When video of George Floyd being killed under the literal weight of Minneapolis law enforcement officer Derek Chauvin surfaced, it touched off months of protests across the country. While conservative news outlets attempted and continue to attempt to paint these protests as an evil plot to turn white babies black, many other people have seen the Floyd killing as a culmination of government’s failure to enact the kinds of changes needed to end the racist abuses of power by law enforcement. This summer, calls for larger steps—not simply small reforms—were championed with even louder unified voices.
The officers in the George Floyd case have been charged, but what comes out of this pass through the American justice system remains to be seen. One thing that will not be fixed is that George Floyd will remain deceased. As the transcript of Floyd’s arrest and death shows, without cameras and witnesses, there’s a very high probability that Floyd’s death would have simply been one of the many statistical pieces of noise glossed over when reviewing budgets and ethics and results of law enforcement. It also shows that there is a fundamental and deadly flaw in the business of how law enforcement goes about its work. The fundamental issue is not simply racism and white supremacy: it is a true absence of accountability that has engendered law enforcement with above-the-law agency over the citizens in our country.
Minneapolis, the epicenter of this specific wave of protests, was already in the midst of a few years of “reforms” and responded with bigger steps including plans to dismantle the city’s police department as it exists right now. But that process is easier said than done, and it is now 2021, so let’s see how things are progressing.
As Black Lives Matters protests erupted across the world after Floyd’s death, various municipalities across the United States began making overtures toward law enforcement reform. Calls for the defunding of police led many to quibble about the optics and messaging of the verb “defund,” but as many activists working in the field of police brutality and violence have said, reforms tend to be at best half-measures, and real change must include entirely rethinking how we look at law enforcement and its relationship to American communities. This has borne out in many cases, as the best steps so far forward have been for cities and towns to create (or say they will create) “review boards.” Meanwhile, policing seems to go on as usual.
In recent years leading up to Floyd’s death, there have been numerous cases that have hit the front pages of media outlets, both caught on tape and not caught on tape, highlighting Minneapolis police’s deadly interactions with the public. It has not mattered whether there was video, as in the case of Philando Castile, or whether the person was the unarmed white woman Justine Damond: Very little seems to have been done in the way of justice. The police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile was quickly acquitted of shooting him in front of his girlfriend and her elementary-school-aged child. After real unanswered questions arose about whether or not Jamar Clark was handcuffed, a grand Jury was not even convened to look at evidence surrounding the 24-year-old Clark’s death at the hands of police officers.
Many community leaders and activists have fought for reforms over the years, and those reforms have not been nearly enough to stop the death and law enforcement abuse over Minneapolis citizens. Elianna Farhat, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, tells The Appeal, “Minneapolis is in many ways the poster child for police reforms. All the reforms that folks say are supposed to end police violence and improve public safety and trust, Minneapolis has tried and, as we saw in Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd, failed.”
Some will point to budgetary fights over the funding of law enforcement as a sign of progress, but realistically speaking, the battles over budgets and law enforcement have always existed, and amidst a global pandemic, with a Trump administration unable to offer meaningful federal assistance, states and localities have found themselves looking to tighten their belts regardless of political leanings. In December, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey signed a $1.5 billion city budget that included cuts that take “$8 million from the Minneapolis Police Department.” That money is earmarked to go toward a mental health crisis team and other additional training for non-police responders.
However, this small victory came at a price. Critics of Mayor Frey pointed out that in agreeing to sign off on the $8 million in cuts from the police department, Frey demanded that the budget include funding for “140 vacant police positions.” One of the issues here is that Minneapolis has a ratio of law enforcement officers to city population stipulation in its charter, forcing the hands of officials to fill those positions. This has led, as the Associated Press reports, to the City Council voting for $6.4 million in new funding to recruit law enforcement personnel.
The City Council voted unanimously Friday to approve the additional funding that police requested. The department says it only has 638 officers available to work — roughly 200 fewer than usual. An unprecedented number of officers quit or went on extended medical leave after Floyd’s death and the unrest that followed, which included the burning of a police precinct.
The Appeal reports that the money the City Council earmarked for recruitment was taken from the 2020 budget and does not change the already agreed-upon 2021 budget cuts to the department. In anticipation of this issue, the City Council voted in June to allow a ballot question to be voted on by Minneapolis residents that would amend the city’s charter and possibly replace the city’s law enforcement apparatus with a “public safety” agency. However, a couple of months later the Minneapolis Charter Commission blocked the ballot measure from appearing on the 2020 ballot, arguing that the measure did not allow the public enough time to be informed on the matter. Critics of both the City Council’s decision and of the Charter Commission’s decision claimed one or the other had overstepped their boundaries of power.
In January, three Minneapolis City Council members made an attempt to create a workaround of these charter issues. The plan would include creating the Department of Public Safety to replace the police department, but would include police officers in “additional divisions. This proposal also comes with a charter amendment eliminating the minimum requirement of law enforcement officers, and putting the size of the police force entirely “at the discretion of the mayor and the 13-member City Council.” This new effort will still have to be voted on by the City Council and once again make its way through a review by the Charter Commission. However, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Charter Commission will not be able to delay a ballot measure from being voted on this year, if these efforts pass through the council.
What is happening in Minneapolis will likely have major ramifications for other major U.S. cities in the coming months and years. The successes and failures, and the perceptions of those successes and failures, will be used by activists fighting for defunding, for reforms, and for racial justice as examples of what to do and what not to do, what works and what does not work, and maybe more realistically, what moves the needle in the direction toward a more fair, just, and safe world.
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