MINNEAPOLIS – Minneapolis voters on Tuesday rejected a proposal to replace the city’s police department with a new Department of Public Safety, an idea that supporters had hoped would bring radical change to policing in the city where George Floyd’s death under an officer’s knee brought calls for racial justice.
The initiative would have changed the city charter to remove a requirement that the city have a police department with a minimum number of officers. Supporters said a complete overhaul of policing was necessary to stop police violence. Opponents said the proposal had no concrete plan for how to move forward and warned it would leave some communities already affected by violence more vulnerable as crime is on the rise.
Those opponents welcomed the amendment's defeat but stressed the urgency of transforming policing in the city even without it.
“Tonight Minneapolis voters have made clear that we want a planful approach to transforming policing and public safety in our city that needs to include meaningful consultation with the communities that are most impacted by both violent crime and by over-policing,” said Leili Fatehi, manager of the All of Mpls campaign.
The ballot proposal had roots in the abolish-the-police movement that erupted after Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer last year. The debate over racial justice in policing brought national attention to Tuesday’s vote, as well as a river of out-of-state money seeking to influence the outcome that could have shaped change elsewhere, too.
The ballot question called for a new Department of Public Safety to take “a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions” that would be determined by the mayor and City Council. Supporters argued it was a chance to reimagine what public safety can be and how money gets spent. Among other things, supporters said, funding would go toward programs that don’t send armed officers to call on people in crisis.
Democratic Mayor Jacob Frey was also in a tough fight for a second term, facing a bevy of opponents who have attacked him for his leadership in the wake of Floyd’s death. Frey opposed the policing amendment. Two of his leading challengers in the field of 17 candidates, Sheila Nezhad and Kate Knuth, strongly supported the proposal.
With nearly complete returns, Frey had about 43% of the first-choice vote. He needed more than 50% to win outright under the city’s ranked-choice voting system, with the city to begin sorting second- and potentially third-choice votes Wednesday morning. Nezhad and Knuth were both near 20%.
A jubilant Frey didn't claim victory when he spoke to supporters late Tuesday but called it “a really good night” and said the city had sent a message to the entire country that true change requires hard work, not slogans.
“There will be many that will try to argue that this is a blow to reform. That is dead wrong," Frey said. "Reform has begun, but it must continue.”
The vote was a defeat for Yes 4 Minneapolis, which spearheaded the amendment drive and vowed to keep fighting for change.
“We changed the conversation about what public safety should look like,” the group tweeted. "We showed the country and the world the power of democracy and of the people. Now, we will work to hold the system accountable. We will work to heal our city and create safer streets for all our communities."
The police union didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
A separate ballot question, on whether to replace the city's “weak mayor, strong council” system with a more conventional distribution of executive and legislative powers that would give the mayor clearer authority over day-to-day government operations, passed with about 53% of the vote.
Rishi Khanna, 31, a tech worker, voted yes on replacing the police department, saying he didn't believe police officers are qualified to deal with many situations, such as mental health crises. He said he thought having professionals equipped to deal with a range of public safety issues in the same department as law enforcement would benefit both residents and police officers.
“I understand that law enforcement will have to have a seat at the table, but I think both in our community and in communities around the country, too often law enforcement is the only seat at the table,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the right solution.”
Askari Lyons, 61, voted against the ballot initiative. A resident of the city's largely Black north side, where violent crime runs higher than in the rest of the city, he said he believed Minneapolis police officers “may have learned a lesson after George Floyd’s death and what happened to the cop that killed him."
Lyons called it “unwise” to replace the department and said he believed change within the department is imminent.
“People are so frustrated, so angry, so disappointed” with the violence occurring citywide as much as they are with the city’s law enforcement, he said.
The proposed amendment to the city charter would have removed language that mandates that Minneapolis have a police department with a minimum number of officers based on population. It would have been replaced by a new Department of Public Safety that would take a “comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions” that “could include” police officers “if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety.”
Supporters of the change argued that a complete overhaul of policing is necessary to stop police violence. They framed it as a chance to re-imagine what public safety can be and to devote more funding toward new approaches that don’t rely on sending armed officers to deal with people in crisis.
But opponents said the ballot proposal contained no concrete plan for how the new department would operate and expressed fear that it might make communities already affected by gun violence even more vulnerable to rising crime. The details, and who would lead the new agency, would be determined by the mayor and the City Council.
Two nationally prominent progressive Democratic leaders — U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who represents the Minneapolis area, and state Attorney General Keith Ellison — both supported the policing amendment. But some leading mainstream liberals, including Gov. Tim Walz and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, opposed it and feared the backlash could lead to Democratic losses across the country in 2022.
Support didn't cleanly follow racial lines. Opponents included several prominent Black leaders, including some who have been top voices in the police accountability movement.
Minister JaNaé Bates, a spokeswoman for the pro-amendment campaign, told reporters Monday that even if the proposal failed, the activists behind it changed the conversation around public safety.
“No matter what happens, the city of Minneapolis is going to have to move forward and really wrestle with what we cannot unknow: that the Minneapolis Police Department has been able to operate with impunity and has done quite a bit of harm and the city has to take some serious steps to rectify that,” Bates said.
Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.