The moment the guilty verdicts for Derek Chauvin were read, it felt like the Twin Cities collectively exhaled. The pain and trauma of police violence are palpable within Macalester and BIPOC communities in Minnesota, though Tuesday brought some bittersweet relief. If not justice, the Chauvin verdict at minimum brings accountability. But now what? Real justice will only be reached once we dismantle the racist system that looms over our communities.
Policing in the United States is fundamentally, irreparably broken. Rather than defenders of social safety, Minnesota law enforcement are acting as a tool for social control. Unfortunately for Governor Tim Walz, Mayor Jacob Frey and other Minnesota officials, the recurring uprisings will not be squashed by kettling protesters, arresting college medics and posting National Guardsmen with rifles outside McDonald’s. Only justice and progress will do that.
Abolition is a process — a vision for a world with no need for cops. We must go beyond Democrats’ preferred reforms like body cameras and banning chokeholds, which are important but not proven to reduce police brutality. A popular proposal at the moment is reallocating police department funds to social services that prevent the conditions that lead to crime. The community organizing and mutual aid efforts surrounding the police killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center proves that these cities can be safe and intradependent, until the police provoke violence. That violence must be curbed, but a police free society will not happen overnight. This makes the steps we take to get there so crucial.
Here is my vision of what Minnesota cities can do starting today to transition away from traditional law enforcement and towards community-centered public safety:
To paraphrase the author Rosa Brooks, we ask cops to respond to every mishap in society. They are tasked to be social workers, surveillers, soldiers, medics and mediators. Most people could not manage a single one of these exhausting jobs. If you ask a random 25-year-old to do all of them in a 12 hour shift, they will fail. We should divest cops of many of these responsibilities and pass them to specialist civilians.
58% of killings by police in 2020 — 629 deaths — were traffic stops, police responses to mental health crises or situations where the person was not reportedly threatening anyone with a gun. So first, armed police do not need to respond to traffic violations. Trigger-happy officers and a nauseating pattern of racial profiling have caused the traffic-stop deaths of Daunte Wright and Philando Castile here in Minnesota and 121 others across the nation in 2020. Minnesota should follow the lead of Berkeley, California, which created an agency of unarmed civil servants to conduct traffic enforcement. Second, in mental health and domestic crises, a social worker or mental-health professional should be present to handle situations without the instinct of escalation.
More generally, most police should not have guns. There should not be armed officers in public schools, public transportation, shelters and hospitals. Communities of color are often overpoliced for petty crime — see the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner — which does not make them safer. In response to disarming officers, many will ask, what about gun violence? Obviously, some special squads should still be armed. But it’s clear the status quo is not getting us anywhere. Cracking down on crime by beefing up cops has failed time and time again. It’s a tough dilemma, but perhaps we should try taking guns off the streets and investing in opportunities for people instead of jail cells.
Believe it or not, Minneapolis has already taken baby steps towards a community-based public safety model. On the same day Macalester students were kettled in Brooklyn Center, the Minneapolis City Council passed a first-step ordinance to establish a division of traffic safety to remove cops from roadway enforcement. The 2021 city police budget also redirects 5% of its funds to alternative programs like a Mental Health Co-Responder Program and Community Group Outreach and Intervention. The city could go further to replace the majority of the police department’s duties with these programs.
However, the city council failed to clear the most pressing hurdle towards reformation when it opted against approving a referendum to revise the city charter to remove the minimum licensed officer requirement. If approved, the referendum would have allowed the city to reallocate funds and personnel away from armed “peace officers”‘ to more specialized duties. I believe a majority of Minneapolitans could get behind changes that reduce the presence of traditional cops in the neighborhood while maintaining or reducing crime rates.
From that point, the cities need the state legislature to take action. A DFL House and GOP Senate agreed on some common sense reforms like requiring an officer to intervene when another officer is using excessive force. However, they need to go further in removing protections for violent cops; Derek Chauvin is the first white cop in Minnesota history to be prosecuted for murder. This looks like disincentivizing violence by ending qualified immunity, amending use-of-force laws and removing bargaining power from police unions. Furthermore, the state can aid the transition to community-centered safety initiatives through funding and pilot programs.
Defunding and abolishing the police will meet fervent opposition and would require herculean efforts of community organizing, political persuasion, policy making and local cooperation. But it is worth it. We can design a system of public safety that relies on decentralized, disarmed, anti-racist public servants and community partnerships — and we should do it now. Then, the work of transitioning away from policing altogether can begin.
(For an even more comprehensive vision of police abolition in Minneapolis, check out the MPD 150 report.)