thousands of protestors to Frey’s home, and demanded his presence. Some of the leaders wore “DEFUND POLICE” facemasks and T-shirts. Just before Frey appeared, one said: “What we’re asking for is to abolish the mother—-ing Minneapolis police.” Frey assured the crowd of his commitment to revamping “a systemically racist system.” But he plainly stated that he opposed full abolition.
That didn’t go over well. “I knew what would be easy and I knew what would be right,” he tells me, reflecting on the viral video that shows him walking away through an angry crowd that chants “Shame!” and “Go home, Jacob!” Nonetheless, he has no regrets. “I know that our communities, especially those stricken by poverty and violence, need police response.”
The day after the confrontation, nine of 12 members of the Minneapolis City Council gathered at a park in the city’s Powderhorn neighborhood, near where Floyd had died. “DEFUND POLICE” was spelled out in large letters at the foot of the stage where they stood. During the rally, they committed to “ending the Minneapolis Police Department and creating a new, transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis.”
Unfortunately, nobody had a plan for what, precisely, that new model would look like. Perhaps predictably, both proponents and opponents soon seized on the slogan and twisted it to their own ends. Conservatives (successfully) used it as a cudgel to bash even Democratic lawmakers who opposed the idea.
“That’s the inherent problem with a defund-abolish message,” Frey says. “It’s a Rorschach test. In that moment, when I was outside my home, I asked what they meant. And I’m paraphrasing, but they said something like `Get rid of the police.’ To that person, that’s what defund meant. To other people, it means let’s get some more mental-health responders and additional social workers so that we have a comprehensive system of public safety that goes beyond police, something that I happen to support.”
Other prominent voices in the city have also objected to the slogan. Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil-rights activist who ran against Frey for mayor in 2017, and now serves as executive director of the Wayfinder Foundation, says the Powderhorn rally was organized “without any Black community input, without any research or experts.” Polling suggests she has a point: An August survey of Black Minneapolis voters found that only 35% supported even reducing the size of the police force, let alone abolishing it. Some of those voters may have been responding to a citywide crime surge in which homicides and gunshot injuries more than doubled — and in which 80% of those shot were Black.
The city council was definitely noticing. In November, it voted for an additional $500,000 in emergency police funding. A month later, it passed on an activist proposal to cut $53 million — more than 25% — from the department’s budget (for diversion into a range of other programs, such as mental-health teams). Instead, the council cut and diverted a far more modest $7 million, while voting to maintain the number of authorized officers at 888, after Frey threatened to veto a plan to cut it to 750. Finally, a proposed amendment to the city’s charter that would create an overarching Department of Public Safety was reintroduced this year to state that the city “shall” have a police department. A rejected 2020 version said only that the city “may” have one.
Phillipe Cunningham, a council member who has led public-safety reform efforts, told me that the change came after extensive public consultation. “That was very troubling to folks. They were like, `I want to know that we’re going to have police in our city.’”
For Frey, these are often bitter fights. But in his view, they’re essential to reducing tensions between a frustrated Black community and a stressed and overstretched police department. “Every additional hour of overtime worked, the likelihood of use of force goes up,” he says. “So it’s a total misnomer that you get rid of police officers and somehow use of force or police violence goes down.”
Frey is broadly supportive of efforts to boost nonviolent public safety, including the deployment of additional social workers and mental-health responders, and hospital-based efforts that connect victims of violence to support. Where he differs from much of the council, and the city’s activists, is that he thinks these priorities are worth funding in their own right. “I don’t believe we need to cut police officers to make that happen.”
This “both-and” approach, as he calls it, hasn’t pleased everyone. But there’s little evidence that opposition is coalescing. Frey is up for re-election in November, and so far there’s no serious competition. Back in June, that seemed the most unlikely outcome of all.
For now, Frey is heavily focused on the trials that will start across the street from his office this week. He claims the city is far more prepared for violence than it was last May, when hundreds of businesses were damaged after Floyd’s death. But the intense security measures, including the influx of as many as 1,100 additional police and thousands of National Guard members, raise the stakes considerably. If he and the city come through the trials without significant problems, including police violence against protesters, the mayor’s willingness to invest in law enforcement could well look prescient.
Frey is confident that he and the city are on the right path. After one of the most tumultuous years in Minneapolis history, it’s crucial that he’s right.