This outcome was entirely predictable, and for many who live in Minneapolis, a huge relief as well. The New York Times describes the collapse of the abolish-the-police mission by the city “a case study in how idealistic calls for structural change can falter.” It’s better described as yet another reminder that sloganeering doesn’t replace actual governance, and what happens when politicians react to activists rather than talk to their own constituents:
Over three months ago, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to defund the city’s police department, making a powerful statement that reverberated across the country. It shook up Capitol Hill and the presidential race, shocked residents, delighted activists and changed the trajectory of efforts to overhaul the police during a crucial window of tumult and political opportunity.
Now some council members would like a do-over.
Councilor Andrew Johnson, one of the nine members who supported the pledge in June, said in an interview that he meant the words “in spirit,” not by the letter. Another councilor, Phillipe Cunningham, said that the language in the pledge was “up for interpretation” and that even among council members soon after the promise was made, “it was very clear that most of us had interpreted that language differently.” Lisa Bender, the council president, paused for 16 seconds when asked if the council’s statement had led to uncertainty at a pivotal moment for the city.
“I think our pledge created confusion in the community and in our wards,” she said.
Oh, come on. That’s a very passive-voice description of Bender’s own role in creating that “confusion.” Almost four months earlier, Bender publicly advocated for “dismantling” the police. Bender went on CNN to accuse people who called police over property crimes as operating from “privilege.” She also challenged others who might quail at the abolition effort to “stick with it” to “dismantle white supremacy in all systems”:
If you are a comfortable white person asking to dismantle the police I invite you to reflect: are you willing to stick with it? Will you be calling in three months to ask about garage break-ins? Are you willing to dismantle white supremacy in all systems, including a new system?
— Lisa Bender (@lisabendermpls) June 3, 2020
The pledge didn’t create confusion; Bender and her police-abolition advocates made their mission very clear. What caused the confusion — to the extent that confusion actually exists — was that Bender and the council never came up with a plan to eliminate the MPD. In the above video from the first week of June, Bender even claimed that they had already laid the groundwork for it. And yet, nearly four months later, the council has yet to even put forward a skeleton of a plan, even as they demanded to have a charter amendment placed on the ballot to remove the requirement to field a police department.
Shortly after Bender’s CNN interview, crime — especially violent crime and homicides — skyrocketed. The city’s response to that was a letter asking citizens to be more compliant with the criminals. Business owners began relocating out of the city. Outraged residents, including prominent black leaders in the city, began demanding more police resources and complained that city council leaders never bothered to ask them in the first place about police abolition.
It got so bad than Bender herself tried posing as a law-and-order politician, demanding to know from Chief Medaria Arradondo, “Where are the police?” That hypocrisy was too much even for Bender’s ally on abolition, councillor Phillipe Cunningham:
As the discussion about crime continued, Council Member Phillipe Cunningham pointed out that some of his colleagues appeared to be contradicting earlier statements in favor of ending the department.
“What I am sort of flabbergasted by is … colleagues who a very short time ago who were calling for abolition, who are now suggesting that we should be putting more funding and resources into MPD,” said Cunningham, whose ward includes North Side neighborhoods that have been among the hardest hit by the recent violence. “We know that this is not producing different outcomes.”
Cunningham could have saved the shocked, shocked response. The abolish-the-police project from the city council was all about political reaction and blame avoidance. Bender argued for abolition on the basis that the council had put efforts into police reform for years without success, hoping that voters wouldn’t take the correct lesson from that — and kick all of them out of office in favor of people who would get police reform and accountability correct.
The NYT laments this outcome as a lost opportunity:
The regrets formalize a retreat that has quietly played out in Minneapolis in the months since George Floyd was killed by the police and the ensuing national uproar over the treatment of Black Americans by law enforcement and the country at large. After a summer that challenged society’s commitment to racial equality and raised the prospect of sweeping political change, a cool autumn reality is settling in.
National polls show decreasing support for Black Lives Matter since a sea change of good will in June. In Minneapolis, the most far-reaching policy efforts meant to address police violence have all but collapsed.
It was a lost opportunity, but not for BLM or police abolition, an utterly unworkable idea — and an unwanted idea in the neighborhoods that need law enforcement the most, as the council discovered. No, it was a lost opportunity for actual police-reform groups that got sidelined by Bender’s grandstanding. Now they’re also getting sidelined in the backlash to it:
A group advocating for police reform in Minneapolis has accused some city leaders and Mayor Jacob Frey of failing to be transparent in ongoing police contract talks after promising greater community involvement in the process.
The group, Minneapolis for a Better Police Contract, also accused Frey of failing to respond to recommendations the group put forward in a meeting at City Hall, arguing “the contract is a needed vehicle to respond to the concerns the public has repeatedly raised about lack of police accountability.” During a meeting, Frey staffers promised to open labor negotiations to the public, according to Stacey Gurian-Sherman, an organizer.
“I worry that we’re worse off than we were before the torture and murder of George Floyd, because of the hunkering down of the mayor,” she said, adding Frey’s office had stopped responding to the group’s voice mails and e-mails. “Elected officials do not appreciate the pent-up anger, the generational anger — they’re just playing with people’s emotions and people’s lives.”
There are some legitimate concerns about accountability and cost in relation to the contract between MPD and the union. Currently, the cost per police employee (not just sworn officers) is just over $180,000 per year, a cost that keeps the city from right-sizing its patrol force for proper community policing. This problem goes back decades and involves more than just the police contracts, and it stems from public-employee union support for Democrats in local elections, who then have the authority to negotiate those contracts. The solution would be to stop electing people beholden to the PEUs in order to get tough on behalf of taxpayers in those negotiations. Maybe in the next election, voters will take these issues seriously enough to stop electing clowns to the city council.
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