A police officer’s trial in the death of George Floyd is about to pull a spotlight back to the place that launched conversations around the world about policing and racial equity: Minneapolis.
Opening arguments Monday in the murder and manslaughter trial of officer Derek Chauvin will return this city to the news and prompt scrutiny over whether policing has actually changed since last year.
Justice-reform advocate Billie Jean Van Knight was blunt in her assessment of how far Minneapolis has gotten in terms of changing policing in her city.
“Nowhere,” says the activist with the Racial Justice Network. “Unfortunately, we have not changed. We’ve actually stepped back a little bit.”
A headline-grabbing vow last year from city officials to disband the Minneapolis police department has quietly dissolved. Talk of defunding the police has been replaced by the funding to hire new officers, amid a flood of personnel departures, with a surge in violent crime unfolding in the backdrop.
At the federal level, reform efforts have lost steam. Yet, despite all this, several activists say they remain hopeful, including Van Knight, as numerous reform initiatives persist in cities across the country — including in Minneapolis where there’s talk of a referendum this fall on reorganizing the role of police.
Knight likened the current situation in Minneapolis to the cleaning of a messy room: Sometimes, she says, the mess gets worse before it gets better.
It’s certainly been a messy year.
How crime surge led to ‘re-fund’ the police
In the tumultuous aftermath of Floyd’s death, a majority of the local city council supported defunding and dismantling the police force.
The rush to recruit was prompted by an exodus of officers — nearly one-quarter of the force is gone, after veterans retired or took leave.
In the meantime, homicides were up more than one-third in major U.S. cities last year, according to analysis from the Council on Criminal Justice, a non-partisan criminal justice think-tank, and criminologists have attributed that to twin factors: the pandemic and a breakdown in communication between communities and police.
That mistrust was underscored in Minneapolis just a few days ago. A crowd gathered around police during a carjacking arrest, and an officer was recorded punching a teenager at the scene, which prompted the department to launch an investigation.
Minneapolis has still taken some steps in changing.
Chokeholds were banned. An African-American officer who once sued the department for racial discrimination became the new police chief. A police union boss who was vocally antagonistic toward past reforms retired early.
And even if municipal leaders now dodge talk about defunding, they’re still talking about wide-ranging structural change.
Reforms still happening
An example of one such effort is a possible referendum in this November’s municipal election where residents might be asked to reorder the city charter.
The police would be stripped of its departmental status and be placed under a new public safety department; police would be recognized as just one component of public safety, alongside mobile units of mental-health professionals.
Philippe Cunningham, a 33-year-old city councillor, says reimagining public safety was always going to be hard work and that city officials never expected it would be simple.
“If we had the easy answers, it would have already been done now,” Cunningham said. “What we fundamentally need is a new system of public safety that doesn’t 100 per cent rely on an armed police officer to show up to every need people have.”
But one longtime former councillor and public-safety official says he was flabbergasted that elected officials initially embraced talk last year of defunding the police.
Don Samuels called it irresponsible and naive.
Despite being a well-known figure in the Black community, and living in a Black neighbourhood, Samuels said he didn’t hear anything in the way of consultation — and when he first heard about it on TV, he couldn’t believe his ears.
‘We looked at each other aghast’
“My wife and I sat on our sofa and watched CNN and saw them announce the defunding of the police,” said Samuels, who now runs an organization that provides small loans to low-income people.
“We looked at each other with our mouths open, aghast.”
Samuels said public officials should have considered how their words might be interpreted by criminals and the effect that might have in communities.
Just a few days ago, he said, he heard six separate bursts of gunfire over the course of about nine hours; 20 rounds popping one time, 10 pops another, with bullet holes left in houses and cars around his place.
A few months ago, someone was shot about eight houses up from his home in North Minneapolis, and another person was shot just around the corner.
“We knew that as a result of this the [criminals] around here would become so emboldened,” Samuels said.
“They [already] feel like this is their territory, wearing a red bandana or a blue bandana, to suggest one gang or another. And it’s like, ‘We own this street.’
“So now you’re telling them, ‘Actually, now, we’re going to remove the only restraint on your behaviour’ — which is the police.”
Samuels chalks it down, in part, to youthful naivete from idealistic young members of council; he agrees, however, that police reform is desperately needed.
He said what’s also needed is broader societal change, including to an education system he calls riddled with racism.
Nationwide, schools in richer areas tend to receive more funding through property taxes. Those schools, and those areas, tend to be whiter. In Minneapolis, both the city and the schools are highly segregated by race.
Few expect imminent solutions from the national level.
Change happening locally
Reform efforts in Washington appear stalled in the way so many other issues have faltered there: with partisan gridlock.
Democrats stalled a Republican police-reform bill they called insufficient last year, and Republicans aren’t backing Democrats’ proposals, such as officer immunity from lawsuits, which leaves little hope of major reform getting the 60 per cent required for a vote in the Senate.
WATCH | Changes to policing in Minneapolis have been slow:
One advocate for dramatic change said he isn’t looking to Washington. But he’s visiting multiple cities a month, and excited about many ideas he’s heard from local officials.
“That’s where my focus is — [the local level],” says Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College and author of The End Of Policing.
A number of jurisdictions are studying new models of public safety, and potentially shifting responsibilities from police — that’s the sweeping approach Vitale favours.
Others are studying narrower reforms to policing, like better training — which Vitale calls insufficient, based on past studies, and a “PR stunt.”
Already, Austin, Texas, has reallocated some funds from the police budget to support housing for homeless people.
Denver now has non-police officers dealing with mental-health crises. Los Angeles is shifting funding to social services and jail-diversion programs. Oakland is dissolving a policing unit that works in schools.
“There have been some small but significant changes to the scope of policing,” Vitale said in an interview.
As for Minneapolis, he says: “I think it’s going to have some radical changes. It just takes time.”
First, there’s the Chauvin trial.
The case is fraying nerves locally about the verdict, how people will react, and how it might affect reform.
Armed group ready to defend neighbourhoods
One armed group of mostly Black volunteers with legal firearms permits is on alert, ready to patrol areas struck by vandals last year.
A man who works in information technology and volunteers with the group — the Minnesota Freedom Fighters — says he’s ready with his Glock 34 handgun and a Glock 19 with an extra magazine.
Charles, who declined to have his last name published, said people don’t trust the police and his group acts as a go-between, responding to calls, communicating with law enforcement, and patrolling at risk-areas to deter property destruction.
A number of businesses remain boarded up from last year, even if they’re operating inside.
As he walked with CBC News down West Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis, Charles expressed his fear: “They might go after this corridor again.”
One community activist, Toussaint Morrison, said the upcoming case feels like a trial about racial attitudes and American society as a whole, and not just about one officer.
“There’s just an anxiety and a tension that’s been brewing,” Morrison said.
So this community is acutely aware that the world is watching it again. And that others will draw inferences from what happens, not just inside the courtroom.
“We know that we are the centre of attention right now,” Van Knight said.
“And if we don’t get these things done, how are we going to expect other people to to get these things done?”