Minneapolis City Hall

Why Do We Let the Police Define Safety?

I was on 6th Street, carefully navigating three lanes of traffic and construction. I signaled my turn as I eased into the left lane, aware of drivers moving urgently around me. Suddenly I bounced, failed to reestablish grip, and tumbled. I rolled off my bike and onto concrete. Something hit my knee bad enough to cause instant nausea. I gathered myself in the panic-knowledge that I could have been run over.

I wasn’t safe downtown that day. Many people in our city feel unsafe. Safety is important! In the media, in city hall, people are talking about public safety and the budget. Many of the alarms being raised about safety center on the experiences of people downtown. At the time of this writing, the Minneapolis City Council is marking up the proposed city budget (contact your councilmember!).

That day, my safety took a hit from a narrow trough cut across the street. Hard to spot, but deep enough to give someone on a bike a sudden jolt. I iced the knee for a couple days, and got away without any lasting injuries.

But not everyone survives. Alex Wolf was killed by a driver downtown last month as he biked, also on a designated bike route.

Will we see the leader of a major city department come forward with a new proposal for tens of millions of dollars in ongoing, annual spending to address this set of public safety problems?

This year, the police department and downtown property owners have set a very narrow agenda in the discussion around public safety. For them it’s all about hiring more cops, with no hesitation in making a huge budgetary demand.

I work downtown at a growing software business. I regularly feel unsafe downtown. But not because of any problem that more cops is going to solve. I feel unsafe because downtown is built to protect cars as they speed towards on-ramps, change lanes and make sudden turns/parking maneuvers. Because cars, trucks and construction regularly block painted bike lanes, making downtown an unpredictable obstacle course. As a longtime bicyclist in the Twin Cities, I know that hiring a few cops to reconstitute a traffic enforcement unit (one proposal in the mayor’s budget) will not make my daily experience of downtown safer. Hiring cops doesn’t build protected bikeways.

And for me that’s the real problem with allowing public safety to be defined so narrowly. If I know that my concerns about safety are left unaddressed by this demand for more cops, then how many other people feel unsafe, and yet their voices aren’t being heard?

My experience with safety isn’t the same as everyone else’s. I’m a white man with a salary. Sharing my experience must not diminish or supplant the seriousness of harm other people experience downtown. A woman who feels unsafe due to fear of harassment on a train station deserves our care. A valet or hotel worker who feels unsafe around inebriated crowds deserves our care. A young Black person who feels unsafe because of the real history of police violence against Black people deserves our care. A sex worker trying to earn a living while dodging incarceration and risks of violence deserves our care.

We already have a massive investment in policing as an approach to public safety. For many people in this city, every day, it isn’t helping. For many it’s hurting. We need to hear those voices.

That’s why I want new funding going to programs that build common safety by addressing root issues. Not hiring more cops. Building safe transportation infrastructure. Building dignified housing so people don’t need to live on trains. We should stop fighting for scraps of funding for the infrastructure and preventative work that makes us safe, and instead demand a transformative shift.

There are lots of ideas for making this city safer. Let’s treat public safety seriously – for all people in this city – and get to work funding them.