Will Minneapolis alternative policing pilots become permanent?

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Minneapolis has been pushing alternative policing strategies it is testing in response to residents’ requests for increased crime prevention and police safety.

Brian Smith


Brian Smith, Director of the Office of Performance and Innovation in the City’s “Reimagining public Safety” initiative, stated that there are many responses that need police.



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Posted on YouTube. “But there are tons of responses that don’t require an officer to show up.”


span style=”font weight: 400 ;”>” We want to ensure that whatever response people get does not create more harm, but that it puts the public at ease so they feel they can trust,” Smith says in the video.


MinnPost reviewed City Council presentations, and interviewed Smith, Mayor Jacob Frey, and other city officials to find out how pilot projects are progressing. We also asked activists from both sides of the failed Minneapolis replacement ballot measure, including a former mayor candidate and a former mayoral candidate, how they see the city’s efforts so far.


Everyone expressed optimism that the city was giving unarmed response pilots a chance. However, there were concerns about whether the city would continue to invest in unarmed emergency response programs over the long-term.

The origins and evolution of unarmed response


The city was already experimenting with unarmed public safety officers, even as the political fight over Minneapolis Police Department’s existence grew in intensity last year.


After the vote to eliminate MPD failed, but with more than 40,000 votes supporting a new public safety agency, city officials assembled all unarmed pilots in one package. This allowed them all to be evaluated together.


Many of the activists behind the charter amendment vote to disband the Minneapolis Police Department pointed out that they had tried years ago to shift some responsibilities from armed officers.

Sheila Nezhad


Reclaim the Block activists and Sheila Nezhad, a former mayoral candidate, were slightly miffed at the lack of credit they received for their ideas. They wondered if investments in unarmed response would last. It remains to be seen.


However, this spring, the Minneapolis City Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee was given by city staff.



Update



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The 2021 budget span styling=”font-weight 400 ;”>, about $3 million was allocated for unarmed proposals being made by the Office of Performance and Innovation and Regulatory Services Department. Behavioral Crisis Response, which dispatches unarmed agents to respond to certain mental health emergencies, was one of the programs that was funded.


Frey recently proposed a biennial budget for 2023-2024. He recommends that the Behavioral Crisis Response Program be expanded with an allocation of $1.45 Million in 2023 and $2.9 Million in 2024.


These numbers are to be viewed in context. The police department’s annual budget was $196 Million. Similar amounts would be allocated under Frey’s proposal for 2023-2024.

Nonemergency unarmed response pilots


There were two types of unarmed response pilots: emergency response and nonemergency.


Report-only calls are those that require a report, such as when someone calls to report a theft or for an insurance report.


This started in June 2021 when 911 began transferring parking complaints to 311, which handles all calls from residents. Over 4,000 calls have been transferred to 311, representing thousands of calls.


Staff at the city say that they expect such calls will continue to rise as more residents are aware of their options. A third option, which allows you to request a police report online, was also available. It has been growing in popularity, Rebecca Sandell, interim operations manager for 311 told members of the council’s Public Health and Safety Committee.


She said that this trend is consistent with community engagement research by the [Office of Performance and Innovation] for 2020, which showed a preference to have more online options for filing 311 complaints.


In October 2021, the city launched an overnight parking control pilot. This pilot provided unarmed assistance for parking and traffic problems between 11 p.m. and 7:30 a.m.


Ahmed Adow, traffic control director, stated that although traffic control agents are available 24/7, they have responded to late-night call to almost 40% of the city’s neighborhoods. He believes that this rate will increase as more people become aware of the service.


Linea Palmisano, Ward 13 City Council Member, asked how long it would take city staff to collect data before drawing conclusions about the pilot traffic control system. Saray Garnett Hochuli, director of Regulatory Services, said that staffers require a year for pilot testing. This means that it will not be until October before any decisions regarding unarmed overnight traffic control are made.

Council member Linea Palmisano


Gina Obiri (a program manager at the Office of Performance and Innovation) stated that the city is looking into “embedding mental health professionals with 911.” She indicated that there are many ways this could happen.


A mental health staffer could help residents call 911 if they have an urgent issue that does not require an agent to respond in person. Obiri stated that this would avoid the need to send someone out for an in-person response. However, a person with more specific mental health training could give resources over the phone.


Obiri stated that Behavioral Crisis Response staff could be available on the 911 floor to help distressed callers. This would allow officers and 911 to take care of more urgent calls. Officers could then return to the phone and the mental health dispatcher would start the paperwork.

Gina Obiri


Obiri stated that mental health workers who work with 911 would, in any case, defer to dispatchers. She said that mental health professionals are “the experts in their field,” and that any addition to the department would “make certain” that changes made by them to the department will be “enjoyable for 911 dispatchers.”

Emergency unarmed response pilots


These emergency pilots deal with mental health issues. One pilot is responsible for handling mental health calls and the other for providing the service.


Obiri stated that the pilots are designed to give community members the best support possible when they call for emergency services in a mental crisis.


Mental health training is being provided for dispatchers of 911 and mental health professionals are being hired. An unarmed Behavioral Crisis Response agent is dispatched to any mental health emergency that does not pose a risk immediately.


Behavioral Crisis Response is available for calls that are not medical emergencies, weapons involved or violence. This can also include severe alcoholism.


911 is the number for Behavioral Crisis Response agents. Canopy Mental Health & Consulting has staffed the new first responder division. It is open 24 hours a days, Monday through Friday. There are two teams per shift.

Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah


Robin Wonsley, Ward 2 City Council member, stated during the spring meeting that she is interested to learn what it takes to make the service 24 hours a day. She recalled a time when she called 911 to report a mental illness in April.


Wonsley stated that Wonsley had spoken with a friend who was in a mental crisis and that he was 400 ;”>”. “There was racial trauma and, I’m gonna not front, there was a lot of anxiety for me having called 911 knowing that an armed officer would show up and that things could turn out differently. The 911 dispatcher’s response to me was: “Can you wait until tomorrow span>


Taylor Crouch-Dodson is another program manager at the Office of Performance and Innovation. She stated that plans are in place to make the pilot mental health response service nonstop. Smith, director of the Office of Performance and Innovation, stated that the main obstacle to the launch of a nonstop service is the difficulty in finding qualified people to handle mental health calls.


Smith and his staff also identified the need to have more vans to transport Behavioral Crisis Response staff.


Between December 12, 2021 and March 31, 2022, Behavioral crisis response agents responded to around 100 calls per week. They served every precinct and ward in the city. There were an average of 77 calls per week that went unhandled during that period.


Minneapolis police were able to provide support for Behavioral Crisis Response agents in 12 percent of the 1,655 calls during that period. MPD officers called for support in about 11% of calls to Behavioral Crisis Respond.


span style=”font weight: 400 The rank-and-file officers have received positive feedback,” Eric Fors, Minneapolis police deputy chief, stated at the spring council update. He also said that officers look forward to 24-hour service. “They have been extremely grateful to the BCR units responding on calls and being an additional resource.


Smith stated in an interview that he appreciated the calls for more vans, greater investment in BCR Initiative, but it was better for the program’s growth to be slow.


span style=”font weight: 400 ;”>” We still have so many things to learn. We don’t want our vans to grow from two to five, only to find that something needed to be changed. We appreciate the opinions of our community partners and others, but we know that we must do it right. Smith stated that jumping too quickly could lead to the destruction of the whole thing.”


What is the unarmed response to meeting abolitionists in their middle?


Although the vote to abolish MPD was not successful, it made city officials see that there are other forms of public safety in which an armed officer is not the core of the response. These modes of enforcement should also be explored, according to Sharon Sayles Belton


span style=”font weight: 400 ;”>” I believe the city is moving in a positive direction,” stated Sayles Belton who opposed the dissolution of MPD last autumn.


Sayles Belton is currently employed by Thomson Reuters in government affairs and community relationships. GreenLight Fund Twin Cities has partnered with Thomson Reuters to offer a community-involved approach for reducing police interactions for low-level crimes in the Lake Street corridor.

Simone Hardeman-Jones


Simone Hardeman Jones, GreenLight Twin Cities executive director, stated that “We don’t want to call police for everything,” especially when it comes to things that aren’t rooted in law enforcement. “We also received a response from law enforcement that we don’t want the need to respond. We have other issues and personnel issues.”


GreenLight Twin Cities has announced that they will deploy a system called Let Everyone Advance With Dignity (LEAD) which establishes a network among community members who will contact GreenLight whenever someone in the area commits low-level crime like stealing food, trespassing while trying shelter or sleep.


If a business owner spots a homeless person who is often sneaking into his store to steal their merchandise, they call GreenLight Twin Cities who will send people who are able to help the person.


Sayles Belton stated that these efforts to limit inappropriate interaction with armed police officers “demonstrates the transformations we are making as communities and affirms our role and partnership in public safety space.


span style=”font weight: 400 It’s still a public safety area, but the emphasis is shifting. The way we talk about is changing,” said Sayles Belton.


Activists are cautiously optimistic


First, acknowledgement would be appreciated by the activists behind some of these unarmed programs.


“These new approaches to unarmed crisis response and call management were directly inspired by community organizing led By Reclaim the Block and Black Visions and The People’s Budget Coalition,” stated Sheila Nezhad (police abolitionist and activist who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2021).


Nezhad stated that she regards the creation of pilots through community organizing as “one the greatest successes of the organizing we have done over the last four years” – a result of hundreds of activists.


She also mentioned that the previous City Council, which was formed before the 2021 elections resulted in significant turnover, set the stage for unarmed response. She doubts that the current mayor and council would have pursued this. These changes would not have been possible without the current mayor and council. Nezhad stated that they have benefited from the efforts of predominantly community members and Black staff leading the Office of Performance and Innovation’s transformation.


Nezhad stated that she was optimistic about the pilot’s results so far, but isn’t expecting to see official programs that will yield millions of dollars in long-term funding. Nezhad also said that shifts in call management, mental health response and other law enforcement actions are the “bare minimum” needed to bring about the change the city requires.


span style=”font weight: 400 ;”>” The changes haven’t gone far enough,” Nezhad stated.


D.A. Bullock is a member Reclaim the Block and believes that the city put the unarmed pilots together as a response to the tens or thousands of people who voted to dismantle MPD.


Bullock said that span style=”font weight: 400 ;”>” That’s still 44,000 votes for that change,” “That’s important. Even if your denial is about the political will to dismantle MPD, you must acknowledge (the total vote). There is power where there are people. Even those who wish to keep power in the hands a few must acknowledge that the majority of people won’t take it anymore .”


Bullock expressed doubt that those who opposed amending the charter to replace police department will support an unarmed response beyond pilots.


They have never supported us in budget fights to increase funding for the Office of Violence Prevention. They weren’t there. They were there to support the large investment in the Minneapolis Police Department.


Bullock stated that he wanted to ensure that their words and actions were consistent with their actions.


Bullock stated that he was optimistic about the simple presence of the unarmed pilot kit. Bullock also stated that he was encouraged at the preliminary results.


Bullock stated that he is troubled that unarmed public safety modes need to be tested slowly and carefully, with continuous data collection and presentation, all before making a full investment. However, expensive police are not subject to the same scrutiny.


I challenge the Police Department. These proof-of-concept presentations are never provided by the Police Department. “We just have to believe that more officers will increase public safety even though they haven’t shown any evidence,” he stated.


Officials from the City of discuss alternative pilots


Mayor Frey stated that he believes both sides, some activists and some city officials, are speaking past each other.


Frey stated that he and activists who advocated for “dismantling” the police department are on the same page when it comes to alternative policing options. The difference is that Frey wants those programs to be added to the existing police department instead of eliminating traditional police. Frey stated that he opposed defunding MPD, as was outlined in the ballot question. This is because the new department of public safety would answer to all 13 City Council Members and the mayor.


Frey stated that he is on board with the integration of alternative programs, which are exactly the programs that the ‘dismantle” activists created.


Frey stated that he was for bringing non-police traffic units on the road to handle traffic-related issues. He also said that he is for providing mental health responders to the unique circumstances surrounding mental health issues.


span style=”font weight: 400 This is not a new position. It’s been my position since the beginning. This is why I am pushing for an Office of Community Safety. It will allow you to integrate all of the different responses under one roof. This was, to my mind, the most positive and beneficial aspect of Question 2. It is something I believe we all should be supporting. It had nothing to do that. I was always for it. Frey stated that the 14 bosses were the reason I opposed it.


Frey’s budget recommendations for 2023-2024 do not include pilot funding. He recommends that funding for mental health responseers be a permanent, recurring budget item. Also, the funding would make the response team available 24/7.


“Let politics aside, and look at what actions have been taken and the numbers in budget… We are putting funding in the budget to continue to provide services, such as mental health response citywide, 24 hours a day,” Frey stated.


Palmisano, Council Vice President, stated that she supported Question 2. She also supported co-responders (agents with non-lethal training who accompany officers) and other alternative responders.


Palmisano claimed she was in Powderhorn Park on the day nine of her City Council peers stood on a platform to pledge to ‘defund’ the police department. Although she refused to make the same commitment, Palmisano said that she was present in the crowd and later, with other community members, discussing ways to improve the city’s public safety apparatus without taking away any funds or resources.


Palmisano stated that she supported alternative response pilots throughout her nine-year tenure with the council. However, they must not be funded by taking money from the police department.


span style=”font weight: 400 ;”>” I think you do this by starting (alternative pilots), right-sizing it and then saying, ‘Oh, is there too much public safety around? Are officers just sitting around? Palmisano stated, “Great, let’s take some funding.” She said that she was proud of the activism that was done to present alternative ideas for policing to city officials and that she is looking forward to continuing conversations about a better public safety system.


Frey stated that activists who developed alternative models of policing and forced the city to pilot them should be credited and celebrated. Frey said that activists and city officials can see themselves as partners in the effort to create alternative policing models.


Frey stated that it was OK to agree on this issue. “On this issue — it’s a large comprehensive approach — we all agree .”

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