Minneapolis city leaders set on transforming public safety lay out the path forward

Two weeks after the death of George Floyd, Minneapolis city council members Steve Fletcher and Phillipe Cunningham gathered with seven of their colleagues in a crowded Powderhorn Park.

The group took the stage and pledged to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department, while standing behind a banner that read "Defund Police."

Their pledge led to a contentious budget battle last week that ultimately ended with millions of dollars of police funding being diverted into mental health response and other intervention strategies.

Sitting six feet apart in the empty city council chamber earlier this week, both Fletcher and Cunningham talked about the city’s recently approved budget, the role of the police chief in their vision for the department and why their ultimate goal does not mean actually defunding police.

"’Defund’ is not the framework the council has ever chosen," Fletcher said, as Cunningham audibly agreed, during a wide-ranging interview with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. "If we’re going to look at how we fund different programs, it would be very hard to do that without taking that money from the Minneapolis Police Department."

To achieve that goal, Fletcher, Cunningham and outgoing Council President Lisa Bender – initially proposed even deeper cuts than what ended up in the 2021 final budget, including eliminating 183 sworn officer positions, despite concerns about how such cuts would impact the already rising crime rates. That move, which ultimately was left off the table, led Mayor Jacob Frey to threaten a veto of the entire budget.

Mayor Frey signs 2021 Minneapolis budget; supports police staffing levels while advancing new community safety initiatives

Bender declined to be interviewed alongside her colleagues, citing scheduling.

Now that their proposals are funded, Fletcher and Cunningham said city staff are starting to implement programs. Non-police staff will now respond to complaints about parking, property damage and homelessness through 311.

The diverted funding will pay for dedicated mental health crisis teams that will respond to non-threatening calls for service without police on scene.

"We expect by late spring, we’ll be doing mental health response to 911 calls with that program," Fletcher said.

Cunningham said programs to prevent and intervene in violent crime that are run through the Office of Violence Prevention will be scaled to reach more areas of the city.

"Folks will be able to see that pretty quickly here the work that has already been underway now for two years," he said. "We really do have to co-create the new system of public safety."

But they believe for that to happen, the Minneapolis Police Department would no longer exist in its current form. Both Fletcher and Cunningham said they still stand by their statements to dismantle the department.

"I think the goal is to transform public safety and I think it remains to be seen whether this department is going to come along with us on that," Fletcher said. "We have not seen an acknowledgment of a problem from the rank and file force and I do have concerns about whether they’re going to block the culture change that the mayor and chief are calling for."

In a lengthy statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, the Police Officer’s Federation of Minneapolis, the union which represents rank-and-file officers, responded to the comments in this interview saying in part, "Councilmember Fletcher’s inflammatory rhetoric placing blame and the impediment to change at the feet of Rank-and-File Officers to impeding change is completely short sighted and irresponsible. Despite this damaging rhetoric, the rank-and-file Officers continue to honorably serve the citizens of this great City of Minneapolis."

When asked what the role of Police Chief Medaria Arradondo would be in this system, both council members argued the chief should be implementing policy, not single-handedly creating it.

"Whoever is running the police department is not the only expert on public safety," Cunningham said.

"The role of the chief is to manage the police department within the framework of the policy guidelines set out by elected leaders," Fletcher added.

Those comments come weeks after Chief Arradondo approached city council members, asking for $500,000 to bring in additional outside agencies to help combat rising crime in the city. Fletcher and Cunningham voted against that proposal, which ultimately passed.

Arradondo declined to offer a response to the council member’s direct comments. A department spokesperson said instead that "the chief will continue to bring forward the needs as they present themselves."

Despite concerns from the mayor, the chief and residents about the budget cuts as violent crime rises in the city, the council members said they are confident the investments will generate positive outcomes for public safety in the city.

"The worst thing that happens is that we’re back to the mayor’s budget," Fletcher said. "We’re back to what would have happened under the mayor’s proposal. So let’s just remember we are adding solutions that are responsive to crime."

"I believe that it’s about producing results," Cunningham added. "Folks are going to have to see really with their own eyes this works. Ultimately, all that everybody wants to have a safer community."