Thursday, August 6, 2020

What Minneapolis City Council Got Wrong in Trying to Defund the Police (or Personal Politics in the Age of Ignorance)

Majority of Minneapolis City Council announces support for ...On June 7, 2020 nine Minneapolis City Council members at a rally announced their intent to defund the City’s police department. On July 28, 2020 President Donald Trump again promoted hydroxychloroquine as COVID-19 treatment against FDA recommendations.  Both of these actions are simply the latest examples of how politicians make political promises or policy statements for personal gain and in disregard for facts.  Both are examples of failures of leadership, political pandering, and  point to the problems of personal politics in the age of ignorance.

            Years ago I wrote American Politics in the Age of Ignorance:  Why Lawmakers Choose Belief over Research.  It made two points.  One, policy making should be evidence-based.  Good policy should be constructed on the best available evidence, data, or research available.  Two, so much of policy fails to meet this standard, often because lawmakers willfully ignore the evidence and instead choose to act for personal benefit or at the behest of special interests.  The result is that too much policy fails, public money is wasted, and government is far less effective than it could be.   Refusing to enact evidence-based policy also yields public cynicism toward government and sets reform up to fail.

            Political ignorance is not limited to indifference to scientific or social science evidence.  This is what Donald Trump has done consistently when it comes to  the pandemic.  From the beginning of the pandemic he has been in denial of its seriousness, often disregarding  Anthony Fauci and other experts’ advice when it comes to precautions, such as mask wearing.

            There is also a different type of political ignorance.  This is when  public officials ignore the legal constraints on their behavior  or propose policy abandonment and change without considering the consequences or offering alternatives.  Again, Trump is  an example of both.  Consistently he has made policy statements—such as recently that  he can change or postpone federal elections—when clearly the law and the Constitution say the contrary.  He has also endorsed repealing the Affordable Care Act without providing a viable policy alternative.  The US government is full of attorneys and policy analysts whom the president should have consulted prior to making statements or promises.

            But Minneapolis City Council is also guilty of political ignorance.  Whether defunding the police is a good idea is a matter for public debate.  But how Council has advocated this issue has been a failure.  The first mistake was nine Council members standing in front of a crowd announcing their intent to defund the police.  One problem was that such a policy  position possibly violated the Minnesota Open Meetings Law.  Nine council members appeared to arrive at a final decision on a matter of public policy that was not decided upon in an official meeting.  Some might claim at this rally was only speech making, but the fact that Minneapolis City Council fast tracked their idea to get it on the ballot this November and that they continue to advocate this position suggests that by the time this rally occurred nine of them had already made up their minds on the issue, contrary to state law.

            Additionally, when these nine members spoke they did so without consulting the law.  It seemed as if they were unaware of the City Charter mandating both that they have a police force and a minimum funding level for them.   They also seemed unaware when they proposed an alternative to the police that state law governs peace office licensing and training, that there are state laws regarding collective bargaining and labor unions that might apply, and that there was a recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision that might limit their ability.  Had Council members done their job competently and done their homework—which includes consulting their City Attorney whom they are already paying, they might have realized all this.

            In business and for non-profits in Minnesota and across the country there is something called the business judgement rule.  This rule requires board members to act as fiduciaries for their organizations and that they are required to make their decisions based upon the based available evidence or information.  Ignorance is no excuse;  you cannot fail to do your homework.  This is what at least nine Minneapolis City Council members did, and thankfully  the City’s Charter Commission, as it was supposed to do, served as a check on this political ignorance.

            The other major failure of Minneapolis City Council was its inability or dereliction in offering policy alternatives.  If  police are to be defunded what does that really mean?  There is merit to putting more money into social service and education programs, but what was their proposal?  What was and is their plan to address violent crime in the city?    Some point to  Camden, NJ as a successful example of defunding the police and  crime going down, but was that a result of defunding the police, privatizing it,  or a normal consequence of “what goes up (crime rate) must go down” over time?  We do not know.  A case study of one city proves little if anything and, if it does, what was it that worked in Camden?  Doing some policy research before  major policy overhaul would be good and the failure to do so is another mistake.

            Yes, in some cases crises demand immediate action but that is no excuse for acting without knowing what you are doing.  George Floyd’s death was tragic and something needed to be done.  But his killing did not come out of  nowhere.  Minneapolis’ history of police use of force and racial disparities in education, housing, and criminal justice have been known for years, yet this and previous city councils failed to act.  Dereliction of duty is as much a form of political ignorance as is simply doing something for the sake of looking like one is doing something, especially if there is no evidence it will work.

            There is nothing wrong with advocates who want a revolution and who want to change the world.  They should not necessarily be expected to have the solutions.  But there is a difference between being an advocate and a public official. For the latter, as the Beatles once sang:  “You say you got a real solutionWell, you know, we'd all love to see the plan.”  Public officials who advocate without a  plan or even worse, without consulting  the evidence of gather the information  necessary to make good choices are simply pandering for personal gain.


  1. Thank you for saying what I have been unable to articulate. Thank you

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  3. I've been having some of the same questions & criticisms of the process, & it was hard not to question the viability & even the legality of those nine council members making the disbandment announcement at that rally. However, as with the frustrations expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement, and forgive the oversimplification, but when operating within the rules has failed time & time again, going outside the system, right or wrong, is to be expected.

    All we can really hope is that, with so many systems being broken, and based on models that are failing -- such as late-stage capitalism -- "going outside the system" will be done the right ways, and for the right reasons. Donald Trump & his supporters (both the wealthy corporate-types & the down-trodden working class whites) have been going outside the system the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons.

    Abolishing private campaign financing would go a long way to getting things on track. From there, we could actually take control of large systemic issues, including making law enforcement more accountable by ending qualified immunity. Until we take private money out of elections, we'll be constantly struggling to make public institutions accountable to the constituents they were created to serve, and even then it will be no panacea. Until then, we'll have legalized some corruption, which will lead to more illegal corruption engaged in by people, businesses, and even entire institutions.

    The entire American system needs to be overhauled -- politically, legally, economically, and culturally. "We the people" must mean "we the people," not "we who would take up arms against our fellow citizens," nor "we who should be allowed to exploit our fellow Americans". Anything short of that merely serves injustice.