Minneapolis May Have Rejected That Referendum on the Police

Minneapolis May Have Rejected That Referendum on the Police

Minneapolis May Have Rejected That Referendum on the Police

But the activists’ vision of alternative policing lives on.


Minneapolis, Minn.—The voters’ decisive rejection earlier this month of the public safety amendment that would have replaced the troubled police department here has left the city’s progressives battered and bruised. But politicians and activists on both sides of the issue agree that some crucial aspects in the referendum will remain unavoidable in any plan to reform policing.

The November 2 vote, which drew the highest turnout the city has seen in decades, came 18 months after the murder of George Floyd, an African American man whose death under the knee of now-convicted ex-officer Derek Chauvin propelled the launch of a controversial ballot amendment. The measure sought to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety, remove from the City Charter a minimum staffing requirement, and weaken the mayor’s oversight of the police force.

Although almost all political actors here have agreed on the need for a meaningful change in the culture of policing, the proposed amendment sparked an animated, months-long debate between those who advocated installing an entirely new system of public safety and those who supported reforming the current department.

In the end, it was up to Minneapolis residents to decide what they wanted—and on Election Day they voted 56 percent to 44 percent against the public safety referendum, approved a “strong mayor” system, ousted some of the most vocal progressives in the council chambers, and reelected Mayor Jacob Frey, a moderate who fought hard against the amendment.

The rejection of the amendment certainly represents a crushing blow to the short-term political agenda of the progressive politicians and activists, but the alternative public safety policing vision they’ve introduced to mainstream politics has won the hearts and minds of many residents here. Indeed, a public safety approach that deemphasizes the need to dispatch armed officers to every emergency call has earned an appreciable nod among elected officials and community leaders—on both sides of the debate—who look to forge a path to better policing in Minneapolis.

How the Amendment Failed

The debate over policing has taken several twists and turns since the murder of Floyd in May 2020. In the following weeks—amid a national reckoning on race—some council members and activists in Minneapolis found an opportunity to bring to politics what was once viewed as a radical idea: defunding and dismantling the police department.

Just days after Floyd’s murder, nine council members captured the national spotlight when they stood before a sea of protesters vowing to defund the police. “Our commitment is…to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe,” Lisa Bender, president of the city council, told the cheering crowd.

By early fall, many of the council members had a change of heart: None of them wanted to discuss defunding the police.

Their decision didn’t come as a surprise. By then, protesters had left the streets, the city had receded from the international spotlight, and reports of a surge of violent crimes had taken over the front pages. It was clear that Minneapolis residents weren’t ready to dismantle or defund the police force—even as they fulminated against the department and demanded policing reform.

Then emerged another kind of policing discourse, around the charter amendment that sought to form a new public safety department, which would have provided mental health experts and social workers to work alongside police officers.

The group that led the effort, Yes 4 Minneapolis, was fairly clear about what the referendum would and wouldn’t do. In their press conferences, media releases, and conversations with the press and the public, leaders of the coalition often emphasized that the proposed department didn’t seek to defund the police or cut the number of police officers.

Yet many voters, including Black residents, viewed the proposal with skepticism. One explanation for that is that many of the activists, city council members, and organizations that previously supported the defund police movement were also the main champions for the proposal. But the biggest turn-off for many voters was some framing in the ballot language, such as its stating that the new public safety department “could” hire police officers “if necessary.” These words raised many eyebrows—especially at a time when neighborhoods with large proportions of people of color had seen an increase in violent crime since the death of Floyd. As a result, many people interpreted the amendment as an attempt to significantly slash the number of police officers and eventually get rid of the department altogether.

These concerns were reflected in the votes of Black residents. David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in Minnesota, looked into the breakdown of votes by wards after the Tuesday election. He learned that the northern side of the city, which houses the largest African American population in the state, voted against the proposal.

For communities of color, Schultz told me, the debate on policing is more complicated than the good cop, bad cop dichotomy. “We shouldn’t forget the fact that they also want safe neighborhoods,” he said. “They want safe streets.”

That many Black residents in Minneapolis voted against the amendment wasn’t unexpected. Weeks before Election Day, pollsters had found that 75 percent of Black people here wanted more boots on the ground.

Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and a vocal critic of the police department who voted against the amendment, shared with me her thoughts on the voters’ rejection of the proposal. “It gave me the impression that Minneapolis voters were being thoughtful about the future of the Minneapolis Police Department and not wanting to make a hasty decision,” she said. “I felt that our voices were heard regarding the concerns that we raised about the initial proposal and the lack of substance and specifics surrounding what the new department of public safety would entail.”

And as if rejecting the public safety referendum weren’t enough, Minneapolis residents voted in favor of two items that progressives opposed: They approved a “strong mayor” amendment—which gives the mayor more executive authority—and reelected Jacob Frey, a moderate who opposed the public safety measure.

The Future of Policing

Despite the outcome, JaNaé Bates, who co-led the coalition advocating for the public safety amendment, doesn’t consider the voters’ decision to strike down the amendment a failure. She says that even though the campaign didn’t succeed, it still brought to the forefront some significant policy issues that would never have been considered as part of police reform in Minneapolis. “We certainly don’t look at it as a loss but a lesson because we’ve done something really tremendous,” Bates told me. “When you look at social movements across the country, usually it takes years to accomplish what we were able to do in months. I most certainly foresee this continuing.”

The public safety amendment was the closest comprehensive policy proposal Minneapolis has seen in the effort to address policing problems after the murder of Floyd. But now that the city’s residents have rejected what many thought would be a historic policing overhaul, there’s no concrete plan that indicates future policing could be any safer for Black residents than it had been before Floyd’s death.

Even so, many community members here cling to a thread of optimism, as groups like the Unity Community Mediation Team continue to bring together elected officials, political activists, and faith leaders for solutions to Minneapolis’s policing problems. In one such event last week, Jeremiah Ellison, a city council member, encouraged leaders from both sides of the public safety debate to work together. “We need transformative change,” he said. “We cannot have another George Floyd in our city.”

In January, when the incoming mayor and the 13-member council are sworn in for new terms, the debate on public safety and policing reform is expected to resume at City Hall. But this discourse will take place under a new government structure—one which gives the mayor more executive authority over city departments. This “strong mayor” system makes it harder for council members to pass the kind of dramatic changes outlined in the failed public safety amendment.

That said, some key aspects of the public safety proposal are part of Mayor Jacob Frey’s plan for policing reform. In a recent interview, Frey told me that his office has “developed four key pillars that we need to attack head-on.” He continued:

First is integrating the approach to public safety. So that means bringing a lot of these safety-beyond-policing assets together. Second, it means hiring community-oriented officers. Third, it means enhancing and expanding beyond policing because not every 911 call requires a response from an officer with a gun. We can have mental health responders and social workers pairing a unique skill set with the unique circumstances that are happening on the ground. And by the way, we have already invested in record amounts of funding in safety beyond policing. And we’re going to go even further.

Indeed, if there’s one thing that residents in Minneapolis agree on, it’s the need to a police department that incorporates more social services into law enforcement. But the progressive activists who led the failed public safety amendment remain skeptical about the mayor’s promise. They’ve argued that previous administrations tried and failed to reform the department and that Frey’s government is no exception. Still, for the present the initiative lies with the mayor.

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