Comment: Memphis officials can learn from Minneapolis’ mistakes

After the murder of George Floyd, there were promises of reform, but a lack of specifics stymied the effort.

By Adam Minter / Bloomberg Opinion

In Minneapolis, the video of Tyre Nichols’s fatal beating at the hands of Memphis police officers triggered unwelcome flashbacks. Just two and a half years ago, the city erupted with riots after video emerged of George Floyd’s murder. In the aftermath, hopes that Minneapolis’s troubled police department might be reformed fell apart as politics, polarization and mistrust eroded support for even modest improvements. For many in this scarred city, there’s a feeling that nothing has changed.

As Memphis begins to grapple with the aftermath of its own tragedy, mistakes in Minneapolis can serve as a cautionary tale. The chance to fix a broken, violent system is rare. To use that opportunity effectively, advocates for reform need to embrace specific, actionable proposals, while lawmakers and other civic leaders avoid overpromising. If either side falters, mistrust and a missed opportunity are what’s left behind.

The Minneapolis Police Department has had well-documented problems with its officers, including rampant racial discrimination, since the early 20th century. Despite these well-documented problems, at the time of Floyd’s murder neither the Minneapolis City Council nor the mayor had a serious, specific plan to reform the department. So, during the angry summer of 2020, activists flooded the public square with calls to defund the police; and council members pledged to fulfill that goal, despite most harboring hopes for a more nuanced approach. For the next 18 months the debate over “defund” overwhelmed any nuances, and led natural allies of police reform to back away for fear of being associated with a culture-war slogan.

A year later, council members introduced a complex ballot initiative that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety focused on public health solutions to crime. But the initiative left the specifics of how the new department would function, or even be organized, to a city council that had lost the trust of many since the Floyd riots. Despite widespread support for reform, the ballot initiative failed. Four of its strongest advocates on the council also lost reelection. There are many reasons for those failures, but — based on my experience accompanying pro-initiative canvassers in Minneapolis — a lack of specifics scared off many voters.

Fortunately, Memphis already has a comprehensive, highly detailed blueprint for police reform. In 2020, Mayor Jim Strickland drafted lawmakers, law enforcement leaders, faith leaders and civil rights activists to create “Reimagining Policing.” The report, released in 2021, includes specific recommendations on how to improve Memphis’ police department. Among the suggestions are regular mental and emotional health screenings and expanded collection and accessibility of police data, including by demographic and type of interaction.

These are worthy ideas that already command community support. Advocates of police reform should push the city to implement them and other recommendations immediately. Doing so will not only build consensus for more difficult reforms, but will create the perception that city leadership is capable of coming together and actually doing something. Minneapolis squandered its own chance.

In the meantime, Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis has taken a positive step by disbanding Scorpion (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods), the controversial police unit involved in Nichols’s death. However, disbandment will prove to be a trust-destroying overpromise if the unit’s practices are allowed to persist elsewhere in the department. That, too, is a lesson Minneapolis learned the hard way. In 2020 Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey claimed to have banned the use of “no knock” warrants in 2020. But that turned out to be incorrect, as the city learned after Amir Locke, a young Black man, was shot and killed during the execution of a no-knock warrant by Minneapolis police in 2022. Trust has yet to be fully restored.

For now, the most likely route to comprehensive reform of the Minneapolis Police Department is a negotiated settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which is currently investigating its practices. There are calls for Memphis to face a similar investigation, and it should. But in the meantime, Memphis shouldn’t waste the opportunity to address its police problem with actionable proposals already embraced by the community. That’s the quickest route to needed police reform.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology and the environment. He is author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”

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