Election 2021: One More Post on Public Safety (and Question 2 in Minneapolis)

I got an e-mail after my earlier post on public safety from someone who suggested that it would be helpful to make a positive case for what I think it should look like, since one of the objections is the lack of a mapped-out plan. Just to be clear, before I start: I am not an expert on this, I’m not someone who would be called in to help write a plan, and there are a lot of people who are experts who would be involved in writing a plan.

Given that caveat, a couple of thoughts.

Until the 1960s, some cities didn’t have ambulances.

This was one of those fascinating things I learned from Twitter (that someone else learned from a podcast); here’s an article about it. From that article:

Emergency services were not there to provide treatment at the scene or even necessarily on the way to the hospital… they were just about getting you to the hospital as quickly as possible.  It also wasn’t clear whose responsibility it was to rush to the scene of an accident. Oftentimes firefighters were the ones to respond, and they were expected to deal with health treatment themselves. In other areas, the responsibility for transporting patients often fell to local funeral homes. In many major cities, this crucial task fell to another municipal service that probably had even less business responding to medical emergencies: The police.

The police in many cities would literally take people to the hospital in the back of a paddy wagon! In Pittsburgh, the city ambulance service was created by a Black-run jobs training program called Freedom House, in a Black neighborhood, in cooperation with Dr. Peter Safar, an anesthesiologist who went on to basically create the idea of critical-care emergency medicine.

The idea of a city without an ambulance service is literally unthinkable now. But when the Freedom House ambulance service started, the police viewed them as competition:

The police felt like Freedom House had taken their jobs away, but Freedom House believed that the police — with their poor training — were a threat to the patient. Moon says that Freedom House would have a police scanner on to monitor the calls and would try to get to emergency situations before the police did to make sure care was given properly. Sometimes the police would relent, but other times they would threaten the paramedics with arrest unless they backed off.

What don’t we have today, that in twenty years could feel as absurd as not having ambulances? I can tell you that the concept of having mental health specialists respond to people in mental health crisis has been suggested since at least the late 1990s (probably longer, but I specifically remember an incident in the late 90s or early 2000s that set off a “why don’t we deal better with mental health crises” conversation that did not, in fact, result in mental health specialists being available to deal with people having mental health crises.)

Police get called for noise complaints. For conflicts between neighbors. They show up for entirely medical ambulance calls — sometimes even usefully. They get called on kids selling hot dogs. That story had a happy “police help kid get business permit” ending but why are armed officers of the law the people sent in response to a business operating without a permit?

What if, in response to conflicts between neighbors, we could send out a mediator? What if, if you wanted a wellness check for someone you were worried about, the city could send out someone who would check on them, then help connect them with services? What if, when you needed to report a crime for insurance purposes — to file an official statement of “someone broke into my garage and stole my bike” — the person who showed up had a clipboard instead of a gun?

I mean, in the late 1960s, the idea that you might have special people, with their own uniforms and training, just for the part where you drove people to the hospital — that was new. And the police resisted the idea! But putting resources into ambulances and trained paramedics was a transformative shift in public safety.

When all you have is a hammer, and the hammer isn’t fixing the problem, adding more hammers is probably not going to improve anything.

I read this fascinating Mother Jones article this morning. It discusses two incidents where police were called on a person who was sleeping or unconscious in his car, with a gun visible. In both cases, the initial call made was not “this person is a danger,” it was absolutely “I am worried that this person is in danger.” In the 2021 case (which didn’t end in the police shooting the guy! progress!) he’d crashed his car — it looked to the caller like he’d lost consciousness at the wheel.

And yet instead of treating this as a medical emergency, this was treated as a potential threat. Someone in the neighborhood recognized the unconscious man, and managed to reach his mother, who came and was (eventually) granted permission to try to wake him. His mother, in the article, commented, “I just couldn’t believe there were so many police with just one person” — “Three police vehicles blocked in Jones’ car. Five officers were positioned behind one cruiser. Another kept a gun trained on the hatchback from the turret of the BearCat.”

The police response to any situation they’re not sure how to handle is “add more police,” whether that makes any sort of sense or not. This was for one unconscious guy. Who had a gun in his lap that was illegal for him to own, but I don’t think the legality of the gun was a major factor here.

I do actually sympathize with the essential problem here, which was, “we don’t know if he’ll wake up, freak out, and start shooting.” This almost never happens — but there is, in fact, a local case where a police officer responded to a call of someone sleeping in a car and got shot. (In 1994, Ron Ryan Jr. checked on a sleeping man after a neighbor called. Guy Harvey Baker shot him as he walked back to his squad car to run Baker’s ID. Baker fled, then during the manhunt later murdered a second police officer along with his dog. This is a good illustration of why police paranoia about unknown people with guns is not entirely unreasonable.)

But the essential question in this case seems to me not “how do we get police to respond better,” it’s “in a medical emergency where we’re worried about the safety of the EMTs, how can we keep the EMTs safe?” Because this was a medical call. (One of the things I kept thinking about, reading the story, was that the ultimately peaceful — peaceful-ish — resolution was contingent on him waking up and following the instructions of the police. If he’d actually been un-rouseable due to lifethreatening hypoglycemia, or a heart attack, or a drug overdose, he’d have just died in the car while the police yelled at him to wake up.)

This actually seems like a legit use for those robot dogs with the grabber hands — if you can send a robot dog to open up someone’s car and grab the gun, and the guy wakes up and shoots the robot, you’re out a robot. (And let’s face it, if you woke up and saw one of these things climbing into your car, I wouldn’t blame you’d for shooting it.) But I’d much rather equip ambulance crews and mental health responders with robots to secure the scene, as an alternative to police, rather than equipping police with robots.

Policing in the US is a pretty classic example of the “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” problem, and the stories that result range from a comedy of errors to absolutely horrifying. Maybe instead of saying “we need to take these people, the ones we equip with guns, clubs, tasers, pepper spray, and tactical vests, and train them to do things other than use force” we should send different people. People with different equipment and different training.

There’s an awful lot of low-hanging fruit here.

There are so many civic roles that we have handed to the police that could be done a different way or by someone else. This article has a good graphic that shows you the percent of time police officers in Philadelphia spend on various tasks. It also quotes a former police officer:

“When I was an officer, I got calls about dead animals, ungovernable children who refused to go to school, people who hadn’t gotten their welfare checks, adults who hadn’t heard from their elderly relatives, families who needed to be informed of a death, broken-down cars, you name it,” says Seth Stoughton, a legal scholar at the University of South Carolina and former Tallahassee police officer. “Everything that isn’t dealt with by some other institution automatically defaults to the police to take care of.”

Right now, Minneapolis’s charter (which is a lot harder to change than the ordinances) not only specifies a structure for a police department, it requires a minimum of 17 police department employees per 1000 residents. Eliminating that minimum is one of the biggest changes in the public safety charter amendment, and it will allow the city to try shifting funds to have other people handle traffic accidents, property crime, derelict vehicles, truant schoolkids, embezzlement, and so on. If we cut down what we expect police to handle to the violent crimes with a sideline in “showing up for a call only to find out that nothing’s happening” (the biggest box on that chart above! and sadly I see no way around that one) could we have a city with a lot fewer cops? I really think that would be an option.

There are absolutely people with a more radical vision than me.

There are people who say “abolish police” and mean it, and mean that it should happen right now. There are other people who say “abolish police” and mean that as a long-term goal — they view crime as being overwhelmingly caused by societal ills (and certainly there are a lot of fixable contributing factors).

But you don’t have to be on board with abolition to support Question 2 in Minneapolis (the Public Safety charter amendment). All the charter amendment will actually change is the following:

  • It will replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety. Initially, the Department of Public Safety will look and work like the Police Department, but it will be possible to make changes via the ordinances.
  • It will get rid of the minimum number of police per Minneapolis resident, a rule that does not exist in any other city or town in Minnesota.
  • The Department of Public Safety will be overseen the same way as all other city departments, rather than answering solely to the mayor.

The amendment will open the door to further change — but all that future change is contingent on the City Council agreeing that these changes are a good idea. Radical changes will require a majority of City Council reps to buy in, which is part of why the scaremongering from groups like “Heroes PAC” is so patently absurd. The most radical people on the ballot, if you actually look at their plans, are talking about things like a gradual decrease in armed law enforcement while building capacity in other ways.

I feel like the argument we’ve been having for the last year and a half is about whether we need to keep spending all our money on hammers, or if maybe it would be okay to explore the possibility of investing in a screwdriver, a crescent wrench, a pair of pliers, and a tape measure.

I really hope Minneapolis votes Yes on Question 2.

In addition to writing political commentary, I write science fiction and fantasy. My book that came out in April, Chaos on CatNet, takes place in a future Minneapolis (and includes scenes of my imagined future of public safety). It’s a sequel to Catfishing on CatNet and signed copies of both books are usually available from Dreamhaven and from the current mail-order-only incarnation of Uncle Hugo’s.

I do not have a Patreon or Ko-Fi, but you can make a donation to encourage my work! I get a lot of satisfaction watching fundraisers I highlight getting funded. Some that are worth your consideration:

In Minneapolis:

A first-year teacher at Bryn Mawr would like a variety of classroom supplies, including individual dry-erase boards, a big easel, a classroom rug, a selection of books, and some educational games.

A middle school teacher at Andersen would like to provide her students with some manga they’ve requested; they currently don’t have a media center, and students rely on classroom libraries for books.

A second-grade teacher at Folwell would like to provide her students with graphic novels in both Spanish and English. (A large percentage of her students speak Spanish at home.)

And a different kind of school fundraiser (again, in Minneapolis):

Kaytie Kamphoff is a special education resource teacher at Patrick Henry High School and the co-director/producer of Henry Drama Club. (Christopher Michael is her co-director and their full-time theater and dance teacher.) She initially asked for funds on Twitter just so the Henry Drama Club could stage a couple of plays this year. Ms. Kamphoff has now set her sights higher: she’s hoping to raise enough to run a summer theater program for Northside kids, free for participants, paid for the recent grads/Drama Club alums who work. You can donate to her by Venmo or Paypal: Venmo is Henry_DC and PayPal is Kaytie.Kamphoff@gmail.com. Note “Henry Drama Club” in the memo and if Paypal insists you need the last four digits of her phone number, it’s 5548.

Her Twitter thread is solidly worth reading if you’d like some heartwarming stories of the transformational power of theater in the lives of high school students.


Election 2021: Minneapolis Charter Amendments, Question 2 (Public Safety)

The debate over what to do about public safety and policing is far and away the most central question in pretty much every other race this year in Minneapolis, including the Park Board races. But it’s also actually on the ballot and Minneapolis residents will be able to vote Yes or No on the question of whether to create a Department of Public Safety to replace MPD.

Here’s what’s appearing on the ballot — both a question, and an explanation:

CITY QUESTION 2 (Minneapolis)

Department of Public Safety

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions by the Department of Public Safety, with those specific functions to be determined by the Mayor and City Council by ordinance; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?


Explanatory Note:

This amendment would create a Department of Public Safety combining public safety functions through a comprehensive public health approach to be determined by the Mayor and Council. The department would be led by a Commissioner nominated by the Mayor and appointed by the Council. The Police Department, and its chief, would be removed from the City Charter. The Public Safety Department could include police officers, but the minimum funding requirement would be eliminated.

I support this amendment, and would vote yes.

Note: the post below includes embedded videos that show (non-lethal) police violence.

Read More

Mpls Mayoral Race: followup on last post

In a conversation on Facebook, a couple of people piled on Frey a bit. Someone noted that he had taken a $250 donation from the Police Federation a few months back, then defended this with “it wasn’t that big a donation.” Someone else noted that he called himself “the BLM candidate,” adding, “I can honestly say that I never saw his butt at the 4th Precinct or anything else. Dehn was there regularly.”

And this kind of touches on two issues I was thinking about last night but was too busy to pull into focus. (I started that post nine days ago and had it sitting in an open browser window and kept getting bogged down so I really wanted to get it done.)

  1. Frey is really working from an outdated script on police issues. While I would not vote for him for mayor, I feel like browsing Al Flowers’ history with the Minneapolis Police puts a lot of stuff out there pretty clearly. He is a Black man who has been repeatedly beaten up by the cops for no reason. And this isn’t new. This isn’t remotely new. But since 2014, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s increasingly an expectation that people like mayors take action to actually deal with out-of-control, brutal police officers, people who use their badge as a license to abuse and even kill with impunity and to endanger the communities they allegedly serve.But Frey is still talking about how having beat cops will solve this problem. Having Christopher Reiter patrolling your neighborhood every day is not going to help anything. (That link leads to an article with a video of Reiter kicking the man in the face. This guy had been ordered out of his car; he obeyed immediately and got on his hands and knees, like you literally could not ask for someone to be more obviously unresistant and unthreatening. Reiter broke his jaw and left him with a permanent brain injury.)
  2. Frey is also really fond of claiming credit for stuff, and maybe he actually did a lot of stuff, but there are thirteen people on the city council and it’s kind of hard to believe that he was as personally responsible as he claims to be for as many things as he says he led on, piloted, ran, authored, etc. I hesitated to say this last night because it felt unfair; there are people who are just that energetic. But … I mean … there are also a lot of people out there who will unhesitatingly claim sole credit for a team effort. And someone who will claim to be the BLM candidate (as a white guy! in a race that also includes Nekima Levy-Pounds! when you weren’t showing up at the protests!) …hearing that made me think, “maybe I was trying too hard to be fair about the ‘claiming credit for everything good that’s happened since he took office’ stuff.”

Finally, someone e-mailed me an article about the use-of-force policy stuff that Frey was probably talking about. (Noting that it probably wouldn’t have made a difference for Justine Damond.)

I have never been entirely clear about the extent to which the mayor can impose policy on the police department, in part because the Minneapolis Police Department seems to operate so thoroughly without oversight of any kind. But this bit:

[Police Officers Federation President Bob Kroll] also challenged a provision that would hold an officer accountable “if their actions unnecessarily place themselves, the suspect, or the public in a deadly force situation.” That would make it easier to punish officers even if their actions comply with a law allowing the use of deadly force to protect themselves from great bodily harm or death, he said.

That is exactly the sort of policy change we need, whether cops like it or not. If you shoot a person dead because you put yourself in a bad situation where you then felt the need to kill someone to protect yourself? Yeah. You should be fucking held accountable. I’m sorry that it offends you that the people you supposedly are here to protect want you to actually prioritize not killing people as you do your job?

(And not firing at moving cars ought to be standard policy. You will miss and your bullet will probably hit someone else, so yeah, just get the hell out of the way. I had a friend years ago who watched a security guard fire his gun at a car that was backing out at about 5 mph as the guard tried to block the parking space to keep a shoplifter from getting away. It was in the parking lot of the Lake Street Cub Foods, which is in the same plaza as the Lake Street Target — this is a parking lot that is routinely full of people, day and night, and a bullet that misses its target could hit any number of random people, some of them children. I was so incensed I got in touch with my City Council rep and demanded an investigation. The guard claimed that they were “coming at him and trying to hit him” and as far as I know, absolutely nothing came of this.)

I also heard a bunch of complaints about my comparison between upzoning and deregulation. And, fine. Upzoning isn’t removing zoning, it’s just changing the zoning. But fundamentally, someone found a fancy-pants real estate term to avoid pointing out that the complaint here is that there are a bunch of regulations put into place by well-meaning people that are restrictive, annoying, and having results you don’t like, and you are hoping that removing some of these restrictions will result in market-based solutions to things that everyone agrees are a problem (like “not enough affordable housing.”)

I just find that funny! I mean, on a local level, there are plenty of places where the conservative/liberal divide starts to fall apart. Almost everyone agrees that Minneapolis has a lot of pointless and annoying regulations that are not effectively accomplishing any useful goal; that’s not a Republican stance, that’s the stance of anyone who’s ever found out they were supposed to have their dishwasher installation officially inspected by someone from the city. (To name one minor example.) I am in favor of regulations (including zoning) that accomplish the goals I think are a good idea, and we can join hands across the partisan aisle (although in Minneapolis, the partisan divide is Democrat vs. Green) and remove the regulations that discriminate against the already marginalized (and also the regulations that do literally nothing other than annoy everyone and possibly provide full employment for dishwasher inspectors.)

Finally, I got an e-mail from a friend about this “naturally-occurring affordable housing”:

I’m kind of stuck on the notion of “naturally occurring affordable housing,” as if this is some kind of natural resource that just sprouts out of the ground or something. Do you know if that’s, in fact, code for “older housing stock that is cheaper because of smaller square footage”?

I’m pretty sure that’s an example of what they mean. That in general, it’s housing that’s cheap, not because it’s subsidized or was built as part of a planned affordable housing development, but because it’s just not all that desirable. It’s old, dumpy, small, run down, not terribly private, ugly, in someone’s finished basement to which they added egress windows… anything like that.

I mean, I’m glad we’re talking about this. I’ve lost track of the number of newspaper articles I’ve seen over the years, celebrating the fact that we’re tearing down a “problem property” or unsightly 70s-era apartment complex, glossing completely over the fact that these apartments were actually affordable and are being replaced by trendy condos for the affluent. (There’s usually a single resident who gets quoted saying “I don’t know where I’m going to go,” then back to the “but neighbors said they won’t miss the peeling paint,” etc.)