It is unclear if Black Americans will be energised to come to vote, potentially defining the outcome of the election.
Minneapolis City Council members who tried unsuccessfully to dismantle the police department in response to George Floyd‘s death are set to vote Wednesday on whether to shrink it, a move that could imperil the entire city budget because the mayor is threatening to use his veto to protect public safety amid soaring crime rates.
The plan, which supporters call “Safety for All”, is the latest version of the “defund the police” movement that Minneapolis and other United States cities have considered since Floyd’s May 25 death in police custody ignited mass demonstrations against police brutality and a nationwide reckoning with racism.
Eleven of the 13 council members have already cast committee votes in favour of the largest parts of the plan, signalling that passage is likely. It would cut nearly $8m from Mayor Jacob Frey’s $179m policing budget and redirect it to mental health teams, violence prevention programmes and other initiatives.
“I am actively considering a veto due to the massive, permanent cut to officer capacity,” Frey said in a statement on Monday night. Reducing the authorised size of the force by 138 officers before enacting alternatives is “irresponsible”, he said.
Cities around the US, including Los Angeles, New York City and Portland, Oregon, are shifting funds from police departments to social service programmes in an effort to provide new solutions for problems traditionally handled by police. Such cuts have led some departments to lay off officers, cancel recruiting classes or retreat from hiring goals.
In Minneapolis, violent crime rates have surged since the death of Floyd, a Black man who was handcuffed and pleading for air for several minutes while Derek Chauvin, a white former officer, pressed his knee against his neck. Chauvin and three others were charged in Floyd’s death and are expected to stand trial in March.
“This summer happened because George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department and it wasn’t an accident; it’s because the system of policing we know now is not just racist, but it doesn’t create safety for all,” said Oluchi Omeoga, a cofounder of the Black Visions Collective, which supports “Safety for All” as a step toward more transformational change.
Due to austerity forced by the coronavirus pandemic, the police department is already facing a $14m cut compared with its original 2020 budget.
Mayor Frey aims to hold the number of sworn officers around 770 through 2021 with hopes of eventually increasing the force to its current authorised cap of 888. “Safety for All” would cap the number at 750 by 2022. The department is already down by about 120 officers – partly due to members of the police force claiming post-traumatic stress disorder from a summer of unrest – with more preparing to leave amid retirements and poor morale.
Passions ran hot on both sides as more than 400 citizens signed up to speak during a marathon hearing last week that ran into the early hours Thursday, with many expressing alarm that the council was even contemplating cuts.
“I think we need to make bold decisions on a path forward,” said Council Member Steve Fletcher, a co-author of the proposal. While acknowledging that it would mean fewer officers, he defended the plan by saying it would reduce the department’s workload by shifting 911 calls away from armed officers to other specialists such as mental health professionals.
On the other side are those like Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who say there is no need for an either-or decision and that it is possible to reform policing without cutting officers. The mayor and 12 of the 13 council members are Democrats, while one council member is from the Green Party.
If the council approves the plan on Wednesday, Frey would have five days to veto if he chooses. The council could override him with a two-thirds majority, or nine council members, but it’s not clear whether those nine votes exist. The proposal to cap the number of officers passed with just 7 of 13 votes in committee on Monday.
A proposal over the summer to dismantle the department and replace it with a “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention” initially had support from a majority of the council, but faltered when a separate city commission voted against putting it on the November ballot. The city was paying $4,500 a day at one point for private security for three council members who reported getting threats after supporting defunding.