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Minneapolis officials grapple with question of police reform — or replacement

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May prompted calls to change the policing structure there. On Wednesday night, the city’s charter commission will decide whether to ask voters to begin the process of abolishing the police force -- and to clarify what would replace it. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, an effort — an update on efforts to defund the police in Minneapolis, where the killing of George Floyd prompted calls for change.

    Tonight, the city's charter commission will decide whether to ask voters to weigh in on this issue.

    Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro has our

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    They are called the Minnesota Freedom Fighters, an openly armed, mostly black citizens group that in recent weeks has provided what they call an added layer of security to the community through a particularly difficult time, says Tyrone Hartwell.

  • Tyrone Hartwell:

    We're tired of waking up looking at the news or looking at another Facebook video with another person of my skin tone shot down, strangled, whatever they — is the issue, because a lack of understanding.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    They came together soon after the uprising that followed events at a once-nondescript street corner that is now named George Floyd Square, a growing shrine with artwork and tributes to Floyd and dozens of others killed in police encounters across the country.

    It is also ground zero for a campaign to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department by defunding it. Proponents of defunding the police, including a majority of the City Council, say Minneapolis has been here before. Several black men have been killed at the hands of police. There was talk of reform, and then nothing happened. They say it's time for the city to start over from scratch and reimagine public safety.

  • Jeremiah Ellison:

    Policing, as a concept, has had a complete monopoly on public safety.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    And City Council member Jeremiah Ellison says it's been a failure.

  • Jeremiah Ellison:

    And I don't just mean a failure because it has perpetuated the kind of harm that you see in police killings and things that fall well short of police killings that still constitute harm.

    But it also fails to keep people safe proactively.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The council wants to amend the city charter, which now requires a police force with a minimum staffing level. That requires voter approval.

    Among those opposing the move is Mayor Jacob Frey. He says the council hasn't provided any alternative plan.

  • Mayor Jacob Frey:

    We have all this anger and frustration and sadness and all of this energy. And it's our obligation to channel that energy and harness it towards something that is specific and productive, not vague and ambiguous.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Amid the debate over policing, Minneapolis has seen both a spike in violent crime and a record number of complaints against the department since the city erupted in protests after Floyd's killing, protests that resulted in a police precinct being burned, after officers were ordered to evacuate.

  • Rich Walker:

    Our morale has never been lower. They're scared to death to answer calls, in case something turns violent, because they're actively trying to send us to prison.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Sergeant Rich Walker, who worked at the precinct, told a Minnesota Senate committee that as many as 200 officers, about a quarter of the entire force, may soon depart. A number have filed disability claims.

  • Rich Walker:

    I have never been more broken as a police officer than I was to watch our leaders give up on our home. And the truth is, the leaders of Minneapolis failed Minneapolis.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Mayor Frey says he has no second thoughts about his decision to abandon the precinct.

  • Mayor Jacob Frey:

    We only had about 15 to 20 officers inside, with almost nothing to defend themselves with other than guns.

    Imagine what would have happened if they had continued to fight. There was hand-to-hand combat and likely a scenario of death.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    So, what now, when you have almost a quarter of the police force in some form of absentee situation? I mean, that sounds like a significant staffing shortage.

  • Mayor Jacob Frey:

    We do have a staffing shortage right now. And I disagree with the notion that we should be abolishing the police department.

    Our officers are dealing with some very difficult situations.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Or they're not, according to many complaints.

    Ebony Chambers describes a recent incident outside her home in Minneapolis' largely black Northside.

  • Ebony Chambers:

    There was about four teenagers walking down the middle of my street with guns out. My neighbor stood up to them, which I don't know why he did.

    But he said: "You guys need to please put the guns down. I'm calling the police."

    Called the police. Never showed up. Fifteen minutes later, we heard about 30 shots being shot off. I don't know if the person they were shooting that lived or died or anything.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    In another instance, she says police came to her door to tell her they'd given up chasing a suspect who had run through her backyard and, if she didn't like it, the officer said:

  • Ebony Chambers:

    "You need to contact your mayor, so that we can do our job."

    Chambers and Donald Crumbley are part of a larger community organization called ISAIAH. They say they're open to new ideas about public safety.

  • Donald Crumbley:

    It's not about police and bad police. We're past that. It's about right and wrong. And the community has to step up now, because we have received enough injustice.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    But Lisa Clemons, a former police officer who founded a community group called A Mother's Love, says the City Council's actions haven't helped matters. She says they have only emboldened criminals.

  • Lisa Clemons:

    When the City Council came out with their statement of abolishing and dismantling and disbanding the police department, those incendiary terms, I think it created a lot of fear in the community.

    But it also at the same time created a brazen attitude. I think the community has been left to fend for themselves.

  • Tyrone Hartwell:

    We're not trying to defend the police. Again, we're not saying we don't need a police at all. We're just saying that there needs to be a rebuilding of what they are. You know what I'm saying?

  • Mayor Jacob Frey:

    We need a full culture shift in our police department. Culture, to a certain extent, is about personnel. It's about people.

    So, right now, when the chief or I terminate or discipline an officer, as much as 50 percent of the time, that officer gets returned right back to the department from which they came because of an arbitration system.

  • Jeremiah Ellison:

    The mayor is going to have to recognize that, again, this is not a personnel problem, but a systems problem.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Councilman Ellison says the powerful police union would never concede on arbitration or other changes. What's needed, he says, is a complete revamp, moving funds into violence prevention, mental health care and fixing other underlying causes of crime.

    He admits it will be a culture shift of the larger community.

  • Jeremiah Ellison:

    And, right now, all we really have in terms of public safety is one system, and that's policing. And people are going to be scared to create a new system of emergency response. And I think it's going to take a lot of conversations.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The council's immediate hurdle is to get voters to approve a city charter amendment that would allow it to phase out the police department and phase in a broader office of public safety and violence prevention.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Minneapolis.

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