“We Actually Cannot Reform This Department”: A Minneapolis Councilor on the Need to Disband Police

In an interview, Minneapolis Council Member Steve Fletcher explains why his city is moving to dismantle its police department—and what lessons other cities can take.

Michael Arria June 8, 2020

Following the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis is moving to dismantle its police department. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

On June 7, a veto-proof major­i­ty of Min­neapo­lis City Coun­cil mem­bers announced that they intend to dis­band the city’s police depart­ment in response to the mur­der of George Floyd by offi­cer Derek Chau­vin. The announce­ment fol­lows the recent deci­sion by the city’s pub­lic schools sys­tem to end ties with the Min­neapo­lis Police Depart­ment. This idea of dis­man­tling the police cer­tain­ly didn’t come out of a thin air, it’s a move that local activists have been push­ing for years.

"We are starting from a badly broken system that underserves many, many people and harms many, many people."

Steve Fletch­er is a Coun­cil Mem­ber for Minneapolis’s Ward 3. Amid the nation­wide upris­ings over Floyd’s killing last week, Fletch­er post­ed a long Twit­ter thread detail­ing the need for such action. The whole world is watch­ing, and we can declare polic­ing as we know it a thing of the past, and cre­ate a com­pas­sion­ate, non-vio­lent future,” he tweet­ed, It will be hard. But so is man­ag­ing a dys­func­tion­al rela­tion­ship with an unac­count­able armed force in our city. Let’s show the world what Min­neapo­lis is made of.”

As protests con­tin­ue to engulf America’s streets, with demon­stra­tors mak­ing demands to defund and abol­ish police depart­ments, cities across the coun­try are start­ing to begin a dis­cus­sion over the future of policing.

In These Times spoke with Fletch­er about the fight in Min­neapo­lis and the steps ahead.

Every Min­neapo­lis city coun­cil mem­ber has expressed the need for deep, struc­tur­al change. Dis­band­ing the depart­ment obvi­ous­ly might take some time. What do the next steps look like?

I have become pret­ty con­vinced, as have many of my col­leagues, that we need a fresh start. We actu­al­ly can­not reform this depart­ment. It’s going to need to be a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent thing. The next steps are to fig­ure out what hap­pens if we were to dis­band the Min­neapo­lis Police Depart­ment. Who would respond to 911 calls? How can we guar­an­tee the inter­im safe­ty of our res­i­dents while we fig­ure out what the future of pub­lic safe­ty looks like? That’s the process we are going through right now, real­ly fig­ur­ing out what the steps are.

Com­mu­ni­ty-led efforts and black-led com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions have been dri­ving this nar­ra­tive for years. They’ve asked us to defund this police depart­ment and envi­sion a future beyond it. They have already laid a lot of the ground­work for the big­ger, more aspi­ra­tional future vision. A lot of that ground­work is what’s allow­ing us to respond to this moment in a uni­fied, thought­ful, inten­tion­al way. A lot of cred­it goes to our com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers on the ground for paving the way and for help­ing us all imag­ine that future in advance.

We are deal­ing with the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of ensur­ing that core ser­vices are [still being pro­vid­ed] and that we have a response when some­one is in an urgent sit­u­a­tion. That’s the process we are going through right now.

You wrote a piece for Time where you talked about how your first two years as a coun­cil mem­ber rein­forced your exist­ing belief that polic­ing in your com­mu­ni­ty had to change. Can you explain what those events were?

A lot of this stuff is not even vis­i­ble to the pub­lic because we get legal advice in closed ses­sions and I can’t talk about what we do in those closed ses­sions. But, what’s pub­lic is that we usu­al­ly come out of those ses­sions approv­ing finan­cial set­tle­ments for exces­sive force claims, so it’s not a secret what kind of things we are get­ting briefed on. It’s hor­ri­ble, some of the things that we are see­ing in those ses­sions are real­ly unfor­giv­able. So, that’s part of my expe­ri­ence being a coun­cil member.

We’ve attempt­ed some reforms that we saw resist­ed at every turn, even very small ones. The May­or [Jacob Frey] tried to pass a reform that would have pro­hib­it­ed offi­cers from tak­ing this War­rior Train­ing”, which is just watch­ing a video. It was prob­a­bly going to be dif­fi­cult to enforce even if it passed, so it seemed in many ways to just be a sym­bol­ic ges­ture. The amount of pub­lic fight about that was remark­able and the push­back was swift and severe.

We had a pret­ty sig­nif­i­cant scan­dal where our offi­cers were caught on body cam­era footage encour­ag­ing EMTs to sedate peo­ple they were arrest­ing with ket­a­mine against their will. That led to some fair­ly sig­nif­i­cant reforms, but only because some­thing that awful had occurred.

How­ev­er, it doesn’t feel like we could write enough reac­tive pol­i­cy to explic­it­ly ban all the things that this depart­ment does. At some fun­da­men­tal lev­el, we need peo­ple to be mak­ing judge­ments based on a belief in the val­ue of the lives of our res­i­dents, and based in a belief in some core city val­ues that it seems like they don’t share. We shouldn’t have to reg­u­late some of these things because they’re just core val­ues that are missing.

You tried to imple­ment some very basic reforms and they were resist­ed quite aggres­sive­ly. Can you describe that resis­tance and where it came from?

It looks dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. Some­times it’s just a fail­ure to enforce. Here’s a mun­dane exam­ple: we have offi­cers who refused to enforce any [poli­cies] con­nect­ed to bike lanes because they think they’re stu­pid. Our elect­ed city gov­ern­ment and our traf­fic engi­neers col­lab­o­rat­ed on a way that our streets can oper­ate safe­ly, and then our enforce­ment arm just doesn’t do it. There’s nev­er even any push­back, they just don’t do it. I had a con­stituent get hit by a car while in the bike lane right in front of an offi­cer who declined to take any action. So, that’s one kind of resistance.

In the case of War­rior Train­ing”, that was [the local police union] Police Offi­cers Fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Bob Kroll direct­ly push­ing back. So in some cas­es, we see the Fed­er­a­tion being the source of resis­tance in very impor­tant ways. They back­stop the non­com­pli­ance and fail­ure to enforce because they’re the ones who will chal­lenge dis­ci­pli­nary actions. So, if the Police Chief tried to dis­ci­pline the offi­cer in that bicy­cle acci­dent for not doing his job, the fed­er­a­tion would be vig­or­ous­ly defend­ing that officer’s right to not enforce our laws.

It feels like some­thing is chang­ing in our coun­try. I’m see­ing a lot more peo­ple talk about a response to the police that goes beyond mere reform. Trump has kind of posi­tioned him­self as an impor­tant part of the cur­rent sto­ry, but it also seems like more and more peo­ple are begin­ning to under­stand that polic­ing is large­ly a local issue. As some­one who was drawn to pub­lic ser­vice, what you would say to indi­vid­u­als who are look­ing for ways that they can change things?

I love that ques­tion. The first thing is to speak out. Tell the sto­ries about the ways polic­ing isn’t work­ing in your com­mu­ni­ty. One of the chal­lenges is that a lot of peo­ple have want­ed to believe in polic­ing. We know that ter­ri­ble things hap­pen. We know that mur­der and rape and bur­glary are things that hap­pen in our soci­ety, and we need to have a response to it. A lot of peo­ple want to say, Ok, we’ve checked that box. We have these prob­lems and we have a response. We have the police, so I don’t have to think about it anymore.”

How­ev­er, the truth is that we don’t have a great response to all those things. Any­one who says that we have a great response to rape has not talked to a sex­u­al assault vic­tim about how they were treat­ed, if they got jus­tice, and what the actu­al response was to those crimes. So, I think it’s very impor­tant that we start from a place where we are talk­ing about these sto­ries, whether large or small.

We see the George Floyd video and every­one obvi­ous­ly recoils in hor­ror, but we also need to talk about things that might feel insignif­i­cant right now: The times we’ve called the police and they just weren’t help­ful. The times that we didn’t feel safe and weren’t served well by the cur­rent system.

The con­ver­sa­tion is real­ly hard if we just pre­tend that we had a great sys­tem and we’re dis­man­tling a sys­tem that was work­ing and now we have to cre­ate some­thing per­fect to replace it. The truth is, that’s not where we are start­ing from. We are start­ing from a bad­ly bro­ken sys­tem that under­serves many, many peo­ple and harms many, many peo­ple. It is actu­al­ly not rad­i­cal at all to think we can cre­ate some­thing bet­ter than that.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH