Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Using Ferguson to Help Fix Minneapolis

As I reflect on the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri,  I am reminded of the many times I have seen the kinds of police behaviors evidenced in Ferguson before. Abuses of police power, the shooting of unarmed black teenagers by police officers, threats against reporters and displays of force that turn peaceful protests into violent confrontations are familiar to many of us.

Ferguson forces us to look at these through a racial framework and reminds me about how this is a continuation of historic racism that has existed in this country since its inception. It can be traced to periods of government sanctioned, legal and protected genocide and slavery, to an elaborate system of legalized oppression and segregation and so called “Jim Crow” laws after the civil war up to the more covert and insidious “New Jim Crow” of today.

As a Minneapolis City Council Member serving in 2014 I am deeply concerned that the City of Minneapolis is, perhaps unwittingly, an active participant in this New Jim Crow and practices that undermine our highest hopes and aspirations for ourselves and our future.  In the interest of turning the anger and frustration so many of us are feeling into determination and real reforms I offer the following.

On the state and federal levels I, and the City should, support efforts to:

1.     Dismantle and gain control of the prison industrial complex that promotes mass incarceration and allows economic interests and racist tendencies to drive criminal justice policies and practices.

2.     End the militarization of police, including training in military tactics and possession of military ammunition.

3.     End the failed drug policies that treat drug abuse as a criminal instead of medical, public health or social problem.

4.     End the criminalization and harassment of new immigrants and transformation of border areas into military zones -- most recently evident in proposals that would deny asylum to young children fleeing violence and extreme poverty in Central America.

5.     Restore privacy and constitutional protections from government power: end mass surveillance programs and outlaw harassment, infiltration, and provocation directed against organizations and individuals who express dissent.

Locally, at the city level, there is no good reason why we cannot take direct and immediate steps to ensure that we break free of the historic practices and biases that are unwise, unjust and detrimental to the future of our city.

Towards that end we must forge ahead with the work already underway to develop a Racial Equity Toolkit to guide city decisions, spending and policies and a larger Equity Action Plan to help set community-wide goals and implement strategies to reach them.

I hope we can also use this opportunity to fast track efforts in the our own local criminal justice arena to understand how we are participants in criminalizing poverty, homelessness and race and how we can end discrimination, improve police-community relations and reverse the self-destructive path structural racism has us on.

First I believe we need to measure and track much more carefully our practices and shine the light on the racial disparities that exist. The Mayor and Council should direct the Police Department and City Attorney’s Office to do a comprehensive report based on a racial audit of stops, detainments, arrests, charges, prosecutions, convictions and sentencing for the past 5 years. Participation at the County level would also be helpful in this effort. We need to understand how we are using low level offenses, and proactive policing practices in different areas of the city and with different populations within the city. Additionally we should direct the Police and Civil Rights departments to report on a racial audit of complaints, findings, discipline and results of court proceedings (including settlements) related to police and other city staff.
By seeking first to clearly understand the problem we can better renew our commitment to root out and end the racial profiling that many believe exists in our police department and courts today.  This must include ongoing data collection with public reporting as well as explicit policy, and anti-racism training for city employees.

As policy makers we must also be willing to overturn ordinances that are clearly used for selective enforcement, like lurking, that are unnecessary and used to (even if not created to) target poor or minority people.  As a city, county and state we must end racial disparities in stops, arrests, prosecution and sentencing. We can instead create model policies and regulations prohibiting racial profiling, "stop and frisk" policing and harassment, intimidation and police intervention without reasonable, clear suspicion of criminal activity. Whatever your race, income, background or location in the city, you should be treated with dignity and respect by all city employees, especially the police.

There are two key efforts that are already underway in the Police Department that deserve strong support. It is time to more ahead more quickly developing the policies and rolling out the police body camera pilot so that starting next year this becomes standard police practice in Minneapolis.  We have already seen benefits to squad cameras and how body cameras in other cities have helped improve police and civilian behavior and avoided costly investigations and trials.  The second initiative that deserves support is the targeted efforts to diversify the police force at all levels. This should also be done in the civil rights and attorney’s office and should include changes in hiring practices, promotional practices, and department culture. It is time to fix the  state law "rule of three" and root out any union contract provisions that hinder the hiring or retention of some qualified officers that may be the most desirable to help diversify our staff.

I also continue to believe that we need to look at the Minneapolis Charter and reconsider the wisdom of putting the supervision of the police department solely in the mayor’s hands, distancing it from the City Council and thus the electorate. According to the Charter, the mayor is “vested with all the powers of said city connected with and incident to the establishment, maintenance, appointment, removal, discipline, control and supervision of its police force…” It is this arrangement that has made it particularly difficult for council members to fully engage and influence how we manage and assist our police officers. We have little hope of directing staff, setting policy about police behavior or instituting promising management practices, when the Charter gives us no authority over the department, except to approve the appointment of the police chief and the department’s budget. It is time to put the police chief on equal footing with other department heads. There is no good reason why the Council should be able to directly influence Public Works, the Health Department, the Fire Department, Business Licensing and Housing Inspections, and all of the other essential functions of city government but not the police department.

It is also time for us to carefully review and reform or replace the hastily reformed Police Oversight Commission that was reformed without appropriate levels of community engagement and over the objections of our own city appointed civilian police review advisory panel.  We need to rebuild an adequately funded, strengthened and more effective civilian police review commission comprised of Minneapolis residents, that has subpoena power, can make its determinations public information, and has the meaningful and credible input regarding the discipline of police officers. 

This body, then, along with the Civil Rights Commission could be fully engaged in monitoring and advising the police and attorney’s office on eliminating racial disparities and discriminatory practices that unwittingly and unwisely make the city a participant in the historic structural racism we must dismantle.

As a Minneapolis council member police accountability and institutional racism have proven to be among the most challenging problems I have faced. These are persistent and without easily found or simple solutions. To fully address these will take vigilance, honesty, focused determination and a cultural transformation in city government. Still, I am hopeful. We have a growing number of residents eager to see real changes. We have city leaders so clearly united in their intentions. Let's get to work.