Unelected Charter Commission poses a structural barrier to systemic changes in Minneapolis policing

It’s been two months since the Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, a black man, sparking protests locally, nationally, and around the world.

This moment felt different. Black Lives Matter was getting broader community support. More people seemed open to a structural overhaul in Minneapolis policing. Minneapolis City Council members responded, approving a plan to eliminate the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) as a free-standing entity. It would replace it with a new Minneapolis Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, which could include police officers as part of its operations.

Now, the irresistible force of community demands hit the immovable object of political process. The hope for big change is teetering in the balance.

File: At a 3rd Precinct protest following George Floyd’s death.

The Minneapolis City Council’s proposal requires amending the Minneapolis City Charter, the city’s Constitution. Among other things, the charter requires Minneapolis to 1) have a Police Department and 2) have a minimum number of police staff based on population.

The City Council is seeking a charter amendment to eliminate both those requirements and and adding new language to replace the police department with the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, a more holistic approach to public safety.

The Council wants the charter amendment on the fall ballot. The decision now rests with the 15-member unelected Minneapolis Charter Commission, which reviews all proposed charter amendments.

The Commission’s actions won’t be binding; it can’t block the City Council’s proposal.

The Commission’s power is the power to delay. The deadline to add the charter amendment to the city ballot is Aug. 21, less than three weeks away.

The Charter Commission will meet Wednesday to consider the City Council’s charter amendment. It has four options: Approve it, reject it, amend it, or hold it over for more study.

Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, two organizations working to pass the charter amendment, said in an email that even if the Charter Commission votes “no” on the amendment, “we still have one more chance,” since the City Council isn’t bound by the Commission’s recommendation.

June7: The intersection of 38th and Chicago where police killed George Floyd.

A vote for further study, however, will kill a ballot measure. (The Charter Commission used this tactic in 2018, when the City Council proposed a lesser charter change in police oversight. The Charter Commission created a task force and held a series of public hearings. By December 2018 — well after the fall election — the Commission was still considering new research topics and recommendations.)

Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block are asking city residents to take the following actions:

Submit written comments to the charter commission. Remind them that the future of MPD should be up to the voters of Minneapolis through the democratic process – not unelected decisionmakers. Share your story about your experiences with MPD and your vision for a safer Minneapolis without them.

Please call and email your council member, too. Tell them you want the amendment on the ballot, and that if Jacob Frey tries to veto, you want them to override it!

Wednesday’s Charter Commission meeting, scheduled for 4 p.m., will be streamed on Council TV and the city’s YouTube page.

Who are the Commission members?

The Charter Commission isn’t a representative body. Commissioners skew white and older. It attracts wonky, political types who like to work on the city’s once-a-decade redistricting plan and debate the finer points of language in proposed charter amendments. Residents apply to serve on the Commission through the city’s Open Appointments process. By state law, the chief judge of the District Court appoints the commissioners. They serve four-year terms.

Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg defends the Commission’s role, even though its members aren’t elected. The state Constitution defines charter commissions’ roles in Article 12, Section 5, he said: “This is not some legislative anomaly, this is a constitutional obligation.”

That’s true. But it’s also true that this system is set up to slow down big change and preserve the status quo, a structural barrier to addressing structural racism which will require big changes.

Citizens can’t recall commissioners. Only the Charter Commission itself can remove a member. Its Rule 3.4 says “An officer may be removed by a two-thirds majority vote of Commissioners present and voting.”

Residents could apply to serve on the Commission when a vacancy occurs. Barring resignations, the earliest possible vacancy is April, 2022.

The Charter Commission website provides no background on commissioners, an embarrassing lack of transparency for a group that wields such power.

According to a web search and email queries, here’s a snapshot:

  • Chair Barry Clegg an attorney practicing in mergers and acquisitions. Lives Downtown.
  • Vice Chair Jan Sandberg a retired program evaluator for the Minnesota Office of Legislative Auditor. Lives in Loring Park.
  • Secretary Peter Ginder a former deputy attorney for the city of Minneapolis.
  • Gregory Abbott, an attorney specializing in commercial litigation, libel/slander, and employment/civil rights.
  • Dan Cohen, a Harvard Law School graduate who served on the Minneapolis City Council from 1965 to 1969, worked as a Special Assistant to the Director of the Peace Corps, and has been involved in state and local politics.
  • Jill Garcia, employment unknown.
  • Al Giraud-Issaacson, works in human services for Hennepin County. Lives in Elliot Park.
  • Andrew Kozak, a lobbyist whose clients range from Flint Hills Resources (Koch Industries) to the city of Richfield.
  • Barbara Lickness, a neighborhood specialist with the city’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program.
  • Jana Metge, Executive Coordinator at Citizens For A Loring Park Community.
  • Toni Newborn, Chief Equity Officer for the city of St. Paul.
  • Matt Perry, president of Twin Cities PC MD, board member of the Southwest Minneapolis Business Association, and past 13th Ward City Council candidate.
  • Andrea Rubenstein, attorney, and former board chair of Jewish Community Action
  • Lyall Schwarzkopf, served in the Minnesota State House of Representatives and was Governor Arne Carlson’s chief of staff.
  • Christopher L. Smith, attorney. Lives Downtown.

Healing Minnesota Stories emailed each commissioner late Friday asking for neighborhood of residence and if they personally had ever had a negative experience with police. (The blog will be updated as responses come in.)

In an interview, Clegg said “Charter commissioners are very aware of what communities of color are going through. And a lot of members of communities of color are opposed to this because they haven’t been included in the process.”

Of four responses received so far, three white commissioners, including Clegg, said they had not had negative experiences with police.  Giraud-Issaacson had. He wrote:

When I was serving in the Air Force, I was profiled in New Jersey because I’m Latino and had a new sports car. I was pulled over by 5 NJ State Troopers with guns out. Once I told them I was heading back to base and showed my military ID they let me go without explanation on why they pulled me over. No ticket , no warning, nothing. The next day I reported the incident as required to my first sergeant. He told me I was profiled and that it happens a lot to him in New Jersey. He told me to be careful because the troopers watch for brown and black men.

Long standing problem

File: Police protect the Third Precinct on the first night of protests following George Floyd’s murder.

Clegg said the City Council could make significant changes to MPD without amending the charter. It could reduce MPD staffing by some 300 employees, or roughly 30 percent, and still meet charter requirements.

The question is: Would that change alone create the needed structural change in the department to reduce racial discrimination?

Minneapolis police have a long-standing problem with racial discrimination. The MPD150 report provides plenty of historical details.

Reforms haven’t worked. As recently as 2015, the U.S. Dept. of Justice made recommendations to help the Minneapolis Police Department build trust with the community.

It was no solution. The Marshall Project,  a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that reports on the U.S. criminal justice system, issued a report after George Floyd’s death analyzing Minnesota police reform efforts to understand the slow pace of change.

Police accountability experts, court documents, stalled state legislation and a 2015 report by the U.S. Justice Department about policing in Minneapolis all point to a clear pattern: Even as officials have made some changes, law enforcement agencies have lacked either the authority or the will to discipline and remove bad officers from patrol. They have also failed to set clear criteria on the use of force and de-escalation.

Recently, the state of Minnesota announced a civil rights investigation of MPD, looking back 10 years to see “if the police department has utilized systemic discriminatory practices towards people of color.”

The investigation is being done “in hopes of forcing widespread changes,” the AP reported. Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero said the goal is to reach a consent decree with the city of Minneapolis regarding police practices, including injunctions and penalties to enforce the agreement.

The proposed charter amendment is seeking to create “widespread changes” too, not with injunctions and penalties, but through significant structural changes.

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