Proposed Charter Change to Foundation for Public Safety in Minneapolis

Read Cam Gordon's position on the proposed changes to the City Charter regarding public safety.

Charter change is necessary

On June 26 – one month and one day after the murder of George Floyd – the Council took a major step towards transforming the City’s approach to community safety. On a unanimous vote, we moved forward language of an amendment to the City Charter that will, if supported by Minneapolis voters, remove the Minneapolis Police Department as a Charter Department and create a new Charter Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. This is a significant, thoughtful and long overdue step that will help put Minneapolis at the forefront of the national movement to transform the way we do public safety and dismantle the structural racism embedded in our criminal justice system.

You can read it in Legislative File 2020-00668.

This Charter change is necessary – but definitely not sufficient on its own – to implement the kinds of transformational changes that the Council committed to in the transforming community safety resolution we unanimously adopted. The Charter has long been a barrier to meaningful changes to the way we approach public safety, and without this change moving forward it will continue to be an insurmountable barrier to structural change.

This amendment does three main things:

  1. It names a new framework for community safety in Minneapolis. To paraphrase my colleague Jeremiah Ellison, right now we have only one possible approach, and it is called “policing.” This amendment makes clear that we will, in the future, have multiple approaches, and that policing will, at the very least, be a secondary role. To reinforce this change, the amendment language requires that the person who is appointed to run that department have non-law enforcement experience, including restorative justice and public health approaches to preventing violence.
  2. It removes from the Charter the existing requirement for a minimum number of police officers. This is critically necessary if we are to work currently being done by police officers to other, more appropriate city staff or others that we may contract with for services.
  3. It makes it so that the Council can have greater control over all of our community safety staff. Right now, the police department – unique among all the City departments – reports exclusively to the mayor. This amendment will allow the Council to exercise policy oversight over all aspects of our community safety responses, just as it currently exercises over other departments.

I also want to be clear about what this language does not do. It does not abolish police in Minneapolis. I believe everyone, even the strongest voices for police abolition, recognize that for the foreseeable future, there is likely to need to be a law enforcement response in our city. In the days and weeks and months ahead, we will all need to study and analyze what essential services are now being provided by law enforcement and which of those, can and should be provided in other ways. I believe that after such a review we will find community consensus that there is essential work that we will want done by City employees that, under state and federal law, can only be done by licensed Minnesota Peace Officers.

While I was open to alternative language for a charter change, and authored alternative language in the past, I am convinced that leaving the Charter silent on law enforcement would have allowed for the creation of a new non-Charter department, completely separate from the new Community Safety and Violence Prevention department. This would have blurred lines of accountability for whatever licensed law enforcement officers we would have continued to have. The structure we chose puts any law enforcement function (and its leadership) under the direct control and supervision of the new Department of Community Safety.

I have also thought a great deal about the language related to the Director of the new department. I am happy with the language that we included. It will ensure that the leader of this department must have “non-law enforcement experience in community safety services, including but not limited to public health and/or restorative justice approaches.” This does not, in my view, describe any current member of the Minneapolis Police Department.

I view this as a major, historic step forward. If and when it passes on the ballot, Minneapolis will have taken one of the biggest steps of any large US city to allow ourselves to re-imagine, re-create and hopefully co-create as a city, the way we provide for the safety of everyone in our city. This is also just a first step. This amendment, if and when passed, will give us the flexibility we need to continue the deep, long public conversation we committed to on June 12.

The next step in this process is that it will be reviewed by the Charter Commission, and will have a public hearing at one of their meetings. I strongly urge them not to do what they have done in the past, which has been to “pocket veto” this kind of charter change. That is not their appropriate role, and is in my view a cynical overreach. They are not the gatekeepers to the ballot. They have a role in giving the Council and the public their advice as to whether charter amendments should go forward, or shouldn’t, or should be amended in some particular way. They need to finish that work, and get that advice back to the Council so that we can make a decision to move forward or not.

It is my hope that this language will be on the ballot this year. If it is, I urge all Minneapolis voters to vote yes.