Criminal Justice

Is Minneapolis a 'Secret Bellwether' for Understanding Policing and Race in America?

The Minneapolis Reckoning shows why calls to defund the police gained momentum after George Floyd's death and why voters with no love for the cops still rejected an abolitionist ballot measure.


The Minneapolis Reckoning: Race, Violence and the Politics of Policing in America, by Michelle S. Phelps, Princeton University Press, 304 pages, $29.95

Being a writer at the right place at the right moment is a mix of chance and preparation.

Michelle Phelps, a University of Minnesota sociologist, began researching lethal police encounters and the politics of policing in Minneapolis in 2015. She was sitting at her desk writing up the results of her research on May 25, 2020, when a Minneapolis cop killed George Floyd.

The Minneapolis Reckoning book cover | Princeton University Press
(Princeton University Press)

Phelps has now published The Minneapolis Reckoning, the results of reviewing her years of research through the lens of Floyd's death and the ensuing unsuccessful push to defund the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). It argues that Minneapolis, a progressive, majority-white city marked by a history of police violence and racial segregation, is a "secret bellwether city for understanding race and policing in America" and "a test case for both the possibilities and limits of liberal police reform."

I'll admit I sighed a little when I read those lines. Last year I reviewed The Riders Come Out At Night, a similar history of corruption in the Oakland Police Department and the multi-decade effort to clean it up. The authors described Oakland as "the edge case in American policing." And by my count, there have been two books and a prestige TV drama about a crooked police task force in Baltimore—another city that social critics have turned to as a cipher for understanding policing and race in America.

But Minneapolis certainly deserves special attention, as the site both of Floyd's killing and of the torching of a precinct building in the unrest that followed. Those would become two of the most significant images of the year, the former launching global protests while the latter polarized and calcified the discourse over those protests.

Minneapolis was also one of a few cities that actually did seriously consider defunding the police. (Despite the apocalyptic warnings of police unions and Republican politicians at the time, the vast majority of major cities' police budgets either increased or remained level following the summer of 2020.) On June 7, 2020, nine of Minneapolis' 13 city council members stood on a stage and declared that they were taking immediate steps to end the MPD, saying it "cannot be reformed and will never be held accountable for their actions."

But Minneapolis voters rejected a 2021 ballot initiative that would have amended the city's charter to remove mandatory staffing levels for police (a provision Minneapolis' police union successfully lobbied to have inserted in 1961), shifted control of the police from the mayor's office to the city council, and most controversially, replaced the MPD with an umbrella public health agency, the Department of Public Safety. That new department could include, but did not mandate, police officers.

Opponents cast the failure of the charter amendment as evidence of the deep unpopularity of "defund the police" rhetoric and the general failure of anti-police activism.

Phelps' book provides critical context for all of these events. As she shows, the radical activism and the calls to defund the police in Minneapolis did not appear out of thin air, nor were they astroturfed by shadowy, deep-pocketed Marxists. They emerged from decades of political tug-of-war between local activists, city officials, and the powerful Minneapolis police union.

The efforts to change policing in Minneapolis were also not monolithic. They were split among three general blocs.

Phelps identifies the first group as "21-century police reform," the Obama-era technocratic campaign led by liberal city officials, police chiefs, and policy think tanks. In 2015, Minneapolis was in fact a pilot site for the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. This pilot program included sending officers to implicit bias training, changing the department's use-of-force policies, and creating a requirement for officers to intervene if they witnessed a fellow officer using excessive force. None of this stopped Officer Derek Chauvin from keeping his knee on George Floyd for nine minutes.

The second group is what Phelps calls "radical reformers," the community groups and Black Lives Matter activists who pressured city officials to overhaul the MPD. Their demands included prosecuting and decertifying officers involved in unjustified killings, creating more powerful civilian oversight mechanisms, banning "warrior" training for officers, and renegotiating the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the police union.

The third group are the abolitionists, many of whom had become burned out and further radicalized after seeing the lackluster results of the reforms achieved by the previous decade's Black Lives Matter protests. Abolitionism rejects piecemeal institutional reform and insists on the wholesale dismantling of the "prison-industrial complex."

But there is a fourth group, perhaps the most important one that Phelps documents: the residents of Minneapolis' Northside neighborhood—a high-crime, majority-black area that all of the various actors in the city's political arena claimed to be fighting on behalf of.

Phelps' interviews with Northside residents illuminate both why the charter amendment gained momentum and why it failed. A black veteran describes being called the n-word, and a woman recounts trying to report to police that she'd been drugged and raped only to be treated "like a disease. Like a suspect."

But Northsiders are also plagued by high rates of crime victimization. As Phelps describes it, they are caught in the bind of being simultaneously overpoliced and underprotected. They frequently have negative experiences with the police department, but they are forced to rely on it to deal with high levels of crime, which they also believe the city is intentionally ignoring. This creates a sense of legal estrangement in residents—the gap in "police-community relations" that panels of experts endlessly drone on about—and a deep ambivalence toward not only the police but the possibilities of police reform.

"I don't have faith in [police] at all," one woman tells Phelps. "But then at the same time, you gotta call them if you need 'em. You know what I mean? And then when they come and you need 'em, they shittin' on you. So it's like, you damned if you do, you damned if you don't."

Police represent "both the promise of state protection and the threat of state violence," Phelps writes, and this is where abolitionist dreams crash against cold political reality. Older black community leaders and even some of the radical reform groups opposed the charter amendment because of fears it would leave beleaguered neighborhoods with even less of the protection they were demanding.

The tragedy of the story is that after the fires in Minneapolis stopped smoldering and hundreds of MPD officers quit—the city actually fell below the required level in its charter—Northsiders suffered from a horrific spike in crime. Plenty of blame and finger-pointing went on among the various factions, but not much self-reflection. 

The Minneapolis Reckoning will be of limited interest to general readers outside of Minnesota. But it's a valuable piece of research on how fights for police reform are won and lost, and what reform means to the people who need it most.