Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said he decided to evacuate the police building, noting “brick and mortar is not as important as life.”
It’s been a month since George Floyd died — since former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck as he gasped for air and pleaded for his life; since peaceful protests during daylight dissolved into violence after dark; since Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey decided to let protesters overtake the police department’s Third Precinct. And as Chauvin’s homebase burned, protesters cheered.
It’s been about half that time since a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council committed to the long process of dismantling the police. And as Frey opposed the move, protesters booed.
Frey, a liberal former civil rights lawyer, has drawn both criticism and praise from both local and national leaders, Republicans and Democrats, for his response to Floyd’s May 25 death and its aftermath.
President Donald Trump chastised Frey on Twitter as a “very weak Radical Left mayor” on May 28. The next day, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz called the city’s response an “abject failure.”
More recently, advocates shouted, “Shame, Shame, Shame” outside Frey’s home after he said he was in favor of reforming rather than dismantling the police department.
Frey said he believes in “deep structural reform.”
“If you’re talking about having a full culture shift in the Minneapolis Police Department, I’m on board. If you’re talking about making sure that we aren’t criminalizing poverty or addiction and making sure we have a different conceptual approach to how we handle it, I am fully on board,” Frey said. “But if you’re talking about abolishing the police department, no I am not.”
Others, even some supporters, have lost their patience.
“For communities, especially the Black and brown communities in Minneapolis, the police system hasn’t been working for them — ever,” said Kenza Hadj-Moussa with the advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota, one of the many community voices calling for Frey to support disbanding the police department. “The chance for reform is done. The path forward is investing our money somewhere else.”
Minneapolis police chief:This was not ‘lack of training … This was murder’
Minneapolis City Council approved a ban on police chokeholds and neck restraints as part of an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which launched a civil rights investigation after Floyd’s death. Councilmembers could vote as soon as June 26 on whether to put an amendment to the city charter to dismantle the police department and introduce a new model on the ballot this fall. A previous proposal stated the department would be replaced with “community safety and violence prevention.”
Policy changes: What city and states have done since George Floyd’s death
Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, told Gayle King this week that the police union has been “unfairly scapegoated” by political leaders in the city and state. Kroll, who has been suspended and sued for excessive force, has also come under criticism for taking the stage at a Trump rally and calling Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization.
Frey advocates that the city withdraw from negotiations with the police union and Kroll.
Last week, Frey urged a change in police culture in an opinion piece for Minneapolis’ newspaper, The Star Tribune. The sentiment that the world is watching, it seems, is not lost on him.
Frey quoted George Floyd’s daughter, Gianna, who said her dad is going to “change the world.”
“George’s family is right: What happened to their father and their brother will change the world,” Frey wrote. “That change must start in Minneapolis.”
Twin Cities: Two mayors, one problem, many paths forward
Frey’s initial response earned praise for its swift passion and empathy. The morning after Floyd’s death, Frey condemned the officers’ actions. Later that day, with Frey’s blessing, Police Chief Medaria Arrandondo fired the four offices involved. The following day, Frey called for Chauvin to be charged.
“I was sitting next to him and he was crying. It was real. It was not politics. He hurt,” said Tyrone Terrill, president of the city’s African American Leadership Council, who met with Frey, the police chief and other Black leaders the morning after Floyd was killed.
“I’ve never seen any mayor that passionate — and I’ve been doing this a long time — about what happened in our community,” Terrill said. “We say it all the time: You can’t just be the mayor for white people. You have to be the mayor for all people. Mayor Frey was the mayor for all people in this situation.”
In neighboring St. Paul, the mayor may not need that reminder. Melvin Carter became the first Black person elected to the role in 2018. While Carter has bourne less of the national gaze since Floyd’s death, he and Frey share similarities.
Both mayors are young: Frey is 38, Carter is 41.
Both campaigned on police reform following fatal police shootings: Jamar Clark and Justine Damond for Frey, Philando Castile for Carter.
Both have had varied success in implementing change since taking office.
But as they look to help heal their communities, they are working from different starting points.
For Linea Palmisano, who represents Minneapolis’ Ward 13, police reform has also been a key issue. But like Frey, she doesn’t support dismantling the department.
“The structural reform that people are screaming for across the country … they do not start and end with some highly politicized vote of whether you cut the funding to the police department to look like you’re hurting them,” she said. “[Frey] needs to be courageous in this moment and, in order to make deep, impactful, structural reforms … he needs to look beyond [the police department] to the government … to things like our union contracts.”
Frey seems to have “an endless amount of goodwill,” Palmisano said, but “he has been dealt an impossible situation.”
Frey won a Minneapolis City Council seat in 2013, then was then elected mayor after promising to fix the broken relationship between the community and the police.
He replaced Betsy Hodges, who was criticized after the 2015 killing of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old Black man shot during a scuffle with police, and the 2017 killing of Justine Damond, a 40-year-old white woman shot by police after calling 911 to report a possible rape outside her home.
Frey faces an uphill battle in untangling the years of mistrust between the community and police department.
Even Alex Gibby, Frey’s running coach at William & Mary university who praised his work ethic at being able to run 120 miles a week while in law school, acknowledges the tough spot he’s in.
“It is very much a no-win situation,” Gibby said. “Not only is he trying to overcome the destruction caused by the initial incident, but he’s also having to overcome our president. And I think he’s continued to take the high road. I say that as a registered Republican, by the way. I think he’s providing some vital leadership in a time when the rest of our country is very much suffering from it.”
But for a roadmap to winning, perhaps Frey need only look across the Mississippi River.
An officer’s son leads ‘community-first policing’
In St. Paul, Carter said he didn’t know enough about the culture of the police department in Minneapolis to comment on it or to critique how Frey responded.
“He’s been through a nightmare,” Carter said. “I think mayors across our country have found ourselves in the position over the last couple of weeks where the good options and stuff we prefer to do just wasn’t accessible to us, wasn’t among the possible.”
Carter said Frey’s calls to fire and charge the officers was the right thing to do.
“I think that was an important thing to do and it seems he voices a commitment to fundamentally changing the nature of the Minneapolis Police Department,” Carter said. “Clearly there are individuals who feel like that still doesn’t go far enough. I think we’ll see. I think time will tell.”
Carter, meanwhile, has already started implementing what he calls “community-first policing.”
Carter was born in St. Paul, the son of a now-retired St. Paul police officer and a former school teacher.
He, too, ran a campaign on police reform after controversial police shootings. The year before Carter was elected, police from a St. Paul suburb shot and killed Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop. Castile told the officer he had a handgun and a license to carry before the officer fired seven shots at him.
Within Carter’s first 100 days in office, he worked with police department leadership “to completely rewrite our use-of-force policy,” he said.
Changes outlined an officer’s duty to deescalate and duty to intervene. It also differentiated the response for when someone is passively resisting versus being aggressive toward another person or officer.
Carter said St. Paul is also one of the first agencies in the country to embed social workers alongside police officers to respond to individuals in crisis.
“Our focus in St. Paul over the past couple years really has been arguing — and I think successfully — a model of public safety that goes far beyond police to those types of proactive investments that can help us prevent crime before it happens,” Carter said.
Last year, the city passed a community-first public safety proposal that focused on youth jobs and neighborhood supports such as ensuring people who return to the community from incarceration can find stable housing, Carter said.
“The most controversial element … was that it did not focus on adding officers. It did not add a single officer,” he said.
Some of the elements of Carter’s community-first lens are the same changes advocates calling to “defund the police” are demanding.
“If that’s what people are calling for, then it certainly feels like something that we are already doing,” Carter said.
‘His death won’t be in vain’
Transitioning from protests to politics will be the real measure of people’s willingness to change, said Jim Scheibel, who served as St. Paul mayor from 1990-94 and now teaches at Hamline University in St. Paul.
“How do we make real change?” he asked. “We can march every night, but unless we begin to change the systems, we won’t make progress.”
The Rev. James Thomas, president of the St. Paul Black Ministerial Alliance, said leaders need to make the commitment that business can’t go on as usual.
“We really have to dig in and be tenacious about what we want to see happen. And we’ve got to vote the people out who don’t want to listen,” he said.
Both Scheibel and Thomas have confidence Frey and Carter can be those leaders.
“You kind of have to risk your office if you are going to be a change-maker,” Thomas said. “I’ve met with Carter. I can tell you this: That’s what he says he wants to do. He says he’s listening. He says he wants to make change. Frey says he listens. He says he wants to make change.”
Terrill, of the African American Leadership Council, said if Minnesota truly wants to change, now is the time to show it.
“If Mr. Floyd’s death means anything, then show the rest of the U.S. and the world that Minnesota is not going to have it anymore. Then his death won’t be in vain,” Terrill said.
“He don’t know none of this is going on,” Terrill added, speaking of Floyd. “He would be shocked. He might have said he’d be OK with it if the world is going to do what it’s doing so another Black man or woman doesn’t have to suffer the way he did. I think he’d say, ‘Job well done, George Floyd. Job well done.'”
Berg is a reporter for the St. Cloud Times. Contributing: Mark Emmert, Des Moines Register
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