Minneapolis City Councilman Steve Fletcher represents an area that’s been pretty insulated from the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. It’s where Mayor Jacob Frey lives. But Fletcher knew something was changing in his ward when he started getting phone calls from constituents who were worried, pleading for help, unable to reach law enforcement. As Fletcher explains: “People were not getting the help that they needed for a while. Once that fell apart, they were willing to say, Is this really the system we need? That changed a lot of people’s views of our current public safety infrastructure—and so they were jolted into action.”
Suddenly, his constituents weren’t just asking him to craft some legislation or debate the finer details of the city budget. They wanted something much more immediate. And Fletcher listened: On Sunday, he and a veto-proof majority of the City Council pledged to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department—completely.
On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Fletcher about how he and his fellow council members reached this point, and what they think disbanding the force will look like. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: You’ve been trying to figure out how to reform the police for years. But until now, the most you’ve ever tried to do is slow the growth of police spending: voting back in 2018 to take about a million dollars out of the police budget and put it toward public safety programs. This sounds like a lot, but the police were slated to get $185 million. Even with that money lopped off the top, the overall police budget was growing year after year. There was pushback on your decision: You got calls from the law-and-order types, but you also got more troubling calls.
Steve Fletcher: We saw a lot of businesses being told by officers, We’d love to help you with that, but our hands are tied by the council. Talk to your council member.
Were these people who were reporting crimes?
Yes: businesses experiencing shoplifting or other kinds of incidents. Cops would come and say, We asked for money in the budget, but the council member didn’t give it to us. And we just don’t have enough people to respond to it quickly enough to address this issue.
Your proposal back then was to do something so small, and now you and this majority of council members have proposed something much bigger. I can’t imagine what you’re thinking about the work ahead.
It feels really daunting. It also feels more honest. I’ve become convinced over the past two years that these reform efforts are not working. We have to do better for our community than that. And frankly, if the cops are going to treat me like I’m the enemy when I cut a sliver of the increase of their budget, there’s no incentive to not go big because I’m going to get treated that way regardless. So I might as well go for the real change that I actually think is going to protect our community and make us safe in the long run.
You were following the recent protests of Mayor Jacob Frey. Can you describe a little bit what happened there?
The community was protesting in my ward in northeast Minneapolis, which has not been the epicenter of protests, typically. They somewhat strategically brought their march to the block that the mayor lives on. Frey came out to talk to them and they put him on the spot and said, “We have a yes or no question for you: Will you commit to defunding the Minneapolis Police Department?” And he said no, he doesn’t support defunding the police. He certainly is still of a mind that he wants to try to reform this department. And the protesters asked him to leave.
There is this video circulating of what people were calling a “walk of shame.” The choice was so stark—an activist was saying, “It’s important for everyone to hear this because … he’s up for reelection next year.” It was dramatic.
The next day, you had a very different rally. Can you talk about that?
We gathered in Powderhorn Park. The community came together in a very powerful way. And a veto-proof majority of the council declared our intention to pursue disbanding the police.
Which kind of means that what the mayor said doesn’t really matter.
That was, I think, part of what we’re signaling to everybody: that this is something that’s important and the city is moving on.
I wonder what kind of constituent reaction you’ve gotten over the past couple days. Who are you hearing from?
The overwhelming message I’ve gotten from constituents is support. But it’s worth talking about people’s fear because so many people have equated police with safety for so long. That’s what we were raised to think. One of the things I’ve been challenging everybody to do is think about your last interaction with the police, and think about whether it aligns with that equation of police equals safety.
What I hear from a lot of people is that they actually experienced fear or harm. But what I hear from even more people is that they just experienced nothing particularly helpful: “I called the police because somebody broke into my house and they came and acted like I was inconveniencing them. They wrote a report because I needed that for insurance, but they certainly weren’t going to follow up and actually do anything about it. I never heard if they caught the guy, and I never heard if they recovered anything.”
We’ve had a department that’s just not providing good service. We have other departments that strive to have very high satisfaction ratings from our residents. That’s never been a goal of the Minneapolis Police Department.
A criticism from the outside would be, if you’re abolishing the police, what are you going to do about murders or rapes or domestic violence? How are you going to ensure these crimes are solved? And there’s this other issue, which is you’ve just created a force of about a thousand people who may feel like dead men walking.
I think that second issue is something that is really concerning, and there was no way to start this conversation without naming it out loud. And there is no way that it is good for the morale of the city staff who are hearing us talk about them this way. But we had to ultimately decide that we couldn’t keep worrying about that.
I don’t think we’re going to have the same kind of guns-and-badge-first kind of force that people think of policing as. I think we’re going to be looking for social workers and psychologists, people who have a lot of other skills. And as we figure out what we need, we’re going to recruit for that.
Do you think about what work they’ll be doing in terms of public safety? Do you want to call it policing?
An awful lot of it, no. We are trying to undo the notion that policing is what’s needed. There will be an aspect that will be close enough to policing, because there are so many guns on the street that we can’t have no forceful response to that. But we have to have some way, when we hear about a dangerous call, to respond appropriately. The vast majority of calls that come in to 911 would be better responded to by conflict resolution specialists, by outreach specialists who can connect people to services, by psychologists and social workers. I think we need to get much more sophisticated about sending the right response to the right problems so we can actually be problem-solving instead of just checking the box on having done a 911 response.
There’s a lot of moral clarity in naming the real problem that’s actually bothering people, in getting down to the real question of what makes you feel safe instead of thinking we can fix this broken system. I don’t think we can fix it. I think finally stepping up and letting the community lead what comes next so that we do something that people really believe in is going to feel so much better for everybody.
It could be chaos.
It’s chaos now.