S1: Steve Fletcher is a city councilman in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He represents an area that’s been pretty protected from the riots and protests in the wake of George Floyds death. It’s near the university filled with coffee shops and students. The mayor lives there. But Steve knew something was changing in his ward when he started getting these phone calls in the last couple of weeks. They were from constituents who were worried, pleading for help and unable to reach the authorities.
S2: And there were several nights that I stayed up all night because people couldn’t get through to nine 11 even.
S3: And they called you sure about what?
S2: There’s, you know, two sketchy guys with a vehicle that doesn’t have license plates driving up and down my street. Who do I report it to? How do I get information out? And then like, we had people in our city trying to harm us who were drawn by the news and by the protests. And people were trying to report that it was terrifying. I mean, it was it was really scary. And I was passing information through to anybody I could get on the phone at the mayor’s office or the governor’s office of the National Guard, like wherever we could sort of find ways to backchannel information.
S1: If the nine 11 system was overwhelmed, Steve got elected back in 2017 after a career in nonprofits and the arts, and 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.
S2: And to be clear, I wasn’t even the council member who was the most. I mean, I was I was operating from my apartment. My Northside colleagues were out organizing neighborhood patrols in violation of curfew because they were pretty convinced that nobody was coming to help the north side.
S4: City, the whole city to band, in spite of the fact that they have an 800 officer police force.
S2: I mean, people were not getting the help that they needed for a while. And I think once that fell apart, people are willing to say, oh, was this really the system we needed? I mean, I think that that that was an experience that changed a lot of people’s views of our current public safety infrastructure.
S5: And so people were jolted into action, I think, and jolted into being willing to consider drastic change and to prevent further damage to our city.
S1: Steve Fletcher was certainly jolted into action this week. He and a veto proof majority of the city council pledged to dismantle the Minneapolis police department completely. Today on the show, how council members like Steve reached this point and what Steve thinks disbanding the force will even look like.
S4: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.
S1: Steve Fletcher has been trying to figure out how to reform the police ever since he landed on the city council. But until now, the most he’s ever tried to do is slow the growth of police spending. And there’s a reason for that. Doing anything else was pretty much political suicide. Like, here’s an example. Back in 2013, Stevens and colleagues voted to take about a million dollars out of the police budget. They wanted to put it towards public safety programs. It sounds like a lot, but police were already slated to get 185 million dollars. Even with the money lopped off the top, the overall police budget was growing year over year. The pushback to this move was swift. Steve got calls from the usual law and order types he was expecting, but then he got other calls, calls that were more troubling to him.
S2: We saw a lot of businesses being told by officers. Well, we’d love to help you with that. But our hands are tied by the council.
S3: Talk to your council member where these people who are reporting crimes. Yes.
S2: Yes. So, you know, businesses experiencing shoplifting or other kinds of incidents. Yeah. They would come and say, gosh, we would have loved to help you. We asked for money in the budget, but the council member did give it to us. And we just don’t have enough people to respond to it quickly enough to address this issue.
S3: I just think back then your proposal was to do something so small and now you and this majority of council members has proposed something so much bigger. I just I can’t imagine what you’re thinking about the work ahead.
S2: It feels really daunting. It also, I think, feels more honest. I’ve become convinced over the last two years that these reform efforts are not working. And I kind of know that they’re not right. And we can pass a new policy that we know they’re not going to follow. And we could put that on our, you know, campaign lit pieces. Look, I did some police reform and nothing gets better. And I think that’s probably politically what happens around the country most of the time. But I just think we have to do better for our community than that. And frankly, if they’re 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.
S3: Were you at the protest this weekend where the mayor, Jacob Frys, spoke? I was not at that protest. You must have been following it, though. I did follow it. Can you describe a little bit what happened there for people who who may not know?
S2: Sure. So the community was protesting in my ward in northeast Minneapolis, which has not been the epicenter of protests typically.
S5: And they somewhat strategically brought their march to the block. But the mayor lives on. And the mayor came out to talk to them. They put him on the spot, right? Yes. You know, you said, do you support defunding the police, yes or no? So yes or no question for them. And I mean, there’s thousands of people. And he said, no, he doesn’t support defunding the police. And, you know, I think he tried to give some nuance after that. He certainly is still of a mind that he wants to try to reform this department. And they fairly unceremoniously asked him to leave.
S3: Yeah, there is this video circulating of what people were calling a walk of shame and that and the choice was so stark, it was put down very starkly where it was an activist saying there’s an election coming up. And if you say no to this question about defunding the police, all of us, we’re not going to vote for you. And he’s sort of very quietly says, you know, I don’t support this. It was it was dramatic. And then the next day, you had a very different rally. Can you talk about that?
S2: 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 which kind of means that what the mayor said doesn’t really matter. That was, you know, I think part of the power of signaling that that we’re signaling to everybody is that this is something that’s important and that the city is moving on even if the mirror can’t align himself with it.
S3: I wonder what kind of constituent reaction you’ve got you’ve gotten over the last couple of days. You’ve alluded to folks who can be activated in your ward to call and express their dismay. Who are you hearing from?
S2: So I’m not hearing from those folks yet. I assume that I will. The overwhelming message that I’ve gotten from constituents is support. But I think it’s worth talking about people’s fear because so many people have equated police with safety for so long. Right. That’s what we were all raised to think. One of the things that I’ve been challenging everybody to do is to think about your last interaction with the police and think about whether it aligns with that equation of police equals safety. And 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. Well, yeah. I called the police because somebody broke into my house and they came and acted like I was inconveniencing them. And they kind of wrote a report and because I needed that for insurance, but they certainly weren’t gonna follow up and actually do anything about it. And I never heard if they caught the guy and I never heard if they recovered anything. I mean, that’s probably the more common story. So we’ve had a department that, you know, is just not providing good service. I mean, just at a basic just how is our city working? Right. Like, we have other departments that really strive to have very high satisfaction ratings from our residents. And that’s never been a goal of MPD.
S3: Yeah, I mean, 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 then there’s this other issue, which is you’ve just created a force of, I think you said about a thousand people who may feel like dead men walking.
S2: That’s right. And I think that second issue is something that, you know, 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. We’re hearing us talk about them this way. But we had to just ultimately decide that we couldn’t keep worrying about that.
S3: Yeah, I mean, I guess the question is, is whether this action breaks it even further because, you know, you mentioned officers saying, well, we can’t help you when you were just trying to slice a little bit off the top of the budget. And, you know, it’s not hard to imagine officers just not responding now and saying, well, why would we we’re not going to have a job in a year.
S2: We don’t have to imagine that it’s happening.
S3: Something that stood out to me about Minneapolis is how hard you have tried over the years to sort of work with the police force and and solve problems gradually. You know, right now you have a black police chief who took a knee when George Floyd’s hearse passed him by.
S1: And I wonder if you see a place for officers like that in whatever the future is here for sure.
S2: I think there is. First of all, a lot of community trust in Chief Redondo. And I think that if anybody could have made culture change work, it would have been she felt as though he is someone who knows and loves Minneapolis and who I think really aligns with a lot of our core values are on racial justice and has a vision. We saw that vision resisted and rejected at every turn by the department. So I don’t think that we’re going to have the same kind of guns and bad first kind of force that people think of policing as. I think we’re really going to be looking for social workers and psychologists and people who have a lot of other skills. And so as we figure out what we need, I think we’re going to recruit for that. And I certainly think that there are people on the force who have good hearts and are in a broken system and may apply for and find a role in the new vision for where we’re going.
S3: Do you think about what you call it, like you call the work that men and women will be doing in terms of public safety? Do you want to call it policing?
S2: An awful lot of it? No, we are really trying to undo the notion that policing is what’s needed. And there will be an aspect of that, that it would be close enough to policing, that it would be a semantic game to say, oh, it’s not policing. Right, because there are so many guns on the street that we can’t have no force to respond to that. Right. We have to have some way when we hear about a dangerous call to respond appropriately. But the vast majority of calls that come into number one would be better responded to by conflict resolution specialists, by outreach specialists who could connect people services, by psychologists, social workers. And I think we need to get much more sophisticated about sending the right response to the right problem so that we can actually be in a Problem-Solving mode instead of just checking the box on having done a response.
S3: You mentioned the police chief meeting resistance from inside the force. And I’m wondering where you would point fingers at this point in terms of who is resisting the kind of work that you think is so essential here. You know, I found this story that the chief actually tried to fire a cop for beating someone while they were in handcuffs. But the union chief got that cop their job back.
S2: That’s correct. So imagine telling that officer who you’ve tried to fire for excessive force and they’ve been returned to the force and using seniority rules that can kind of take their assignment. And they’re out on the street where they want to be. And you tell them, we want you to take this implicit bias training and really take this seriously. This is important. How much authority do you think you have over that officer to drive them towards culture change as a leader after you’ve tried to fire them and they’ve been returned? It’s an impossible situation for anybody. And that’s a part of how we’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve come to this is exactly that. Is that even firing someone for excessive force that’s on video is impossible right now.
S3: I found this opinion piece that you wrote last year about it was in response to a poll that the paper had run where they said, listen, people want more police officers on the streets and, you know, don’t listen to folks who are in an activist minority saying we need to reduce policing. And you are strongly rejecting that. But also saying that there was this other problem, which I thought was so interesting, which is that the force was having trouble keeping police officers on the job, which really did make it sound like there was a bigger problem at work.
S2: You know, there are a lot of bigger problems. And I think one of the things that I frankly feel some remorse about and I think have some making it right to do, is that I you know, I both was critical of the department, but I was working in a reformed frame. And when you work in a reform frame, I take it very seriously that I, as an elected official who is funding a police department, needs to support that police department and try to help it be better. I mean, I’m actually someone who went to the most of the council members of the like promotion ceremony is and awards dinners. And I tried to really understand the culture and be there to celebrate successes and try to try to understand what what a reform agenda. And how we could get there. So I I spent some time adopting a logic in order to try to work within it.
S3: Yeah, because you were advocating. You were saying. Yeah, we do need more police. We need more people on the street.
S2: What I was actually. And this is where this is where it sounds. I mean, it sounds a week. And I just I kind of regret I don’t love looking back at the last year and some of my public statements because I was trying to work within that system and finding it quite frustrating, but also, I don’t know, doing what I thought was responsible.
S3: But you regret trying to fix it?
S2: I mean, I was tinkering around the edges and it’s just so clear that that was never going to work in retrospect. Right.
S3: You sound relieved.
S2: You know, there is there’s a lot of moral clarity in naming the real problem that’s actually bothering people in getting down to the real values question of what makes you feel safe instead of like maybe we can fix this broken system. I am relieved. I don’t think we can fix it. And I think finally stepping up and letting community lead what comes next so that we do something that people really believe in is going to feel so much better for everybody.
S3: It could be chaos. It’s chaos. Now, do you have a message for your mayor, Jacob Cry?
S2: I want to thank Jerry. You know, I don’t want to communicate with him through media. I’ve ever seen him do that with the council a little bit in the last couple of days, and I haven’t appreciated it. So I’m like, I’m going to pass on that. I got his phone number and he’s got mine. And I hope that we can work together.
S6: Steve Fletcher, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Steve Fletcher has served on the Minneapolis City Council since 2013. On Sunday, he stood with eight of his council colleagues to announce their intention to disband the Minneapolis Police Department. And that’s the show. What next is pretty straight. Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Daniel Hewett. We get help everyday from Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.