Police use of excessive force against Black Americans, who represent 20 percent of the city’s general population, has remained a common phenomenon for decades. Between 2015 and 2020, as a New York Times analysis concluded, Minneapolis police officers were seven times more likely to use force against Black people than against their white counterparts.
Such violence has resulted in the deaths of many in the city’s Black immigrant and African American communities. Abu Kassim Jeilani. Alfred Sanders. David Smith. Dolal Idd. Jamar Clark. Thurman Blevins. Travis Jordan. Winston Smith. Some of these men were unarmed. Some struggled with severe mental illness. Most of their deaths could have been avoided.
What’s more, the police department has consistently misled the public about its misdeeds in times of crisis. For instance, when Derek Chauvin—a former MPD officer who was sentenced this summer to 22.5 years in prison for killing George Floyd last year—pinned the 45-year-old Black man to death, the department attributed the homicide to “medical distress” in an attempt to shift blame away from the involved officers.
So what do you do with a department that abuses its authority and murders the citizens it’s sworn to serve? This is the question at the heart of the debate on policing in Minneapolis. There are two main groups on the opposing sides of the issue: centrist liberals who call for reforming the department and leftists seeking to dismantle it.
Both groups agree that the city’s police force has a problem. But how to solve that problem has remained a point of contention—one that’s led to months-long political feuds and legal battles over ballot language that will allow voters to decide this fall whether to replace the Minneapolis police force with a public safety agency. The latest episode came Thursday evening when the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that knocked down the ballot question.
That means Minneapolis voters will have the chance to weigh in on the future of the police department. Early voting begins today.
Since the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, activists in the Twin Cities have been leading efforts to hold Minnesota police departments accountable and to secure justice for those who died at the hand of law enforcement. But in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Black progressives have taken on a more ambitious mission: transforming a once-obscure idea—the elimination of the city’s police department—into an actual political agenda in Minneapolis.
This fall, as Minneapolis voters head to the polls to pick their next mayor and city councilors, the question of whether to replace the 154-year-old police department with a new public safety agency remains the most important—and controversial—issue on the ballot.
Up from Reform
On June 7, 2020, two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, nine Minneapolis City Council members emerged before a cheering crowd at a rally. Standing on a stage emblazoned with the letters “Defund Police,” the leaders pledged their commitment to defund and dismantle the police department. “I’m the Ninth Ward council member,” Alondra Cano screamed into the microphone, “and I’m no longer a reformist.”
To Cano, police reform was no longer an option. She wanted to see the current police force dismantled. This was because previous city administrators had tried to fix the department to no avail. R.T. Rybak, who served as the city’s mayor from 2002 to 2014, echoed this sentiment just days before that summer rally. He explained in an article for Politico how his efforts to reform the department “failed badly.” Rybak appointed three different police chiefs during his tenure, he stated, but none of them could bring the kind of change he envisioned. He also tried to diversify the department and “to work with individual officers on softening their approach so they could empathize more deeply with the community.” These efforts, too, couldn’t move the needle.
That’s why leaders at Yes 4 Minneapolis—a coalition of faith leaders, nonprofit groups, city residents, and labor unions—don’t want to try to fix the police force. Instead, they’re leading the effort to replace the department with a new public safety agency. “We’ve been trying to do this for 150 years,” JaNaé Bates, communications director with Yes 4 Minneapolis, told me in a recent interview. “For decades, many, many mayors of the city have tried to do that, and we’re still at the very same result, if not worse than when we started.”
Yes 4 Minneapolis has mobilized voters, enlisted the support of city councilors, and persuaded people from a wide range of political, racial, and educational backgrounds to join the movement that seeks to replace the department. The result was the successful execution of an effort to place the fate of the Minneapolis police force on the ballot this fall.
Gary Potter, professor emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University, studies criminal justice and policing in the United States. He told me that, while the demand to defund police departments has grown louder in cities across the country, the proposed plan to replace the city’s policing force is quite unique. “The Minneapolis proposal isn’t exactly the same as proposals in other parts of the country,” he said. “Most of the others have been to move some portions—usually around 5, 10 percent—of money to social services or medical services.”
Centrists v. Leftists
In Minneapolis, the proposed amendment seeks to do several things. It aims to remove the current police force and replace it with a public safety department. The new agency would then establish a “comprehensive public health approach to safety.” Meaning, as JaNaé Bates explained to me, that the approach would make professionals who have experience in responding to such issues as mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, and sexual assault a core part of the department. More than that, the new department would eliminate the current mandatory minimum staffing level of 1.7 police officers for every 1,000 residents.
Would the department have armed police officers? The final language on the ballot does suggest that the new department would have police officers—“if necessary.” Bates said that this approach provides the department with the flexibility to deploy the right personnel to the right places. “It would be a much, much higher standard of public safety,” she said.
The proposal, additionally, would put in place a leadership structure that is different from what guides the current department. Instead of there being a police chief in charge of the police, the new department would have a commissioner of public safety. The mayor would nominate the commissioner, and city councilors would approve the nomination.
As with anything that happens in the political landscape these days, the proposal to disband the police department has fortified the dividing wall dividing the state’s heavyweight Democrats into centrist and leftists. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, and US Senator Amy Klobuchar have come out against the ballot proposal. Walz told the Star Tribune that with the recent surge in violent crime across the state, Minnesotans “need to recognize that the police force is going to be part of that solution.”
Unsurprisingly, US Representative Ilhan Omar and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison—both of whom endorsed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the party’s last two presidential primaries—have thrown their support behind the initiative. In an opinion piece that Omar recently published in the Star Tribune, she noted that the new department would provide Minneapolis residents with “a public safety system rooted in compassion, humanity and love, and to deliver true justice.”
On November 2, Minneapolis voters will decide whether they want to endorse that system or keep the current police department. Whatever their choice, the true winners of this fight are the young Black progressive activists whose unrelenting effort has transformed what was once a mere chanting slogan into a real policy debate that’s shaken Minnesota’s political establishment to its core.