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Where Minneapolis' Pledge To Defund The Police Stands Now

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Outside that courtroom, this is a city transformed. In pockets, portraits of George Floyd are incorporated in murals on walls, his name spray-painted on the side of buildings - constant reminders of a killing that reignited a movement for racial justice and against police brutality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FADEL: In the days after Floyd's killing, the majority of the city council made a pledge to defund the police.

LISA BENDER: Our commitment is to end our city's toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it...

(CHEERING)

BENDER: ...And to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.

FADEL: More than 10 months later, the police department is not defunded, and Minneapolis is a microcosm of the national struggle to reform or transform what policing looks like as community leaders, activists and city leaders battle over the future of public safety. It's dividing the residents of the city. That's on display as Antonio Williams gathered signatures on a recent afternoon for a petition to get a change to the city's charter on the ballot in November. It would replace the police department with the department of public safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

FADEL: He knocks and waits with a clipboard in hand outside a house in North Minneapolis.

ANTONIO WILLIAMS: Hello.

ANTHONY GIGLIO: Hi.

WILLIAMS: How are you doing? My name is Antonio. I'm with Yes 4 Minneapolis, where people petition to get a new charter.

FADEL: Williams does his practice explanation. He needs 20,000 signatures to get the amendment on the ballot. Under the proposal, police officers would still be in the department of public safety, along with social workers, mental health workers, unarmed crisis intervention teams.

WILLIAMS: That will not eliminate police, but it will give police another option to call on so there wouldn't be a use of force at every incident. Would that be something you'd support?

GIGLIO: Yeah. I don't quite understand what you're saying, but...

FADEL: Anthony Giglio (ph) leans in the doorway, looking skeptical.

GIGLIO: I mean, here in Minneapolis, it's super politically charged around that topic, right?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

GIGLIO: So everyone - what I what I understand - and I try to stay away from the news because it's just so negative. They want to just demolish the police - right? - take it away entirely. But I want to make sure that when something goes wrong, I can call the police, and they'll be here.

FADEL: Like most major cities, violent crime is up in Minneapolis. It jumped 21% last year. Williams tells Giglio the proposed amendment would not get rid of police entirely. And maybe, he suggests, Giglio misunderstands the term abolish. Williams tells him it's about abolishing systems that hurt or kill people that look like him and not like Giglio.

WILLIAMS: We understand there's crime out here. We understand that people feel unsafe. We feel unsafe. Those of us who are being killed by police at high numbers - we feel unsafe, too. But we feel unsafe not just by some of our residents that we live with, but the people who we're supposed to be able to depend on to protect us...

GIGLIO: Yeah, I get that.

WILLIAMS: ...Right?

FADEL: Williams says this amendment might not be the answer to everything, but it's a start.

WILLIAMS: You can afford to wait. You can afford to have a fully formed plan laid out for you because you're safe. You're comfortable. I'm not. Like, there's a trauma that isn't acknowledged amongst Black people. When we see the Philando Castile, when we see the George Floyd, it's a real trauma. It's a real physical impact. That could have been me. That could have been my mom. That could have been my brother. You guys see police and are, like, oh, yeah. We're safe. We see them...

GIGLIO: You look at it - I probably look at the police in a different lens than you.

FADEL: Giglio signs. Then Williams goes to the next door for a new conversation. The amendment is one of three that may end up on the ballot come November in a mix of efforts to try to change or replace the embattled police department, long accused of racism. In the past five years, police used force at seven times the rate on Black people compared to white people. The city is tense, with residents saying they still see excessive use of force.

The police are also on edge, sometimes taunted or attacked on the job. And after the past year, many officers have left or gone on leave, some citing post-traumatic stress - all this as the city prepares for what could be more unrest depending on the outcome in the murder trial against Derek Chauvin. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has been consistent in his position.

JACOB FREY: I do not think that we should be dramatically defunding and abolishing the department. And some council members and certainly my opponents for mayor believe that.

FADEL: Frey believes in reform. He says there have been changes to policing since Floyd's killing - a ban on no-knock warrants, a ban on chokeholds and neck restraints. The city attorney is more deeply involved in misconduct investigations.

FREY: And we need to go further. We need to add safety beyond policing assets, recognizing that not every call requires response from an officer with a gun. We need to have the ability to bring in officers of the right mindset that want to compassionately serve the public. And we also need the ability to get out, to terminate the officers that do not have the right mindset.

FADEL: Half the time, when Frey or the police chief fire or discipline an officer, Frey says they come right back because of an arbitration requirement under state law. He says that needs to change.

City council member Jeremiah Ellison was among those who pledged to defund the police. He says the fact that it hasn't happened isn't a failure. It's a process that needs community buy-in. He points to the city council's decision last December to remove about 5% of the police budget and put it in other services.

JEREMIAH ELLISON: When I'm out talking to constituents, people are OK with the police getting less of a share of the budget. But they're not OK with less money going towards their overall safety. We've got to make the case that police don't exclusively equal increased safety, and that's what we're doing.

FADEL: Ellison supports proposals to replace the police department with a department of public safety.

At 38th and Chicago in South Minneapolis, activists man barricades that block off streets leading into the square where Floyd was killed. It's a police-free zone. A sign says, you're now entering the free state of George Floyd. Ten months ago, it was a busy intersection. Today, P.J. Hill stands across the street.

PJ HILL: Now what I see is a fist that stands for freedom, I see a community that has been forever changed by the murder of George Floyd. And now I see a community that has a lot of pains and old wounds reopened because of the trial and an uncertain future that we're trying to figure out.

FADEL: He's a community leader, lives a few blocks away. He says in recent months, there's been an ugly shift.

HILL: And obviously, in every community, there are people who take advantage of, you know, the situation. We don't know who exactly they are, but there's a group of people that have taken advantage and made this place unsafe.

FADEL: Last year, there were six times the number of non-fatal gunshot wounds here than the year before. Many of the businesses have shut down. And when Hill called the police after bullets shattered the windows at his property nearby...

HILL: They didn't come. And that's scary. Well, we'll let them - the community deal with all the problems. We're not saying give up on us. We're still paying taxes. But we're saying we want you to protect and serve us.

FADEL: Minneapolis police say they are responding to all calls as fast as they can, given staffing shortages and an uptick in crime. Hill says this police-free experiment in front of him - it's failed. He welcomed the Minneapolis police chief's vow to restore peace. The question, Hill says, is how to make his community feel safe from police abuse while also making it feel protected, like people do in the suburbs, he says.

HILL: You can see that they truly feel like they're being protected and served instead of policed. So that's what we want in a community.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: An earlier version of this transcript misidentified Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender as Ilhan Omar.]

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS FEAT. MUSIQ'S "BREAK YOU OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 3, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this transcript misidentified Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender as Ilhan Omar.