Police reform in the US: A tale of two Minnesota cities

After police killed Black men in Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center, local officials approached reforms differently.

A protester holds up a sign during a protest held on April 16, 2021 in front of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, Minnesota, after police officer Kim Potter fatally shot Daunte Wright [Octavio Jones/Reuters]

Minneapolis, Minnesota, US – Last month, as the world watched the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murdering George Floyd, a Black man, just a few miles away from the courthouse, in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer Kim Potter shot and killed Daunte Wright, also a Black man.

Potter, who claims that she mistook her gun for her Taser during her 26th year on the force, faces second-degree manslaughter charges.

As the events following Wright’s death unfolded, Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott got to work.

He began a weeks-long period of community engagement through listening sessions that resulted in the introduction of a resolution that would overhaul the way the city approaches policing. Elliott, a Liberian American who immigrated to the US at age 11, introduced the resolution on May 8, less than a month after Wright was shot. The following Saturday it was adopted by the city council with a 4-1 vote.

Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott addresses the media at a press conference at the vigil site for Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on April 20, 2021 [Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters]

The swift passage of police reform in the Minneapolis suburb starkly contrasts with the situation a few miles to the south, where Minneapolis has been engaged in a public relations effort to sway public opinion to support the police department and its budget that has helped form Mayor Jacob Frey’s “both-and” policing rhetoric.

Less than two weeks after George Floyd’s murder, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council called to defund the city’s police department. The council has since changed their stance from defunding the police to transferring oversight of the department from the mayor to the council.

Mayor Frey has criticised proposals from the city council and other entities designed to reform policing. A surge in crime has included a year-over-year spike in homicides, gunshot victims and carjackings, multiple dead or injured children on the city’s northside and even gunfire near a memorial for the anniversary of Floyd’s death on Tuesday. Speaking on the city’s northside last week, Frey unveiled his office’s plan for reforming the department from the inside, in response.

But some local activists are sceptical.

“I don’t think that the Minneapolis City Council really wants [police reform]. What they want is to run the police, so it’s a power grab, frankly,” Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB), told Al Jazeera.

On the other hand, “what the Brooklyn Center mayor and city council are doing is really a model – a good model – for other communities to follow,” Gross said, calling it “impressive”. Ultimately, “they recognise that public safety doesn’t start and stop at the door of the police department,” she said.

Shifting duties away from police

The Daunte Wright and Kobe Dimock-Heisler Safety and Violence Prevention Resolution – named after Wright and another 21-year-old man who was shot by Brooklyn Center police in 2019 – creates several new departments within the city to limit the involvement of armed law enforcement officers in situations where they are not needed.

“Relying on our armed law enforcement officers as first responders in these situations has resulted in escalation, harm, and a tragic and potentially avoidable loss of life for our residents, including the lives of Daunte Wright and Kobe Drimock-Heisler,” the resolution reads.

“A diversity of approaches will improve overall public safety, better address the root causes of many issues, promote racial justice, better protect vulnerable members of our community and more efficiently allocate public resources.”

The sweeping resolution calls for the creation of an unarmed Community Response Department to address instances of medical, mental health, or other social or behavioural incidents. Non-moving traffic violations will also be addressed by a new unarmed civilian group, the Traffic Enforcement Department.

The changes also include limiting the activities of police, requiring them to exhaust alternatives before using deadly force and banning the use of deadly force in certain situations.

In the meantime, as the new departments get established, the resolution also implements a city-wide “citations and summons” policy that requires officers to issue citations only, banning custodial arrests or searches of people and vehicles in most non-felony situations.

Elliott, who was elected in 2018 and is the city’s first Black mayor, gives the credit for the city’s police reform to its residents in conjunction with the calls for their passing from Wright’s mother and Dimock-Heisler’s parents.

“We heard our community say very loud and clear that they wanted more mental health resources available and that they want unarmed traffic enforcement,” he told Al Jazeera. “We had the ability to start making those changes now, so that’s why we moved forward and crafted the resolution.”

These changes, for Elliott, have been a long time coming. “I’ve always known we needed a public safety transformation … to keep all of our community members safe,” he said.

“I believe that our community, in its diversity, elected leaders that have lived experience with what it means to be impacted by law enforcement,” Elliott explained. He calls the resolution “a common-sense approach to public safety that everybody can get behind.”

Jim Mortenson, executive director of the Minnesota-wide police union Law Enforcement Labor Services, described the resolution as rushed.

“It just seems like the mayor went out on his own accord, drafted this resolution and really didn’t do a whole lot of discussion with those who are doing the job,” Mortenson told local news outlet CCX Media.

While Elliott said he has been working to pass some of the elements of police reforms that this resolution brought since Floyd was murdered last year, it was Wright’s death that brought the issue closer to home and got it over the finish line with the city council.

“The key difference was the community mobilising and demanding change,” Elliott said of the city that saw protests for days after Wright’s death.

“Statistically there is a police killing every 18 months” in Brooklyn Center, Elliott said of information he requested from the police department when he took office.

“The time between Kobe being killed and Daunte being killed was 19 months and one week. We certainly want to get these systems up and running so that we can prevent any future deaths.”

Source: Al Jazeera