Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Abolish the MPD Poll is Full of Terrible Ideas

Post by Jeff Skrenes, photo is from my front porch.

This post has been edited from its initial publication.  A list of candidates who voted "yes," "yes then no" or "did not respond" has been added, those candidates have been added to the "labels" section, and language was adjusted at the hyperlink to better reflect a narrative flow.

Recently a group called Pollen put out a survey and candidate questionnaire for the upcoming Minneapolis municipal elections.  The questions are pretty standard fare, if a bit left-leaning even for Minneapolis, with two notable exceptions.  "Do you believe we could ever have a city without police?" and the follow-up to that, "What would you do, as an elected official, to bring us closer to police abolition?"  What is exceptional, and not in a good way, is that two DFL-endorsed incumbents and two of the leading mayoral candidates answered the first question in a way that at a different time or place would be considered political suicide.

"Yes."  (With a caveat:  Mayoral candidate Jacob Frey initially answered "yes," and has now retracted that.  His answers now state "no," with an explanation that the initial questions differed from those on the submission form.)

The other candidates that answered yes, as of this posting are:  Ray Dehn (mayor), Ginger Jentzen (Ward 3), Phillipe Cunningham (Ward 4), Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5), Janne Flisrand (Ward 7), Alondra Cano (Ward 9 incumbent), Lisa Bender (Ward 10 incumbent), and Jeremy Schroeder (Ward 11).

Mohamud Noor (Ward 6) answered the follow-up question about what would be done to abolish the police department, but did not answer the initial yes/no question.

There is a guy running for mayor under the political banner "Rainbows Butterflies Unicorns" and EVEN HE said abolishing the police department is unworkable.

Whether this is an indictment of how much work must be done to reform many aspects of our police force, or it's demonstrative of how far to the left at least some are trying to take our city, this question is not normal or healthy.

I suppose reasonable people - or maybe we don't see each other as reasonable right now - may disagree on the value judgment above, but let's not sugarcoat these two questions.  In many a Facebook comment thread I've seen or participated in, defenders of posing such queries state that the vision is merely aspirational, and asks candidates to envision a city where police are not necessary because everything else is so great.

No.  That is not what the questionnaire is getting at.  One of its authors, Ashley Fairbanks, is quoted in the Star Tribune as stating that the police force is so rooted in white supremacy that it is irredeemable.  Whether that's true or not isn't my immediate point, but rather we need to acknowledge that the people behind this question are very much in favor of dissolving the police force.  Not radically reforming it, but "abolition."  The very next question asks for specific actions that would bring us there.  That should make it crystal clear that the questionnaire is not leading candidates or voters to sing John Lennon's "Imagine" while casting ballots in hopes of a world with no religion, wars, or greed.  The survey and its authors unapologetically advocate for the abolition of a police department, and anyone who answered yes is tacitly supporting that view.

There are more than a few other problems here...

...Let's start though, with a few points that many on the far left (or maybe not so far; we'll see in November) and I would agree on.  One.  The fact that the MPD continues to allow an officer I would consider an avowed racist, Bob Kroll, to serve as the head of their union is telling that they are willing to put up with - at least - a widespread public perception of racism, if not actual racist elements within their ranks.  Two.  Racial disparities in how people are treated from the point of initial interaction with the police all the way through the court and prison system are real and need to be addressed.  Three. police need to do a better job of de-escalation.  Four.  If, through either socioeconomic improvements or other community policing efforts, we can arrive at a place where police are called upon with ever-decreasing frequency, that would be just great.  Five.  The ability for a police officer to get acquitted just by saying they fired a gun because they were afraid for their lives is a fundamental flaw that needs to be remedied through state or federal law or perhaps even Supreme Court verdicts.  And six.  The increased militarization of police departments is pretty damn scary and needs to be reversed.

Which is to say you're more likely to see me marching at the next rally - let's hope there isn't one - against an unjust police action or verdict than you ever will to see me post "blue lives matter" on Facebook.

In any case, let's proceed to some basic assumptions.  First, we live in an imperfect world and that won't change.  Second, as much as we want to improve our overall conditions, people will always be willing and able to do harm to each other and to themselves.  And third, our society needs some form of emergency response system to assist when there are medical emergencies, car accidents, fires or other hazards, and yes, when someone is intent on causing great harm to themselves or others.  That last section is where some form of a police department has to be part of our society.  And at least some segment of that response needs to have both the authority and capability to use force, even deadly force, when needed.  That arm of emergency response needs to have the capability to use force, the wisdom to know when not to, and a means of accountability when they fail those standards.

I would hope that through improving education, job opportunities, housing, and physical/mental health services, we could greatly reduce the times that the police would be needed at all.  And through extensive reforms and training, we would eliminate both racially disparate treatment and the undue use of lethal force.  But to think that we can arrive at a point where the police department can or should be abolished is a fool's errand.

Ironically, such a move would also have great potential to make public safety even more inequitable than it is now.  A Minneapolis without a police department wouldn't mean no police or law enforcement at all.  No; it would mean that public safety would be charged to several other bodies.  We'd have some sort of neighborhood patrol interveners (which is a compelling idea to explore side-by-side with police reforms), private security firms, increased concealed-carry permits, and police work done by county and state troopers.  In that free-for-all, which communities are going to get better safety?  Because I bet Kenwood and Linden Hills could afford a whole lot better private security than the McKinley or Hawthorne communities.  And if you have a grievance with law enforcement, who would you rather deal with, Rondo or Stanek?  To remove personalities from that, which avenue gives you as a citizen of Minneapolis more power to interact with law enforcement:  a mayor/city council/civilian review body or Hennepin County commissioners and the BCA?

On a personal level, not too long ago I was walking my dog and another dog came running to the edge of the fenced-in yard to bark at us.  The owner came out and even though my dog was not barking at all, accused me of "antagonizing" his dog.  And while I was well past his property at that point, he came at me and (remember, this really happened) pulled a sword out of his cane and began threatening to cut up my dog and me.  Now I don't believe I'd ever own a gun, but if there were no police department then I guarantee I'd be packing a legally permitted pistol.  And if I had no police to call upon when someone tried to go all "Kingsman's Secret Service" on me, I do believe I would have fired to protect myself.

Anyone advocating for the abolition of a police department, I want to see you rolling with KG Wilson or Mad Dads the next time there's a shooting.  Hell, I want to see you on the 5 or 19 bus lines with some red Guardian Angel hats on, intervening when you see shit about to go down.  I want to know what you're doing to keep wannabe gangsters from thinking they're king shit of turd mountain because they shoot at each other over who gets to hang out at Folwell Park or North Commons.  I want to know if you think you're bulletproof the next time you're at the Burger King drive-thru at Broadway and Bryant and two cliques start shooting at each other over an argument about a girl.  Because if stopping some of those things isn't a part of your daily life while you want to abolish instead of reform the police force, then you are merely spouting off liberal platitudes and utopian pablum from the safety of your computer while ensconced in a neighborhood where you don't have to worry that these things will affect you directly.

(I realize there are a whole lot of people right here in my neighborhood that have a very different experience with the MPD due to the color of their skin; again, we're talking about whether that set of problems can be reformed without abolition.)

And let's talk about some of the things that the MPD *has* accomplished.  Remember when the intersection of 31st and 6th in the Hawthorne EcoVillage was so bad nobody could even come to a complete stop, because doing so was a signal to the drug dealers and prostitutes that you were prepared to engage in a transaction with them?  People in that area were being assaulted and threatened, they had their homes broken into and their cars set on fire because they stood up to the rampant crime.  And through a great deal of investment from other partners, the area is filled with new home owners today.  Further, the home ownership rate for minorities in that development far exceeds the persistent statewide disparities Minnesota frequently sees.  And that rapid success - or any measurable progress at all - would not have been possible without a tremendous level of support from our police force.

I even use "force" sparingly here.  It wasn't force that gave a burglarized resident a new TV.  It wasn't force that brought a legion of MPD and MFD volunteers to repave driveways, build fences, and help with other rehab projects.  It wasn't force that sent a message loud and clear to the upstanding residents of Hawthorne that they were cared for and would get the help they needed to set their neighborhood right.

Back to the survey and responses because I am not done with everything wrong about those yet either.

These questions matter.  They matter because of how they frame what is a reasonable element of our dialogue when we choose our leaders and help set the course for public policy.  As a parallel, I've been working tirelessly for years on reducing demolitions and increasing rehab of houses in north Minneapolis.  And at a recent Ward 5 candidate forum on housing, all the questions that were asked by the moderator or audience about this issue were framed from the value statement that we want more rehab and less demolition.  (Full disclosure, I did not submit or ask any questions at that forum.)  What that told me was that I and many others had successfully reframed the issue.  Now every candidate running knows that if they win, they will be expected to work towards that goal, because nobody was asking for more demolitions.

So when a group pushes the extreme idea of police abolition as part of their questionnaire platform, and that notion is not immediately called out as unworkable, unrealistic, out of touch, and just plain wrong, questions like that become normalized.  Candidates start to gravitate towards answers that placate those posing the questions, and over time, policy gets enacted because the dialogue itself has shifted.  Now, if you're in favor of police abolition, then this is a good thing and may be a long-term goal to shift what is acceptable public discourse.  Let's not lose sight of that.

Finally, read some of the answers that both "yes" and "no" respondents gave to the question about what they would do to abolish the police force.  Virtually no one had any answers that were specific, actionable items that would result in a police department no longer existing.  That should tell you a lot about how candidates chose to answer.  To me, it says that anyone who initially or eventually answered "no" was giving an honest answer to a potentially hostile audience.  Anyone who answered "yes" and gave specifics on how to abolish the police is foolish.  Anyone who answered "yes" and then gave typical left-wing talking points is pandering.

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