Thaddeus L. Johnson and Natasha N. Johnson
In a city still reeling from the fallout of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin 18 months ago, voters soundly rejected a proposal to replace the police department with a public safety department. This new agency was expected to take a more holistic public safety approach that would have likely included police and other service providers, such as social workers, therapists and even violence interrupters.
By striking down Question 2, Minneapolis residents will continue to be governed by a troubled police department put under federal investigation. With federal reform talks recently stalling in Congress, activists worry this vote could further impede the momentum of nationwide police reform efforts sparked by Floyd’s death.
But passing this measure would have done little to transform police or improve the way underserved communities in Minneapolis are served by law enforcement.
Like many reform initiatives, the referendum, frequently labeled a “defund the police” measure, was more symbolic than substantive. The proposal would not have eliminated the force. Instead, it would have removed decades-old language mandating minimum police staffing.
And while there is a need for mental health professionals and other service providers in public safety, police would still have carried the bulk of the workload, since an overwhelming number of police service calls don’t involve a mental health or substance use crisis.
Defunding the police also does not alleviate the growing tensions between police and the public, nor will it suddenly transform the culture of a police department that has operated for generations.
Minneapolis residents are already dealing with surging violent crime and gun violence, so downsizing armed-police guardianship at this critical juncture would have left residents vulnerable to victimization, especially those in historically underserved neighborhoods hardest hit by crime and violence.
How should city, nation move forward?
Minneapolis voters sent a powerful message to the entire nation that no amendment or election alone can replace the long-term commitment to coherent and culturally responsive plans necessary for real and lasting change.
And despite the earlier claims of prominent proponents, including Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar – who represents Minneapolis in Congress – that Question 2 was “an opportunity, once and for all, to listen to those most impacted by police brutality and the communities who have been demanding change for decades,” it is unclear whether the votes of those closest to the problems were drowned out as roughly two-thirds of Minneapolis residents are white.
Government officials and activists must remove politics from police reform efforts and garner input and buy-in from those communities bearing the brunt of crime, overpolicing and systemic racism.
Unless the root causes of crime such as economic depravity and social isolation are tackled comprehensively, police will continue to disproportionately concentrate resources in minority and underserved neighborhoods, resulting in an uneven number of stressful and often unwelcome police encounters for these residents. Such interactions, including officer-initiated stops, come with a risk of physical altercations between police and citizens.
If traditional enforcement metrics continue to weigh prominently in officer evaluations, real change will be hard to come by. And more troubling, the public safety motivation for even the most dangerous police actions could be contaminated by an officer’s desire for career advancement.
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As a former police officer and supervisor, one of us can certainly attest to this daily dilemma many officers face. The weight of unspoken and ubiquitous quotas bound officers’ discretion and almost force them to take a by-the-book approach even in situations where a less formal response is more appropriate. The pressure to sniff out investigative opportunities rather than service opportunities compels officers to take on the role of hunter.
Admittedly, thinking back on all the citations handed out and arrests made during my time as an officer, I can’t say that every one of my enforcement decisions was unequivocally intended to advance public safety. I also knew that productivity was the name of the game, and making arrests bolstered your résumé and reputation.
At least one state has recognized the detrimental consequences of this practice. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed a law prohibiting police departments from considering the number of arrests or citations in performance and promotion evaluations.
By dampening the motivation to hunt in this way, officers can focus on public safety, citizens’ well-being and high-quality arrests rather than beefing up statistics in areas with minimal public safety benefits.
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Apart from following New Jersey’s example, perhaps Minneapolis would be better off taking a page from Philadelphia’s latest reform chapter. To reduce racial disparities and dangerous police-citizen encounters, Philadelphia’s civic leaders recently passed the Driving Equality Bill, making this the first major city to end police traffic stops for minor violations.
Several smaller cities have taken a stab at this approach and reported promising results. For example, a study published in 2020 of traffic stops in Fayetteville, North Carolina, revealed that by focusing on more serious violations of speeding and running traffic lights instead of minor infractions – such as expired tags – residents experienced less crime and more racial balance in stops and searches.
Minimally intrusive policing
More important, redirecting police time and resources away from less serious matters, such as vagrancy and loitering, could mean fewer opportunities for police-citizen violence.
While the thought of a society where police services can be severely limited is an attractive long-term goal, that’s not today’s reality. Local leaders and police agencies must apply actionable and minimally intrusive ways like those presented here to accomplish the twin goals of safety and fairness in both the short and long runs.
Taking such steps will provide immediate relief to those citizens impacted the most.
Thaddeus L. Johnson, a former police officer, is a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and teaches criminology at Georgia State University. His wife, Natasha N. Johnson, is a faculty member at Georgia State and director of the university’s master’s program in criminal justice administration.