Solveig Rennan: Welcome to Under-Told: Verbatim. I’m Solveig Rennan for the Under-Told Stories Project. Normally we report from all over the world for PBS NewsHour. We talk to experts and people making a difference in their communities. In this podcast we revisit those under-told stories to share extended interviews we’ve done with changemakers around the world—but during the COVID-19 pandemic and especially after the killing of George Floyd, we’re turning our focus to our home, the Twin Cities. After police killed George Floyd on May 25, Minneapolis and St Paul saw weeks of protests that spread across the world.
Crowd: Say his name! George floyd!
Solveig Rennan: We’ve been here before, but never has such a clear demand emerged from the demonstrations: defund the police.
Jeremiah Ellison: I think that defunding the police has everything to do with our ability to reimagine different forms of public safety, different ways of emergency response
Solveig Rennan: That was city councilmember Jeremiah Ellison, and he’s not the only elected official trying to build an alternative to a police department. The Minneapolis City council unanimously advanced a proposal at the end of June to create a new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention—their next goal was to amend the city charter, which mandates a police department with a certain number of officers. The council hoped to put that question before voters, but the Minneapolis Charter Commission, court appointed and not elected, had the ultimate say and voted effectively to keep the issue off the November ballot. That decision sat well with mayor Jacob Frey, who’s opposed the defunding campaign
Jacob Frey: We have all this anger and frustration, and sadness, 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
Solveig Rennan: Amid the debate, Minneapolis has seen a spike in violent crime and a record number of complaints against the department since the city erupted in protests after Floyd’s killing.
Lisa Clemons: I don’t care if your feelings are hurt by the way that people are treating you. as long as you’re wearing a blue uniform, you have to do your job.
Solveig Rennan: Throughout the summer, we’ve followed the defund the police debate. To find out what a police-free future might look like, our correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro has talked with city leaders and community members – like Tyrone Hartwell of the Minnesota Freedom Fighters, a private security force of mostly Black men.
Tyrone Hartwell: Sarge was with the fire department. You got Papa Bear, he runs his own business…
Solveig Rennan: Dressed in a t-shirt uniform and armed with assault rifles and handguns, Hartwell and some of the Freedom Fighters told us they answered a call from the local NAACP to protect North Minneapolis during the George Floyd protests.
Tyrone Hartwell: We all come from different walks of life, but we all got one cause and that’s to be in one neighborhood and make sure that it’s safe. It’s peaceful, to kind of connect the communication skills between the police officers and the community to make sure that everybody is is okay.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What brought you guys together? You might have known each other socially but how did you get together and decide on this thing.
Tyrone Hartwell: We honestly didn’t know each other. They had an all call out for anybody all males in the neighborhood.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What’s your mission right now?
Tyrone Hartwell: Our mission is to keep our community safe, again and to bridge that gap between police and community. Right now, we have a big issue with that. Whenever the police arrive, I feel like sometimes they have a gap in the communication, and you know, cultural barriers. They try to treat everybody the same. And I think it’s one of those things where you can’t everybody in every situation is different, you know, saying when dealing with people, so we kind of want to be that bridge, that gap, we’ll say, hey, let us try to get a situation to where you can at least communicate with him.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Do the police not have credibility, talk about the communication gap that you’re trying to fill in
Tyrone Hartwell: At this point, I mean, we could talk about our own kids, let’s say that my own daughter is afraid of police at this point. So that should show you the credibility right there. My daughter is afraid of them. And my daughter is 10 years old. It is one of those things where that’s where the gap that’s where that that fall down happens with the youth. So if the kids that this small, are afraid of the police, what does that tell you about the police?
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Right. Right. And what have the gaps then? Specifically in the way you know, the police have conducted themselves that you’d like to see change what kind of reforms?
Tyrone Hartwell: I don’t want to make it a racial issue, but it is a race issue. The way the police approached me, I’ve been in my own situation, I’ll say, I’m a big black guy. I’m already a threat. So when they approach me if I questioned them, that’s resisting arrest. But it was I was a big white guy and I questioned you, you’ll sit there and discuss with me, they’ll go back and forth with me. But my skin tone make me a threat. And that’s a problem.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What does the MPD think of you? Best you can tell,
Tyrone Hartwell: We have a lot of communications going back and forth with them. Chief Arradondo, we speak with him. So anything that we do, we do communicate with the police, being here today. We communicated with the police. When we go to St. Paul, we communicate with the police. So we have an active relationship with the police department. So it’s no no riffraff, between those two And this is why we say, We’re not trying to replace the police department. Again, let’s say, We’re not trying to replace. We’re just trying to help. We’re trying to be a part of the solution. We’re tired of waking up looking at the news or looking at another Facebook video with another person or my skin tone, shot down, strangled whatever they is the issue because a lack of communication, lack of discipline, a lack of understanding.
Jeremiah Ellison: I would caution us against this concept that the only thing we need is nicer policing.
Solveig Rennan: During the riots and looting earlier this summer, City Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison patrolled North Minneapolis alongside some of the Freedom Fighters. But he parts company with the group when it comes to improving policing or reforming the department, which he wants to abolish
Jeremiah Ellison: Is it preferable if police live in the neighborhoods or the cities that they patrol Sure, does it necessarily prevent? You know, things like police killings from happening. No, it doesn’t. Is it preferable if you have a diverse workforce on your police force? Yeah, sure. But is it But does that mean that a black officer isn’t also capable of committing a violation of someone’s rights, of taking their life? two of the four officers in the George Floyd case are are not white, you know, ones Asian American one is black. And so I think that we also need to, I think challenge this idea that all it all we really need is nicer policing. I don’t think that we have a personnel problem, right. And I think this idea that all we need is nicer policing. It imagines that all we have is a personnel problem. And if we just get the right people, then everything will be fixed. If we just get the right people in charge if we just get the right people on the force. And I don’t think that’s the case. I think that we have a system problem. And I think that good people are going to be capable of committing heinous acts. If we if we keep the system the way it is.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What does defunding mean to you as you try to define it to people?
Jeremiah Ellison: I think that defunding the police has everything to do with our ability to reimagine different forms of public safety, different ways of emergency response. Without that we really don’t have a pathway to defund because we won’t have anything to refund it to. I think that we’re committed to that work. We saw some of that in our budget revision that we had to do with because of Coronavirus, but it offered us an opportunity to make some considerations about this year’s police budget as well. And what we found was that there aren’t a ton of programs ready to go ready to be taken to scale. And so I think that we’ve got to solve that problem first. If we want to be in a serious position to have this conversation moving into into the future.
Jeremiah Ellison: You know, in Minneapolis, the police department is 152 years old. Some police departments are older, some are younger, but in Minneapolis is 152 years old. Not only is the police department 152 years old, but policing as a concept has had a complete monopoly on public safety. And so we’re not going to undo policing’s monopoly on public safety of 152 years, in just a couple of months, right. We’ve got to, we’ve got to build an alternative. I believe that policing, especially given the amount of purview that we’ve put under the banner of policing has been a failure in a lot of ways and I don’t just mean a failure because it has perpetuated the kind of harm that you see in in police killings, and and things that fall well, short of police killings that still constitute harm. But it also fails to keep people safe proactively. And so. So I believe that policing as an institution has failed. But you’re not going to be able to undo policing’s monopoly on public safety. Just in a couple of short months when we’re talking about hundred hundred plus year legacies here.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Can you enumerate maybe a few specific items or approaches that are alternative alternatives to the traditional policing that you’ve, you’ve had in Minneapolis, what you know what items in your mind, show some promise that might be scaled up in time that you’re considering?
Jeremiah Ellison: Right. Well, I think that we’ve got to consider public safety and like, I’d say, three phases. One, we’ve got to allow ourselves to imagine that we have the ability to prevent some crime prevent some violence from happening, right. And so and right now, we don’t do prevention in any kind of real way. We have to have, I think, remedy for people who have been harmed, right, by by crime by violence. And then we have to have, I think, consequences for those who have caused the harm. Right now, we don’t have a three phase approach. We have one phase, we have consequences for those who have caused harm. And if we can’t find them, no consequences, no remedy for the people who have been harmed, and certainly no prevention to make sure that people are safe in the first place. So I think we’ve got to start with prevention. Right now the Office of violence prevention, it’s a relatively young office, we’ve been funding it for a little under two years now. Some of the work that that OVP has done has existed in the city, in various forms kind of spread out. But two years ago, we finally coalesced those things. under one banner within the health department with the Office of violence prevention, and, and they do a number of things. One is they gather intelligence, they find out who are the people who cause violence, right? Because the people who are the perpetual, the perpetrators of violence are often most likely going to be the victims of violence as well. And so, if we can identify those folks, if we can identify who they have conflicts with, then we can predict when a violent incident is going to occur, and hopefully go to interrupt that incident before it occurs. We’ve, it’s been a small program, a staff of four, right five people in the last two years, give or take. And so now, we’re finally in a position where we can take the we can take the Office of violence prevention programs, like GVI is one of their programs. And, and we can, now that it’s grown a little we can beef it up more and make it into a full on violence interrupters program. Right, you see they have this in Philadelphia, they have this in places like Chicago. And I think that if we continue to pump resources into programs like that, and stop making them little tiny departments tucked into other departments, if we allow programs like that to really be taken to scale, I think we’re gonna save a lot of lives on the front end, not just respond to them after the fact. The other is not a program that we have at the city, but it’s another municipal program over at the county that deals with mental health crises. One of the we did an analysis last year of the top five most time consuming calls for a police officer, and one of them was a EDP call, an emotionally disturbed persons call. One of the most time consuming calls not only our police not trained to deal with emotionally disturbed persons, they often escalate the situations and turn them into complete failures. And and so we set police up to fail when we asked them to respond to those calls. The police then in turn, fail when they’re at those calls. And meanwhile, we could have approached we could deploy professionals who know how to handle that situation. If we were willing to say that’s not a police duty, that’s going to be a mental health responders duty.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Talk a little bit about what is now happening or being reported and whether there’s any causality. And that is the spike that Minneapolis, like several cities, is seeing in violent crimes for example in the cities, is that somehow connected to the whole controversy? That, you know, the defunding initiative has caused for whatever reason? I mean, are they related?
Jeremiah Ellison: Sure, I guess to answer that question, you’d have to look at the spike in violence in Ferguson, and say, you know, and see what conversations were they having in Ferguson, after the, the killer killing of Mike Brown? Were people calling for reimagining of public safety where they sang defund the police then? I don’t think that that conversation was necessarily happening. And yet, after a police killing, you saw this spike in violence there. You saw the same thing happened in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. Were people calling for defunding the police, then? No, they weren’t. And yet, after the killing of Freddie Gray, you see the spike in violence happening in a city like Baltimore. in Minneapolis, you know, this is the only city where we’re talking about a real reimagining of public safety in and we’re, you know, putting stuff on the charter, and we’re moving forward in a way that’s calling for not just a reform of the police, but a transformation of public safety writ large. And, and we’re the only city having that, and yet, we’re not the only city seeing this, this spike in violence. We’re seeing it in a lot of major cities across the country. And so if you’re asked, so if the question is, you know, is there any sort of correlation between this call for a better institution of safety and the rise in crime? I just think that there’s no evidence of that.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: People in the community who have said that community hasn’t been adequately consulted on this whole question, and that the council’s moves are undermining the chief of police, who was the first African American, homegrown chief of police. What is your message to those folks?
Jeremiah Ellison: You know, I think I think that we, we cannot, I don’t think that we can afford to take this conversation slowly. And I think that we have to engage everyone, right, we have to be in a position to engage everyone. But when it comes to things like the charter change, when it comes to funding programs, like the Office of violence prevention, and kickstarting a Cure Violence program, to help prevent, you know, or to help get ahead of some of the shootings that we’ve been seeing this summer. Those are things that we can’t necessarily wait for. This conversation is gonna happen slowly. Again, we’re dealing with an institution that’s 152 years old. I think that we can be aggressive about this conversation now. And it’ll still take 152 years before we really perfected a new system of public safety. And so the conversations gonna gonna be slow. I think that in one way or another, every single person in the city of Minneapolis is going to have a say so in what a new form of public safety looks like. And, and, but but I but I do think it’s important that we move quickly, and and that we be responsive. I think that George Floyd didn’t necessarily get to get to have a say so in in, in what kind of public safety response he got. And, and and if we want to be in a position to prevent things like that from happening again, like Jamar Clark Philando Castille wasn’t in Minneapolis but he was certainly in the metro area. And if we Want to be in a position to prevent this from happening into the future? then then then we have to pick a direction. We have to head that way. And if ultimately, if people don’t want to transform public safety, they’ll get to have a say so
Solveig Rennan: Mayor Jacob Frey has a much different idea of the direction Minneapolis should head. He wants reform, not abolition–things like mentoring programs, personnel changes or a different system to terminate problematic officers.
Jacob Frey: So there are two parts to the city council’s proposed charter. The first, which is whether or not we will still have law enforcement is entirely ambiguous. And I believe that when people go to the ballot box to vote on a charter amendment, they should know precisely what they are voting on. The second part to the city council’s proposed amendment is to shift the reporting structure, so that the chief reports not just to me, as is presently the case, but the head of public safety reports to 14 different people, 13 council members and a mayor. That is a massive hit to accountability. And I’ll tell you why. Right now when things go wrong, it’s very clear who to blame, Chief Arradondo and myself. If down the road, there are 14 different people that the head of public safety has to report to, it would just be one big finger pointing contest. That is not a model that other cities use. That is not a model that furthers accountability, and it certainly doesn’t provide clarity of direction to officers.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: There are people who say, you know, there have been attempts there, innumerable attempts to reform this police department. It is run by the union, in the eyes of these folks, and it’s irredeemable, as currently structured. What gives you any any optimism that this time will be different if you don’t completely revamp the system, as many city councilors are proposing
Jacob Frey: Right now We have all this anger and frustration, and sadness, 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. And I do believe that the council’s amendment is very vague and is very ambiguous in many instances. And so it’s our job right now to put out that clear vision as to where we’re going to go, what specifically that we’re going to do and how we’re going to get there. Right now we need specificity, not a lack of clarity.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Do you worry about the optics of all of this, the optics that is to say that present images of chaos, of looting, of unrest that feeds the narrative and makes a case in some minds compelling, off outside intervention or for it?
Jacob Frey: The unrest following the killing of George Floyd has subsided in many ways. Does that mean that the work is done? Absolutely not. We still need to retain peace, we need to keep order and we need to push for deep and structural change. That is the work in the months ahead.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: And it can be done as the city charter is constructed today.
Jacob Frey: It can be done. And there are several positions that need to be changed even at the state level. So right now, when the chief or I terminate or discipline an officer, as much as 50% of the time, that officer gets returned right back to the department from which they came because of an arbitration system. In other words, an arbitrator overturns the decision from the chief and I, sending that individual right back to the department to continue to hurt public trust in our police officers. That provision still needs to change.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: And
Jacob Frey: And if we talk about culture, I mean, I’m I’m a proponent of culture shift, we need a full culture shift in our police department. Culture, to a certain extent is about personnel. It’s about people. It’s having the ability to bring the right officers with the right mentality into the police department. It’s about having the ability to get the wrong officers out of the police department.
Solveig Rennan: The Minnesota legislature did pass a police reform bill with a number of changes aimed at holding the police more accountable. But Mayor Frey thinks the measure falls short on some key issues
Jacob Frey: I do think that the legislation could have and should have gone further. I think that we should be able to terminate officers for egregious misconduct for instances where they’re lying on a formal document, for instances where they use heavy force, and then didn’t get ultimately terminated because of an arbitration, that that’s something that needs to change right now. And there are instances there are instances where serious, awful force was used, where that officer was terminated. And then they were brought right back to the department. The chief and I need the ability to facilitate change. We need the ability to have a full on cultural shift and part of it is having our termination decisions stick. We can do it. I’m optimistic, I believe in our city. And we’re going to do the hard work over the coming months to make the change that we all need.
Solveig Rennan: In some minds that work is even harder now. In recent weeks, the police department has seen a large number of officers depart, more than 20 percent, according to their union. Lisa Clemons left the force several years ago and founded an agency called A MOther’s Love, which provides mentoring, de-escalates conflict and supports families. She says the community feels left out in the debate over policing and public safety. Wearing a mask, she talked to Fred during a food distribution in North Minneapolis
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What does it feel like in in Minneapolis today? Do you? Do you feel concerned about the level of safety since the the tragedy of George Floyd’s killing,
Lisa Clemons: I think its scary. I think the community has been left to fend for themselves. But I think we were left that way when COVID hit. And then once the riot happened after the murder of George Floyd, we were really left to take care of ourselves.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: How so, tell us tell us some more.
Lisa Clemons: I think 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. For those who are engaged in that activity. They fear no one now. They at least feared a little bit of, of justice coming their way. But now they fear no one.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: So you say the criminal elements feel a sense of impunity today? Absolutely. And that’s because of the council’s action,
Lisa Clemons: I think it is because of the council’s action. I think that they believe that the criminal element doesn’t read the paper or watch the news or, you know, have communication with people who are boots on the ground, who know what’s going on, I think that’s something they they’ve mistaken.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: And do you think that the police are culpable as well? I mean, are they? Are they slowing down their response times? And we’ve heard anecdotally that that’s another complication.
Lisa Clemons: I think because I’m so connected. I think what people need to understand is how many bodies are out there. Responding to 911 calls and addressing the shootings and homicides. There’s not enough bodies on the street. At one point there was eight officers for a middle watch shift. You cannot police a entire precinct with eight officers.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: And you lay the blame for a lot of this at the feet of the city council
Lisa Clemons: and Chauvin.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Chauvin
Lisa Clemons: and Officer Chauvin. Absolutely. His actions created a reaction that was incendiary. So both of their actions caught the citizens in the middle.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: So you’re left here with a with an officer corps that is diminishing in size and demoralized.
Lisa Clemons: Exactly. And a city that’s still burning. Our city is still burning. You may not see fire, but Our city is still burning.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: And you fear the spike in crime that has happened, is it much worse than a, crime typically spikes in the summertime. Traditionally, it’s spiking everywhere in the country in cities. Is there’s something special about Minneapolis this summer,
Lisa Clemons: That the crime here isn’t spiking. This is a tsunami that we’re facing here. And it’s different because first we had COVID, where everybody was afraid everybody was shut in, and then everything was shut down. So there was nothing for anybody to do nothing for any body to do, including our youth. And then you open back up a little bit, but now the violence is so bad, that I really fear a lot more people getting killed by citizens who are engaged in, for people who are engaged in this criminal activity. You have to remember we have a city council president who said if you call 911, you’re showing your privilege, making the assumption that every person that was engaged in violence is a black person, or a person of color, or the assumption that everyone who hold owns a home in the city of Minneapolis is white. Neither of those things are true.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What do you say to people who’s in this neighborhood that we’ve talked to who say you know, the response times are atrocious and and we call and they never come
Lisa Clemons: They are
Fred de Sam Lazaro: For a lot of members of the, you know, for a lot of people of color calling the cops has never been, you know, something you do. Because you feel it’ll make you safer necessarily.
Lisa Clemons: I think they have a right to feel that way. I do. I mean, I’ve worn the uniform before. So I do think they have a right to feel that way. I don’t discount any of those feelings. I myself just almost had a car accident where somebody nearly took my car out with me and my two children in it. And I’d sat there for 10 minutes and still no police car. So when I called it was because they’re only because their size is so low. They’re only responding to priority one calls. And if there’s no injury in that traffic accident, then they’re not going to respond in a fast time. But I also know that there’s not enough cops out there, period. But I make no excuses for slow response time. So if cops are not doing their job. They should quit. They should not be in that uniform. I don’t care If you’re mad at the people. I don’t care if your feelings are hurt by the way that people are treating you. as long as you’re wearing a blue uniform, you have to do your job.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: and you fear that some of them are just slowing down on purpose.
Lisa Clemons: I don’t know that I fear that. But if it could be true, I would not discount it.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: You think it’s a plausible?
Lisa Clemons: Oh, absolutely
Fred de Sam Lazaro: possibility?
Lisa Clemons: Absolutely. I think cops would probably feel like I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t. I don’t want to go out there and end up losing my livelihood. Because I have to take some action that nobody’s going to ever believe was the right action? And I think a lot of people forget that.
Solveig Rennan: In August a group of mostly North Minneapolis activists filed a lawsuit against the City–backed by a law center allied with conservative political causes. It claims the council and mayor’s actions have contributed to a rise in violence and that the police department is below staffing levels required by the city charter. How do voters feel? Polling in August show 3 out of 4 Minneapolis residents support moving some policing funds to social services, but only 40 percent approve of reducing the department’s size. We’ll keep up our coverage as the movement continues or changes. Our interviews with Tyrone Hartwell, Jeremiah Ellison, Jacob Frey and Lisa Clemons were originally featured in our story called Minneapolis Debates Defunding Police, which aired on PBS NewsHour on August 5, 2020. To check out the full story, go to undertoldstories-dot-org. This episode was written and hosted by me, Solveig Rennan, and produced by Simeon Lancaster. The interviews were conducted by our director Fred de Sam Lazaro. You can find every Under-Told: Verbatim episode, virtual reality 360 experiences and our entire library of Under-Told news reports from around the world at undertoldstories-dot-org. Under-Told: Verbatim is brought to you by the Under-Told Stories Project based at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. As always, thanks for your support.
Weeks of protest with a clear demand
After police killed George Floyd on May 25, Minneapolis and St. Paul saw weeks of protests that spread across the world. Never before has such a clear demand emerged from the demonstrations: defund the police. The Minneapolis City council unanimously advanced a proposal at the end of June to create a new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention—their next goal was to amend the city charter, which mandates a police department with a certain number of officers. The council hoped to put that question before voters, but the Minneapolis Charter Commission, court appointed and not elected, had the ultimate say and voted effectively to keep the issue off the November ballot. That decision sat well with mayor Jacob Frey, who’s opposed the defunding campaign. Amid the debate, Minneapolis has seen a spike in violent crime and a record number of complaints against the department since the city erupted in protests after Floyd’s killing. Throughout the summer, we’ve followed the defund the police debate. To find out what a police-free future might look like, our correspondent, Fred de Sam Lazaro, has talked with city leaders and community members, like Tyrone Hartwell of the Minnesota Freedom Fighters and Lisa Clemons of A Mother’s Love.