As the Minneapolis City Council took its first steps toward dismantling its police department, and national commentators debated what it would mean to “defund the police,” I thought of two stories I read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week.
The first was about the Third Precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department, which, as you may know, was former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin’s precinct, the one rioters set ablaze after Chauvin killed George Floyd. According to the story, by crime reporter Libor Jany and courts reporter Andy Mannix, the Third had a reputation for brutality. It was not so much an “open secret” as it was a known fact among other cops, defense attorneys, police observers, and members of the communities that the Third is responsible for policing.
The story quoted a public defender who described the footage of Floyd’s killing as “100% consistent with the hours and hours and hours of body camera footage I’ve watched over the years.” A local attorney called the Third “a playground for rogue cops.” The story referred to “a saying often used by fellow cops to describe the style of policing practiced in the Third: There’s the way that the Minneapolis Police Department does things, and then there’s the way they do it ‘in Threes.’”
The second article, also by Jany, was about a former Minneapolis police chief who had asked the Justice Department to conduct a review of her department’s conduct and practices. In its 2014 audit, the Justice Department found that although the Minneapolis Police had taken strides toward reforming their practices, they were still failing to “spot bad officer behavior” early enough to intervene. The Justice Department then suggested that Minneapolis launch a program to track and flag problem cops more rigorously, so that it could intervene before these cops caused problems. The Minneapolis Police agreed and set up an “early intervention program” based on expert advice, research, and best practices in large police departments.
Then nothing happened. The program, Jany wrote, “ran through three police lieutenants in five years, and has yet to hire a civilian supervisor, as planned.” In response to the department’s killing of Floyd, the current Minneapolis Police Department has promised to finally launch the program.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who as Hennepin County’s chief prosecutor routinely failed to prosecute cops, has also asked the Department of Justice to investigate the practices of the Minneapolis Police—even though it already took and completed this assignment a few years ago, making recommendations that were accepted but that made no difference.
So the Minneapolis Police Department will now sign a contract with a private company to track police behavior and learn what beat cops and defense attorneys and civilian review board members already know. They will use analytics and cutting edge science to identify the “problem officers” everyone else on the force is already aware of.
As the current chief of the Minneapolis Police explained in the Star Tribune, the last program failed because “supervisory action regarding problematic officers ‘is very rare and significantly absent’ in large departments.” Perhaps, if supervision is a problem for “large departments,” the solution lies not in the design of the supervision program but in the design of the department.
Everything I’ve read over the last week about what to do about policing, from the conscientious to the glib, I’ve read with those two Star Tribune articles in the back of my mind and with the knowledge that Minneapolis’s city council has already agreed to what we are told is too extreme a demand—disbanding its police force. Even if you believe this particular assembly of politicians in Minneapolis can’t deliver (a perfectly legitimate belief, given the entire history of reform efforts), the fact that it is their stated end goal should shift the conversation from what is politically “possible” in this moment to what is necessary.
Too much of the debate over what to do about policing is abstract. If police abolition represents the radical boundary of our discourse, if “defund the police” sounds baffling to people who are rarely policed and scary to people who believe they depend on police for their safety, it might be easier to move from the general to the specific. What should be done about the Minneapolis Police Department? If you’re scared of what sound like radical demands, or on the fence about a slogan like “defund the police,” I urge you to read both of these articles, and think about “the police,” not in the abstract or even in the personal (who would I call if someone broke into my house?) but in terms of the currently existing institution of the Minneapolis Police Department. Maybe the question “Does Minneapolis need cops?” can be answered after a more urgent question: “Does Minneapolis need the Minneapolis Police Department?”
This is a police department in a very liberal city, run by a black man who once sued the department and who replaced a chief who had, during her own term, already brought in the Justice Department to study its practices. And yet, despite that leadership, it still could not rein in the Third Precinct—or implement a program that could’ve taken Derek Chauvin off the streets. As a result, it has lost its legitimacy as a civic institution and therefore its right to exist. Those demanding activists explain precisely and in great detail how public safety will be maintained after we “abolish police” in general should explain why maintaining the existing Minneapolis Police Department is preferable to disbanding it and building some sort of alternative.
Before telling activists and protesters to abandon radical slogans for more targeted reforms, consider that Minneapolis has already tried a number of reforms—it has reached for nearly every piece of low-hanging fruit. It would be great if police departments could more easily fire bad officers, and other police departments could not hire them. But the Minneapolis Police Department couldn’t even implement a plan to identify problem officers. Any attempt to do so—to identify problem officers and then fire them—would require an entirely different police culture. It would require, in other words, dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department.
Of course, if you come to believe that, because of its unique history and resistance to previous reform efforts, the Minneapolis Police Department has forfeited its right to exist, it is difficult not to apply the same logic to nearly every other urban police department in the nation. Chicago needs public safety; does it need the police department responsible for murdering Laquan McDonald and detaining thousands of people in the Homan Square black site? People who argue that Baltimore needs more and better policing should explain why that policing ought to come from the irredeemable Baltimore Police Department, one of the most fundamentally rotten and corrupt institutions in the country. Public figures have debated what to do about Baltimore’s horrific homicide rates for years. The criminal mob that has been wreaking havoc there, while also not preventing or solving very many of those murders has, I think, lost the right to participate in that debate.
If the reasons to disband these particular urban police departments are all quite similar, maybe the problem with policing in this country is the way that we have built the modern urban police department. Maybe the problem is the way we conceive of policing. Maybe the problem is the police.