In public conversations, those of us who argue that the racism and brutality of the police/mass incarceration system are essential features of that system, often say that reform is not the solution. […]
The current attempt to challenge the powerful Minneapolis Police Department – by way of a city charter amendment known as Question 2 – is a “dangerous experiment.” At least, that’s the verdict of media pundits, downtown business interests and community gatekeepers.
Medaria Arradondo, Chief of the Minneapolis Police Department is friendly and accessible. Everyone seems to agree. But a savior? You’d think he was from the message stream pouring out of “All of Mpls,” a pro-police propaganda mill funded (according to their campaign filing) by local real estate interests. They’ve landed on “They want to get rid of the chief” as a key message they hope will defeat Question 2, a municipal ballot question that threatens to weaken the police department’s political grip on the city. They might be onto something. The chief is viewed favorably, as a trusted figure, in the public mind. That’s more than can be said of the MPD itself, an unaccountable agency that lurches from one scandal to the next. Better to focus on the chief.
Rondo, as he’s known informally, is an African-American police veteran who once sued the department for racist policing, discriminatory discipline and corruption. He lifts up the appealing vision of a “new MPD” that will foster “respect and justice through every single police interaction,” “protect civil rights” and “serve all citizens with integrity and respect.” What he proposes for achieving this dreamy picture is a remix of the usual worn-out reforms with the feel-good “community policing” concept brought in to pacify BIPOC communities in the 1970s. It’s essential feature involves “partnerships” with community leaders who can then called on to calm things down after the next police outrage.
You see, police reform has two faces. For targeted communities, reform seems to hold a promise of relief from racist policing along with real protection from street crime. For the police, however, it serves to soothe public anger just long enough to return to business as usual. In terms of making any meaningful difference, police reform has an unbroken chain of failure going back a century.
Reformers like Rondo are true believers, for sure, but they don’t stand a chance. The modern police chief serves at the pleasure of the rank and file and the rank and file demands protection. Even when they have to throw one of their own under the bus – like with police trainer Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd in plain view – they have to shield the department itself from scrutiny. That’s how you get Chief Rondo and a parade of “good cops” testifying (with straight faces) that Chauvin-like behavior is simply not tolerated within the honorable ranks of the MPD (never mind Chauvin’s 17 previous brutality complaints!).
In an ironic twist, one of those “good cop” witnesses – use-of-force trainer Sgt. Johnny Mercil – was part of the crew that went joyriding in an unmarked van after Floyd’s murder, randomly “hunting” people with rubber bullets. One of their targets, a young man named Jaleel Stallings, returned fire though as soon as he realized that his attackers were cops, he surrendered and lay down on the ground. The officers responded in true MPD form, kicking and beating him, then working with prosecutors to charge him with attempted murder. The county attorney offered him a plea deal that would send him up on a thirteen year prison sentence rather than face multiple lying cops in court. (Take notes! This is how the system works.)
There was body cam video as well as footage supplied by Stallings attorney, filmmaker and commentator D.A. Bullock points out, “which means Mayor Frey and Chief Arradondo have long seen these clips themselves and have not acted on them regarding these officers and their command…” Stallings rejected their offer, was acquitted at trial, and can live his life, no thanks to MPD leadership.
The chief wants to replace veteran cops as they retire with fresh recruits who’ll be trained in the “new MPD” values. Real police training, though, begins right when the formal teaching ends, usually with the words “forget all that crap they told you in class.” Who’s to say the chief will even be around to follow through? When I met Chief Rondo shortly after he took office he told me that police chiefs rarely last more than three years in the job. I’d add that reform-minded chiefs leave little trace once they’re gone (does anyone remember Tony Bouza, or Janee Harteau?). If it’s shown that Rondo was in on the disgraceful persecution of Jaleel Stallings, that day might come soon. (And if he didn’t know about it, it doesn’t reflect well on his leadership.)
But there’s a bigger story here than police resistance to reform or the limited power of chiefs. MPD is part of an increasingly integrated network of federal, state and local agencies, private security and data processing companies and corporate-funded Police Foundations. This system is not moving toward “gentler and kinder” policing but rather the other direction. In the face of rapidly increasing inequality, (which also drives up street crime, domestic violence and housing instability) police are beefing up their surveillance technologies and “copaganda” strategies. Efforts to weaken “qualified immunity” protections that shield cops from lawsuits have been defeated so far in thirty-five states and diluted to the point of meaninglessness in six more. Meanwhile, protest itself is being criminalized by state legislatures and in Minnesota the Endbridge corporation paid $750k to local police and sheriffs to be its private goons against Line 3 protesters. That’s what the future looks like.
There’s a reason police defenders don’t talk about the historical function of policing, the history of the MPD or the track record of reform. Only by ignoring those truths can you cling to the notion that the Chief can convert the Minneapolis Police Department into a beacon of “respect and justice.”
Changing the charter will not guarantee a humane, public health model of community safety. That’s a longer battle. But it does remove one of the obstacles the police have placed in the way.
Addressing childhood asthma on the north side won’t lead to lasting change unless it’s coupled with something like a Green New Deal, to ensure that we’re not fighting the same battle ten years from now. How will these children’s medical bills be covered as they grow, without a program like Medicare for All to completely replace the parasitic health insurance industry of today?
“Our lives are being impacted in ways as different as the chasms of race, class, gender, colonial status and all the other disease vectors of injustice can make them. Crisis under capitalism is the great amplifier, not the great equalizer.”
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