Credit: Aala Abdullahi | Sahan Journal

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Elected officials at the federal, state, and county levels are weighing in on the most contentious ballot item in Minneapolis in years: the public safety charter amendment.

On November 2, Minneapolis residents will vote on a slate of proposals on government structure, rent stabilization, and a reimagined public safety department. The city’s voters, of course, include state and county officials, some of whom have publicly stated their position on the public safety ballot measure ahead of the elections. 

The proposal would amend the city’s charter, which currently mandates the existence of a police department with a minimum number of officers based on the population. If passed, the city would instead create a Department of Public Safety and a new public health approach to safety.

Sahan Journal contacted federal, state, and county elected officials who represent Minneapolis residents by phone or email about their stances on the public safety ballot measure, and reviewed their public statements on the issue. 

Sahan Journal found that the majority of elected officials who openly support the ballot question are people of color. But prominent elected officials cautioned that ethnic background or race might not be the reason for an official’s stance. 

Credit: Aala Abdullahi | Sahan Journal

“I’ve just been around this issue for a while, and my experience tells me that we need to change the status quo,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. “Other people may have different experiences, and maybe their experiences aren’t solely related to their ethnic or racial background. But I don’t know.”

JaNaé Bates is the director of communications for Yes 4 Minneapolis, the main organizing group for the ballot measure. Bates told Sahan Journal that the current infrastructure of policing excludes input from communities of color.

“The issue of public safety impacts communities of color the hardest and, most certainly, they’re the first to feel it,” Bates said. “It makes sense that electeds of color are more ready to have the communities of color have a say about public safety and how those decisions are made.”

While we broke down our findings below, we will be updating responses from elected officials ahead of Election Day should they choose to report their stance on the public safety ballot measure.

‘We need to make a structural change’

Ellison was an early proponent of the charter amendment. He tweeted on August 31 that he will vote “for greater public safety & more human rights for all.” 

“I support it because we have had literally decades of tragic interactions between police and community,” Ellison told Sahan Journal. “If we ever want to change that dynamic, we need to make a structural change.”

As attorney general, Ellison has a key role in the state’s criminal justice system. The attorney general’s office provides legal representation to more than 100 state agencies, boards, and commissions. It represents the state of Minnesota in state and federal court. Ellison added that he’s had experience representing victims of excessive force. Police brutality is an issue he’s been fighting against since he was a law student.

His son, Jeremiah Ellison, who represents the Fifth Ward on Minneapolis’ City Council, also supports the charter amendment and voted for a similar proposal last year.

Yes 4 Minneapolis hosted an event featuring U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, Ellison, and other elected officials Sunday.

Ellison announced his support the same day Ilhan published an opinion piece in the Star Tribune

“The constraints and failures of the current city charter led us to this moment,” Ilhan wrote. “The charter amendment would allow the people of Minneapolis to deploy qualified professionals to serve the city we live in today, not 60 years ago.”

Other high-ranking Democratic officials who represent Minneapolis, such as Governor Tim Walz, and U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have voiced their concerns about the public safety charter amendment. Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan did not respond to Sahan Journal’s requests for comment in time for publication.

“After many conversations, I have concluded that Amendment #2 does not address the core public safety challenges we face, and may well move us in the wrong direction,” Smith said in an emailed statement October 18.

Public safety is a conversation for state officials, too

Two weeks before Election Day, Yes 4 Minneapolis tweeted about statements of support from nine state legislators and one county commissioner. 

In the statehouse, Representative Esther Agbaje (DFL–Minneapolis) told Sahan Journal that living through the murder of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic showed her the need for a holistic public safety system.

As a resident of Minneapolis, Agbaje said she decided how to vote like any other private individual in the city. But she also recognizes her platform as a state representative.

“It’s a conversation that comes up in almost any setting that I’m in,” Agbaje said. “What is the fate of public safety? What does public safety mean to people? How do they imagine it?”

Agbaje said she sees the issue as one of accountability. Police would exist under a public safety department, Agbaje said, but mental health professionals and non-police traffic enforcement officials would also hold responsibility. 

“We need to follow the lead of the people,” Agbaje said. “We know there are people on the ground that have been researching this—that have been living this—and I think it behooves us to meet the people where they are on this.”

Like the city at large, Agbaje said her colleagues are also divided on the ballot question. 

While she said she hasn’t noticed more vocal support from other legislators of color, she has noticed that support is higher with younger legislators.

Other state legislators of color who support the ballot measure include: Representatives Fue Lee, Aisha Gomez, Mohamud Noor, Hodan Hassan, Patricia Torres Ray, and Senators Omar Fateh and Kari Dziedzic.

In an emailed statement to Sahan Journal, Dziedzic said she urges the Minneapolis City Council and mayor to listen to diverse voices across the city and incorporate their ideas in a new public safety system.

“I look forward to hearing those ideas and collaborating with community members at the Capitol to enact the changes needed at the legislature to improve public safety,” Dziedzic said.

Representatives Frank Hornstein, Jamie Long, Emma Greenman, and Senators Bobby Joe Champion and Scott Dibble did not respond in time for publication.

Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley is also a supporter of the public safety ballot measure. 

County Commissioners Marion Greene and Irene Fernando did not respond in time for publication.

“I approach this question as a resident of the southside of Minneapolis, where I was born and raised,” Conley told Sahan Journal, “as someone who lives five blocks from where George Floyd was murdered.”

While Conley said she’s voiced her support for the ballot measure “first and foremost, as a resident,” she added that she’s in a unique position as a county commissioner since her district is the only one in Hennepin County that is entirely within the city of Minneapolis. 

Conley said she’s voting for a public safety department because it would encompass a “robust, healthy public health response” that includes police officers, mental health professionals, and social workers. Conley herself has a bachelor’s degree in social work.

“This was a culmination of years of lack of trust in the police department from people like me who are Black, who have Black children who might be accosted one day,” Conley said.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.