A Police-Free Minneapolis: For Some, Not a Fantasy, But a Vision

Street art in Minneapolis
Street art in Minneapolis.Ziyne Abdo

For many, no amount of police reform will fix the disproportionate use of violent force against Black and brown people. Minneapolis-based organizer, activist and police-abolitionist Zola Richardson believes the policing system is broken beyond repair.

Little over two miles from where George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, there is a Target. It had only been several days since the 46-year-old Black man’s violent death had made headlines when the Target was the focus for many, as videos and photos of the large store being looted were circulated and commented upon. 

But what many did not know was that as some carried away electronics and pricy times, many neighbors and volunteers had descended upon the chain to distribute food and household supplies in pop-up free shops. “I kept like trying to tell people, they're helping everybody around them. It's not just this selfishness that everybody thinks it is,” Minneapolis-based organizer, activist and police-abolitionist Zola Richardson told Inside Edition Digital. 

The scene depicted a visual representation of lawlessness to some, but served as an example of a group of people taking back their community. Police alternatives were set in place to make sure when the city was militarized, groups of people were organizing to keep the community safe.

All eyes have been on Minneapolis as the city grieves the death of Floyd. Protests and uprising around the city called for the four police officers charged in Floyd’s death to be held accountable, but also gaining momentum is the call to defund and abolish the police department altogether. For many, no amount of police reform will fix the disproportionate use of violent force against Black and brown people. Richardson believes the policing system is broken, and has been broken, beyond repair.

In Minneapolis, Black people make up around 20% of the city’s population, according to the U.S. Census data. But, according to the City of Minneapolis website, Black people make up a reported 60% of those subjected to the use of force and police-involved shootings by the Minneapolis Police Department. 

Activists say the department has a long history of violence against Black, Indigenous and people of color. MPD150 is a Minneapolis-based effort by local researchers, activists and artists with the goal to shift the discussion of police violence in Minneapolis from one of procedural reforms to one of meaningful structural change-- dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department. A report was released in 2016 covering a 150-year performance review of the MPD, the department’s current role and impact, and an exploration of police-free alternatives.

Police abolition is not a new concept in Minneapolis. In addition to MPD150, the Black Visions Collective, a Black-led and queer- and trans-focused organization founded in 2017, is committed to dismantling systems of oppression and violence through community building. Another organization, Reclaim the Block, started in 2018 with a focus in defunding the police force and reinvesting those funds into departments that truly promote community health and safety like public education, housing, and mental health services. The organization advocates divesting from the police as part of a pathway to abolition.

“I think that the word abolition is thick and people don't quite see it. They think that it means nothing. Like, ‘Oh, okay. The police are gone. There's nothing,’ and that's not what abolition is,” Richardson told Inside Edition Digital. “Abolition is reinvesting in your community like we should have, what should have been happening already, and it's hard for people, and people want an immediate thing. I think that the pushback is rooted in some fear, it's rooted in being programmed to believe that the police are safe or not knowing who else to call when something's happening, and so we're here to be like, ‘there are alternatives and we're going to figure them out together.’”

Police-Free Examples

Those looking for an example where people are already living in a world with less police presence can look no further than the suburbs, which supporters of defunding police departments say are communities with lots of good jobs, strong schools, economies and social safety nets. MPD150 points to the suburbs, while also underlining the reasons— gentrification, redlining and white flight among them— many Black, Indigenous and people of color have not entered into those communities. But MPD150 also claims a function of policing is to keep Black, Indigenous, and people of color out of these communities. Harassment from the police in suburbs is “just not as common of a problem,” said Jana Kooren, community engagement director for the Minnesota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Richardson stated that the very people who live in the suburbs— the people who already live in an area where police presence is not an issue— have a hard time supporting the abolishment of police. 

In Minneapolis, during the height of protest directly following the death of Floyd, police alternatives were set in place to make sure when the city was militarized, groups of people were organizing to keep the community safe. And it apparently worked. Mutual aid and organizing in South Minneapolis resulted in collective support of the community by the community, without the help of police, Truthout reported. Richardson explained that in North Minneapolis, a councilmember created a patrol group to put out fires. And in her own neighborhood, a neighborhood watch network was organized to protect everybody not only from crime, but from the police themselves, she said.

Camaraderie purposefully set up in a way to exclude police forces extended to the very spot in which Floyd was killed. The vigil honoring Floyd was surrounded by tents community members set up. People barbecued to hand out free grilled food. Families and volunteers handed out groceries, household needs, first aid supplies, masks and hand sanitizer. Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), a local workers center that organizes for better wages and working conditions, converted a nearby corner store into a free food shelf.

The Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block, the Little Earth Residents Association, the American Indian Movement, the Black Immigrant Collective, Ten Thousand Things Theater, and many others took it upon themselves to truly serve and protect the Minneapolis community by fulfilling the needs of people who did not have or have lost the means to support themselves.

Where to Invest

Police abolition is a gradual strategic process, Richardson explained, but the examples she mentioned above are the ways in which it starts— organizations, systems and mission statements that prioritize reinvesting in the community. “I just want to see safe neighborhoods, and I just know that we are not safe with the police,” she said.

“Crime isn’t random” and that most of the time, crime occurs because the person committing it does not have the adequate resources or has been unable to fulfill their basic needs through other means, that crime is driven by desperation, MPD150’s says on its website. By diverting money away from the police department and into services that meet the needs of the community, crimes would not be happening in the first place, the organization argues.
Achieving a police-free future takes time to advocate for, get approval for and implement. Many factors go into the decision and strategic thinking to establish this future. How big is the police squad? Is the whole city rallying for the cause? How many more Black and brown people have to die in the hands of police before more people realize police reform is not enough?

MPD150 points to seasoned officers' own opinions on the state of policing in the country to show there is a need for change. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. … Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems,” then-Dallas Police Chief David Brown said during a July 2016 press briefing on sniper shootings that killed five officers several days earlier.

Kooren said that ensuring everyone in the community has access to housing, good quality education and access to jobs is a foundation to create safer communities without relying on over-policing, which in some instances can prove to be as dangerous as the crimes many fear would take place in its absence.

Ninety-five percent of arrests in Minneapolis are vehicle-related, Kooren said. An ACLU-MN report in 2015 found a Black person was nine times more likely to get arrested for a driving violation then a white person at 2 p.m., a time of day where peoples’ race is more identifiable. However, at 3 a.m., the racial disparity in pulling drivers over lessens but Black drivers are then twice as likely to be arrested. 

“This suggests racial profiling by law enforcement,” the report states. Current Minneapolis city data shows 65% more Black people have been stopped by police than white people. MPD150 suggests “suspicious” people investigations should be eradicated and stop the act of pulling people over. Instead, in instances where traffic violations like having a broken tail light or speeding, a letter can be sent in the mail.

Kooren also pointed to a bigger issue at play, noting if people had more access to education, housing and jobs, wealth would follow, Kooren said. If undocumented immigrants had the opportunity to get a license, then people wouldn't be driving without a license, she said. Supporting people from the ground up, meeting peoples’ needs and not policing for what some consider petty stuff will result in a dramatic decrease in the need to have any sort of an armed police response in the first place, she said.

Funding for drug and alcohol treatment and mental health crisis is just as crucial, Kooren said. “I do think there are going to be people who are in crisis, even if you have everything, because of a whole range of reasons,” she said. Investing in a mobile crisis team with people who are trained professionals who are “working through understanding the role of white supremacy culture,” would make it so “the right people” show up during crises. 

According to the City of Minneapolis budget report, the 2020 Mayor’s recommended budget allocations over $193.8 million to the city’s police department, a 4.6% increase from the 2019 adopted budget. In 2020, the budget for the health department, which handles programs such as youth violence prevention, school based clinics and prenatal, child and family health, saw a 2% decrease.

“I would challenge people to really understand that our schools are already defunded, our access to healthcare is limited, our housing is defunded, and that in defunding something wholly unnecessary like the police department, and infusing that into the community is so radically transformative and creates a brighter future for every single person, especially our Black and brown babies,” Richardson said.

“But What Will Happen If...?

So, what might happen if police departments are in fact dissolved?

“The idea of police as crime preventers is rubbish,” retired Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza wrote in his book, “Police Unbound: Corruption, Abuse, and Heroism by the Boys in Blue.” “By the time the cop appears the criminal has already been formed and the crime has been committed.”

The MPD150, which cited Bouza in its report, also shared alternatives that can be used in different scenarios that could possibly replace police.

When it comes to serving mental health crises “we already have a number of alternatives to the police,” the report states. Instead of calling armed officers to tend to someone who seems to need mental assistance, dispatching sources like mental health responders who are qualified in de-escalation would be a safer approach to aid the person in need. Such programs already exist in Minnesota’s Hennepin County, where a responder from COPE (Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies) can show up to a location at any time.

In the case help is needed for domestic violence and sexual assault, it is important to prioritize the needs of survivor-victims, advocates said. In 2018 the Star Tribune published a special report series about sexual assault cases in the Twin Cities. A thousand cases were reviewed over a two-year period and repetitive errors and investigative failings were discovered. In a quarter of the cases, the police did not assign an investigator and in a third of the cases, the investigator never interviewed the survivor. 

Instead, trusted community members respond to violent situations and support the person experiencing the violence are crucial for providing psychical and emotional support. In addition, the Domestic Abuse Project provides resources for adults who have committed abuse and work to stop the cycle of abuse. 

Arrests made in connection to drug use could be avoided if across-the-board decriminalization was the law of the land, MPD150 said, pointing to Portugal as an example to follow. The country became first in the world to decriminalize the consumption of all drugs. In the span of 15 years, the rate of HIV new infections plummeted from 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million. By eliminating the threat of penalties by law enforcement, it became easier for people to seek treatment. Outreach workers give out clean kits like syringes and sanitation wipes not to advocate for consumption, but to encourage safe use. 

In the U.S., drug possession laws create long-term consequences to those who are convicted like separation of families and  reducing opportunities for jobs, housing, and welfare assistance, according to Human Rights Watch. It also shows a Black-to-white ratio of arrests for drug possession for each state. Minnesota is fourth on the list with a ratio of nearly six to one. 

Things That Can Be Handled Now Without Police Help

MPD150’s site includes a list of action ideas of ways the organization says communities can actively work towards a police-free future.

First on the list is to stop calling the police when it is unnecessary and calls on people to reflect on their impulse to call them: is it an automatic response to every moment of personal discomfort or uncertainty? 

And building community during times outside of trouble may be a crucial way to create a close-knit support system. MPD150 says simply knowing the names of neighbors and holding community events would familiarize people with each other and rely on each other in the case of crisis. The report also urges people to support organizations that keep communities healthy by volunteering and donating and to engage in policy work that can prevent, rather than just punish, crime.

“I wish it could happen in the most immediate way, and I think it just takes a collective effort,” Richardson said. “I do feel like we're in these baby phases, but I do know that black and brown people will continue dying at the hands of police and that I feel this urgency, but as far as timeline, one can only hope that it's in this lifetime.”

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