We can’t get comfortable once the election’s done

As a resident of Minneapolis, I look forward to next Wednesday, the day after the votes are counted, the lawn signs come down and the postcards for candidates and charter amendments stop arriving in the mail. As the spouse of a guy running for the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation, I’ll be glad for his return from the campaign trail, eating chili with friends to celebrate his victory or console him in defeat.

Most of all, I look forward to knowing whether we decide to replace the current police department with a new public safety department or continue the system we have.  I doubt that anyone wants the status quo – increased violence in our streets and a police force that’s stretched thin and too often disrespectful and overly aggressive, especially against residents of color.

 I understand the frustration of those who advocate for a new department. After decades of attempted reform, George Floyd’s slow-motion death and the continued killing of young black men at traffic stops demonstrate the violence and racism that remain in the present police system.

Nonetheless, I’ll vote against Amendment 2. It’s simply too vague and the city council too divided for me to feel confident that they’ll be disciplined and hard-headed in developing a better system for keeping all our neighborhoods safe.  Nor do I trust that they’ll engage all the key players – including police.

Over the last year, I’ve read a ton about what changes can bring deep and lasting reform of policing along with improved public safety.  Here are just a few: Changed recruitment and training regimens for cops, along with mindfulness training and mental health interventions; use of social workers and mental-health crisis teams; changed pay, arbitration and pension structures; rewarding cops for developing community relationships instead of making arrests.  I wish that Mayor Frey and the city council had spent more time over the seventeen months exploring these ideas instead of arguing over what “defund the police” means.

Here’s the truth: Whatever we decide on Tuesday, Wednesday is when we begin the hard work of building a safer city and a public safety system that is more respectful, engaged and effective than our current one.

Building that will probably require more money, not less. It will take time to engage key partners, build knowledge and develop a plan, hire and train people, build trust in disparate communities, try and fail and try again.

 In The End of Bias, A Beginning, a deeply researched and important book on implicit bias, Minneapolis journalist Jessica Nordell points out that even with strong support from L.A.’s police chief and community leaders, it took eight years from documenting the “insularity and warrior mentality” and callousness within the LA police department to flower into a police-community partnership that significantly reduced gang violence and improved life in three public housing projects in Watts.

Those of us who live Minneapolis but won’t be drawing up the plans for reform or a new department still have important workto do. Most of all, we can contribute continued attention and a sense of urgency.  

In August 2020, Michael Kleber-Diggs, a St. Paul writer and a friend, wrote an essay that haunts me still.  Kleber-Diggs, who is Black, described how many white friends called in the days after Floyd’s death to check on him.

“I didn’t say what I wanted to say; I held back the full truth…What I wanted to say and didn’t say was this: ‘I’m fine today; the hard part will begin soon. The hard part for me starts when things get comfortable for you again. The hard part begins the day you return to your normal routines.’”

For those of us who are white, in comfortable houses in safe neighborhoods, that’s our challenge: To show the same ardor for building a better public safety system as we’ve shown during the campaign.

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