CORINNE: Hi. This is Corinne (ph) in my she shed in Raleigh, where I just finished sewing the 1,334th face mask made by our church for the Triangle Community while listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. This show was recorded at...
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
2:06 p.m. on Thursday, June 11.
CORINNE: Things may have changed since then, but I'll still be sewing face masks while listening to NPR.
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KHALID: I'm glad we can provide nice background entertainment for folks as they do that work. Kudos to you. Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I'm covering the presidential campaign.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: And I'm Carrie Johnson. I cover the Justice Department.
KHALID: We have spent a lot of this week talking about police reform at the federal level. But in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by local police officers, the city council has already begun making changes. It has pledged to dismantle the city's police department entirely.
Adrian Florido has been in Minneapolis covering this story for NPR, and he's joining us on the pod now to talk about exactly what that means. Hey, Adrian.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Asma. Hi, Carrie.
KHALID: So, Adrian, we're hearing a lot about ideas at the federal level - you know, some of them conflicting - about how to ensure that police don't use a disproportionate amount of force, especially with black and brown people. And Congress is pledging to reform policing. You know, activists have been talking about defunding police departments. But talk to us about what's happened there in Minneapolis, where the city council has said that they want to dismantle police. What does that mean?
FLORIDO: On Sunday, nine members of the city council showed up at a park at a rally that black activists had organized and basically announced that they wanted to begin the process of dismantling and defunding and disbanding the police and said that they were going to start doing that in the coming weeks and months through a series of policy decisions.
You know, what it means is still unclear because they don't yet have a plan for what would come next if the police department were just to be completely disbanded. But what they said is that, you know, there has been many, many years of failed reforms within the Minneapolis Police Department - efforts at reforms that just haven't amounted to much. And so they said the time was now to do something much bolder, much more radical, which was to begin the process of defunding and ultimately disbanding the police department entirely.
KHALID: You know, Adrian, is this decision really entirely in their hands, or, you know, could the mayor or other people step in and have a say?
FLORIDO: So, you know, importantly, the nine members of the city council who have voiced support for this idea represent a veto-proof majority of the 13-member city council. So they could take very significant decisions on the council toward this goal of defunding and dismantling the police department.
It's more complicated than that, though, because, you know, Minneapolis's city charter requires that the city fund a minimum police force. And so in order to completely end the police department, the city council would have to amend the city charter. That's not something that you can do even with a supermajority of the council. You need a unanimous vote of the city council to do that. Another option if you don't have a unanimous vote of the council is to put an amendment to the city charter to voters.
JOHNSON: Well, there are a lot of steps there, Adrian. It seems like whatever happens next, it's going to take a lot more action by city officials and police unions. So people in the streets now may not be getting action as quickly as they expect.
FLORIDO: That's right.
KHALID: And, Carrie, how does what we are seeing now in Minneapolis compare to reform efforts that we've seen from cities in the past?
JOHNSON: It feels different. You know, after Ferguson, Mo. - after Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, we heard a lot of pushes for body cameras, more training of police on excessive force and implicit bias, and even calls to try to end programs in which the military - U.S. military provides equipment to local police forces. But this call to disband or dismantle the police force entirely, it's not unprecedented, but it's a really big step, one that even some civil rights advocates say they're surprised we got to so quickly.
KHALID: So, Adrian, you know, this is not the first time that Minneapolis has tried to reform its police department. And I think people who are hearing this story of dismantling the police are wondering, like, why did some of these other reforms not work? Or did they work but maybe just, like, not sufficiently in the mind of some folks there? Like, it just wasn't enough.
FLORIDO: Yeah. Yeah, there's a long history here in Minneapolis of attempts to reform the police department because there's been criticism for a long time of sort of racial disparities and use of force. In 2015, a report found that only 21% of conduct complaints lodged against the police department were even investigated. About half of those were dismissed outright. The rest, you know, sort of resulted not in discipline but in coaching - basically, you know, police officers given a little refresher course on department policy.
There have also been a lot of attempts to establish civilian review boards here in Minneapolis, and those have mostly failed largely because critics have said that these review boards just ignore the vast majority of complaints that come in against police departments. And so there's just sort of this long list of reforms that have been attempted over years and really decades that almost everyone agrees have failed, which is why people who say that more reform is what's needed, you know, aren't well-received by activists who say the time is now to do something different.
JOHNSON: People who have been really hungry for reform for 10 years and longer in the civil rights community say that these are problems with systems and that systems and cultures are very difficult to change because people have a lot invested in them - their livelihoods, police unions, mayors and elected officials.
I had a conversation earlier this week with Alec Karakatsanis, who is a civil rights lawyer and works on fines and fees and cash bail issues around the country. And he says almost none of what police do every day is dedicated to violent crime as we would see it, and almost all of their activity disproportionately targets black and brown people. And he thinks that from what he's seen on Capitol Hill and some of the conversation nationally, a lot of the proposals here for change reflect a failure of leadership and imagination. He thinks talking about things like defunding and disbanding is where the culture needs to go and is where real change will take place.
FLORIDO: There's a, you know, city councilman here in Minneapolis who has said, you know, I know that, you know, we could fire every single one of the 1,000 police officers in the Minneapolis Police Department and rehire a thousand people to replace them. I would not be interested in that because it's not about the people. It's about the systems and what they represent and the culture that is ingrained in just the very idea of policing, you know? And he said, I'm not interested in that. We're - we need to come up with something different.
KHALID: All right. Well, we'll have lots more to talk about this after a quick break.
All right. We're back. And you know, as we've been discussing, this effort in Minneapolis doesn't have a lot of precedent, but it does come at a moment when police oversight at the federal level has been receding now for a few years. Carrie, talk to us about that.
JOHNSON: You know, as somebody who covers the Justice Department, I'm used to priorities changing when presidential administrations change. But one of the starkest transitions I felt on the justice beat ever was in terms of civil rights between the Obama administration and the Trump administration.
The new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, came in at the start of the Trump administration and basically viewed law enforcement as partners. He pointed out all the time that something like 85% of the nation's law enforcement officers are state and locals. He didn't want to be overseeing them. He wanted to be walking hand-in-hand with them.
And that's how the Justice Department basically got out of the business of investigating systems of misconduct and wrongdoing in police forces around the country. That's where we are right now where even some Republicans on Capitol Hill are leaving open the possibility that maybe this Justice Department needs to start doing more of that now. But it has been a big change for the last three years or so.
KHALID: And on that point of this sort of, you know, political partisanship nature of this, one of the things that I've noticed in covering Joe Biden's campaign is that he's made a point of saying that in his first 100 days, if elected, he would set up a police oversight body. And I believe, you know, this is a reference to what we saw during the Obama years. But it's clearly a nod to, also, the fact that he feels like the Trump administration has completely let that priority go.
JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, Asma, I view Joe Biden as a complicated figure here, in part because, yes, he was a big part of the Obama administration. And he does believe in civil rights, I think. But he also has been a major partner to police, dating back to the '90s when he was on the Senate Judiciary Committee, ushering through a major crime bill that's received a lot of criticism in recent years.
When I talked with left-leaning police organizations in the Obama administration, their biggest and best partner was always Joe Biden. And they knew when they wanted something, they would go knock on the door of the vice president. So I'm going to be watching that relationship very closely in the course of this campaign.
KHALID: That is a very important point to keep in mind. You know, it is worth noting, as much as we're talking about what's happening at the federal level, that the local level does remain the place where a lot of policing happens. And so, I mean, as much as we've been talking about federal oversight, it still feels like the site where any changes to the system will actually happen are likely to happen with what we're seeing in Minneapolis and possibly other cities. Isn't that right?
JOHNSON: Couldn't agree more. You know, really, what needs to happen here if you want to see real change, experts are telling me, is for the communities to be very involved and very invested because at the heart of this is the idea that police are partners with communities; that police are walking hand-in-hand with their community members; that community members know when they do need the police, the police will be there to help them, not to arrest them, not to abuse them, not to use excessive force on them. And the best oversight that can happen of that relationship is at the local level where Adrian is right now in Minnesota, for instance.
KHALID: And you know, to that point, Adrian, I mean, how are people in Minneapolis reacting to the city council's plan?
FLORIDO: Well, there's a really wide mix of reactions. I mean, you know, I was in that park on Sunday when they announced this plan. And even within this large crowd of people that was supportive of the idea, there was surprise and shock that it was actually something that the council had voiced overwhelming support for. People hadn't really expected this.
And so even among people who support the idea in concept - people were telling me, oh, wow. So what does this mean now? What does this look like? What happens if there are no police, right? And there are people who are sort of willing to sort of walk that path with council members to figure out what that might look like.
But there are also much sort of - sort of much more defined battle lines being drawn. Already, there are people who are saying, hey, this is a horrible idea. Our colleague Leila Fadel texted me as we were speaking just now and said she was at a press conference up in north Minneapolis - a press conference being held by black leaders in those communities who said they're against this idea, that they support sort of massive reforms to the department and that they support the Minneapolis Police Department's police chief, who is African American and who actually sued the police department years ago over claims of racial discrimination within the department, but that they don't support sort of disbanding and defunding.
And so, you know, even though there is a big push by the activists we've seen in the streets over the last couple of weeks to do this, the actual sort of coalescing of support around this among the community at large here locally is going to be much more difficult, much more interesting. And it's going to be really messy, too.
KHALID: All right. Well, there still feels like there's a lot more for us to talk about and a lot more questions, but we are going to leave it there for today.
Adrian, thank you so much for joining us.
FLORIDO: Sure. Thank you.
KHALID: And we'll be back tomorrow in your feeds. Don't forget to let us know what you can't let go of by recording yourself and sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.
JOHNSON: And I'm Carrie Johnson. I cover the Justice Department.
KHALID: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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