After the horrific murder of George Floyd this summer, calls to divest from police have spread like wildfire across the nation. Containing many differing voices that have fallen along the left political spectrum, varying from reformists to abolitionists and everything in between. Tens of thousands have marched in the streets and protested police brutality and systemic racism in Minnesota, a number that was multiplied around the world.

Maintaining a local focus, people started looking toward their city councils as a source for immediate change, and it wasn’t long before attention in Minnesota shifted to the Minneapolis budget. City budgets, referred to by many as “moral documents,” are a powerful tool that can be wielded to benefit the most marginalized community members -- or to actively degrade their quality of life. The City currently spends $179 million on the Minneapolis Police Department a staggering amount when compared to other social services. As many have realized, the City budget is the perfect place to start re-examining what public safety actually means for a diverse community.

Heeding calls for real change, a cohort of council members banded together to create the Safety For All package as part of the 2021 Minneapolis budget, investing $7.77 million in mental health crisis responses and violence prevention. While this would by no means solve all our problems, it's a vital step in the right direction and a pivotal moment for our city. This is the beginning of a sea change as people hold their representatives accountable and commit council members to stop over-funding police departments at the expense of desperately needed life-affirming social services and fund  equitable and holistic approaches to community safety.

On Dec. 9, after days of public testimony with high community turnout, the Minneapolis City Council approved the 2021 City Budget including the Safety for All amendments that redirected $7.77 million toward transforming public safety. The budget package’s key components will:

  • Increase the funding and staffing for the Civil Rights Department and Office of Police Conduct Review
  • Increase funding for the Office of Violence Prevention
    • Group violence intervention
    • Next Step hospital-based intervention and victim support
    • Public health specialists
    • Allow creation of mental health crisis response teams and change the way minor offenses are reported Dispatch mental health professional / EMT teams via 911
      • Train 911 dispatchers in assessing mental health calls; embed mental health professionals in 911
    • Train non-police city staff to take theft and property damage reports
      • Direct property damage reports  and parking-related calls to 311

There is a heavy emphasis on not only responding to crime, which is what people have conventionally understood to comprise “safety,” but on really addressing its root causes and offering options to traditional policing. The ongoing funding for the Office of Violence Prevention aims to disrupt violence while offering support to those affected by crime. Along with funding programming for  community de-escalation and restorative justice training, this budget will broaden the scope of what public safety means.

Similarly, starting mental health crisis teams and shifting the way the City reports crime will create more ways to respond to distress calls than simply sending armed officers in. We know that police are not well-equipped to deal with mental health crises, which is repeatedly demonstrated in devastating results that occur when police are used as first responders in these incidents. Directing 911 calls to trained mental health and substance abuse specialists who can de-escalate a situation and give appropriate care is a common sense reform that has long been requested by community members.   

Approving this budget was the biggest move the Council has made toward reform since the summer, and it was certainly a contentious fight between competing visions. Most of the debate centered on the fact that the Safety for All Budget was primarily funded with a $5.5 million cut to MPD overtime. Impassioned city council debates showed the deep split between the members over how to address these serious problems.

During the budget process, many opponents to the Safety for All budget touted the “both/and” approach to the budget, supporting reforms, community investment and funding for mental health services and community violence prevention, while also wanting an untouched police budget and even more officers on the street. No one has addressed how to pay for all of these additional services, especially in an economy so hard-hit by COVID-19 . But even if there was a magic funding formula, more traditional police on the streets is not the answer.The police are an inherently reactionary institution, and it bears repeating that they do not prevent crime -- they react to it.  While it’s true that there has been an uptick in crime since the summer, mainly carjackings and other property damage, an increase to the police budget has not -- and will not -- solve it. The City’s 2020 MPD budget was the largest it has ever been and yet more spending on police did not stop crime. 

It’s time to try something different. Instead of constantly reacting, why not be proactive? Why not disrupt the cycle of poverty and trauma that lead to things like gun violence? Or establish a different kind of first responder who doesn’t come to a mental health emergency or a simple property damage call with a loaded gun? The causes for increased crime have deeper roots than idle hands feeling emboldened by talk of police reform, as some have suggested. We must stop our constant cycle of neglect and start thinking about long-term solutions.

The nearly $8 million dollar Safety For All budget package, supported by the ACLU-MN and many other groups, is the first step in a long trajectory toward real, tangible change. On its own, it is a drop in the bucket. But this move by the Minneapolis City Council to start divesting from bloated police budgets and finally put that money in historically underfunded programs and communities is the beginning of a profound transformation.

We’re optimistic that the concrete demands made by millions of Black and Brown people, as well as their White allies standing in solidarity, will continue to spur elected representatives to make good on their promises. And we hope and expect that by re-examining what public safety actually means for a diverse community and starting to imagine a better world, we finally will reach a point where no one accepts the death of Black lives at the hands of police.