Minneapolis voters will decide this November whether to end their city's police department, replacing it with a new "Department of Public Safety."
The city council last week signed off on language for a ballot question to change the city charter to create a new agency.
"We have an exciting opportunity in the city of Minneapolis to do something that has not been done before," says JaNaé Bates, spokeswoman for "Yes 4 Minneapolis." The coalition of activist groups gathered thousands of signatures to get the change to the city charter on the ballot, after a police officer's murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests last year.
Bates says the proposed new department "will be a fully holistic department that includes police officers as well as licensed professionals and experts, in order to ensure that folks stay safe."
The intention is to shift the city's response to crime away from law enforcement and toward social services or other approaches. It would expand on a push that's already underway in the city to transfer jobs traditionally done by the police to other, civilian departments.
Sasha Cotton, director of violence prevention for the city's health department, says after the trauma of Floyd's murder and the effects of the pandemic, "things feel chaotic." She says police — and government — have lost a measure of "legitimacy," and she thinks residents are eager for new approaches to public safety.
"A community that's really taking a stand and saying, 'No more, uh-uh, we're not going to do it this way anymore.'" Cotton says. "And although they're prepared to say 'We don't want this,' the answers to what we want as a community aren't clear. And we're going to have to try things."
For instance, the city now encourages residents to report property crimes by calling 311, instead of 911, to avoid involving the police. There's a similar plan to send out civilians, instead of police, to help people in mental health crises. The city has even moved its crime-prevention program out of the police department.
It's a trend that worries Pastor Brian Herron, of Zion Baptist Church in North Minneapolis.
"This us-against-them mentality has to go," Herron says.
He's dismayed by the new push to remove cops from everyday contacts in the neighborhood.
"I think it's a mistake," Herron says. "Because I think having civilians in the precinct, working with the cops, gives the cops a whole different idea of what's going on in the community."
In past years, he says, Minneapolis police were most effective when they connected with the people they served.
"We invited the patrol officers to block club meetings. And the patrol officers were surprised by the response they got," he says. "We have to transform policing from an occupational force within the community to a community response that works with the community."
This is sometimes referred to as "community policing," a reform idea promoted during the 1990s and 2000s. In recent years it's fallen into disfavor, especially because it's also associated with "quality of life" or "broken windows" policing, which many activists say have led to over-policing and violence.
"In some communities, police make people feel very safe," Cotton, of the city's health department, says. "And in some communities, police make people feel very unsafe. And that's usually determined by whether the police are called on you, or whether you're the person who's usually calling the police."
But Herron still believes some form of community policing is a worthy goal — a belief shared by some of the officers who participated in those programs over the years.
While the Minneapolis Police Department would not make any current officers available to talk to NPR, recently-retired Lt. Kim Lund Voss says she's depressed by the turn away from community interactions.
"I really enjoyed going to community meetings, I enjoyed getting to know our community," Voss says. "To take that away is sad, because then you only get, over and over again, the bad stuff. And you can't expect officers to be dealing only with the bad stuff and then turn around and be caring and compassionate individuals."
The proper number of police officers has become a major point of contention in Minneapolis, regardless of how the November ballot question turns out. The police department has seen an exodus of officers, from 899 in May 2020 to 677 in June 2021. While some officers quit or retired, others have claimed disability. Voss retired in January with a PTSD diagnosis.
"There was more hatred than I've ever felt in all of the 37 years that I've been a police officer," Voss says. The precinct building where she worked was burned during the protests.
"The stuff we saw during those riots, the people sneaking up on us, the people lobbing stuff at us, shooting stuff at us? That was a war."
She says she'd advise any young person thinking of becoming a cop to go in "with eyes open," and the Minneapolis Police Department has had trouble recently with recruiting.
Meanwhile, a group of Minneapolis residents sued the city, accusing it of letting the number of officers fall below the minimum set by the city charter. On July 1 a court agreed, ordering the city to increase hiring.
Sondra Samuels was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. She lives in North Minneapolis, one of the historically African-American neighborhoods hardest hit by a recent increase in violent crime.
"Of all the people shot in Minneapolis this year, 83% of the gunshot victims are Black," Samuels says. "We only make up 20% of the city!"
In the same neighborhood, church volunteers have spent summer evenings camped out at hotspot intersections, hoping to deter the surge in violent crime. One of the volunteers was injured by a stray bullet a few weeks ago.
Sharif Willis, sitting in a chair at a hotspot intersection a few blocks from his house, says he thinks the approach is working.
"We've claimed this, and let it be known that the community is still watching," he says.
Murders have dipped in the area, but Willis doubts it's a permanent solution to the shortage of officers.
"If they were to defund the police, I would get me a SS-23, an AR-47, a AK-15," he says, "because these people who are running around talking about 'defund the police' don't have a clue. They don't live in this environment, here."
JaNaé Bates, with "Yes 4 Minneapolis," says rebuilding the number officers would be a continuation of what she sees as a failed model. She thinks the fact that the current city charter prescribes a minimum number of officers just demonstrates the need for an institutional clean slate.
"This charter was put in place in 1961," Bates says, under the pressure of police officers and their union. "And they put that in there to continue to hold on to certain level of power and status quo and power and resources."
If the ballot question passes, the charter would no longer prescribe a minimum number of officers. The new "Department of Public Safety" would also likely be subject to more control by the Minneapolis's liberal-leaning City Council, whose members have complained over the last year about how limited their influence over the department is.
Tony Bouza has seen these fights over control before. The 92-year-old was police chief in the 1980s, and still lives in an area where businesses burned last year after Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.
"Derek Chauvin is what we call a 'thumper,'" he says. "An alpha male within the ranks that creates the culture within the police department."
He says the Minneapolis Police Department has to crack down on that culture, but he thinks eliminating the department would go too far.
"It's crazy," he says. "They don't know what they're talking about. It's not an institution you want to eradicate. It's an institution you need to reform and lead and reshape."
As to those who worry about a long-term shortage of officers, Bouza says there's no reason to panic over what he calls the "myth of the exodus."
"The pay is wonderful. The benefits are better," he says. Older officers may be leaving, he says, but "it gives you an opportunity to hire women and Blacks." And while he thinks the existing department can be reformed, he's not worried about funding cuts.
"There is not a department in America who would that would not be improved with a 20% cut in budget," he says.
Still, old-school calls for tighter budgets and reform may no longer be enough. In North Minneapolis, Sondra Samuels says she understands the passion fueling the drive to eliminate the police department.
"I get it! People who want a different system of public safety and say we want police to have a diminished role, we've tried reform, it hasn't worked — they're right! They're not wrong!"
Yet when she contemplates the prospect of fewer cops on patrol in her neighborhood, she adds, "And — they are short-sighted."