Minneapolis Park Board Commissioner LaTrisha Vetaw challenges incumbent Phillipe Cunningham in the Minneapolis City Council race in Ward 4. Credit: Ben Hovland and Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Teto Wilson used to support his city council representative Phillipe Cunningham—so much so that he became Cunningham’s barber. But over the last few months, Wilson said his support dwindled as he became increasingly worried about safety in his community.

“I stopped supporting Phillipe because of this charter amendment,” Wilson said of the ballot measure calling for a reimagined public safety system. “He dropped the ball on engaging his constituents for what this Department of Public Safety would look like.”

Wilson, a barber at Wilson’s Image Barber and Stylists, on West Broadway Avenue in north Minneapolis, said he brought his concerns to Cunningham. But he didn’t feel like he walked away with confidence in the public safety vision he heard from his City Councilmember. 

Now, Wilson has switched his support to Cunningham’s leading challenger LaTrisha Vetaw, 45, a Minneapolis Park Board Commissioner and a director at NorthPoint Health and Wellness. 

Wilson joked about Cunningham’s patronage: “I was his barber since he’s been elected—I don’t know if I’m going to be anymore.”

Cunningham, 34, has been hearing a lot of concerns about public safety this election season.  “There’s a lot of fear-mongering, abusing real fear that people are feeling, for political gain,” Cunningham told Sahan Journal. “That is something that people should be concerned about, see it for what it is, and be ready to course-correct when this election is over. Because we really can’t operate our politics this way.”

The race between Vetaw and Cunningham in Minneapolis’ Fourth Ward may be unusual, but it echoes themes from other Minneapolis City Council races. In neighboring Ward 5, incumbent Jeremiah Ellison, who supports sweeping changes to public safety in the city, faces challengers, like Victor Martinez, who has called for an increased police presence in north Minneapolis. With a controversial charter amendment on the ballot, and a slate of City Council candidates for and against it, public safety and policing has become a decisive question and a divisive one, too.

“Our positions on these ballot amendments are drawing a clear contrast in our candidacy,” Vetaw told Sahan Journal. “Now people are just saying: Where are you on public safety? Where are you on rent control? Where are you on strong mayor? And that’s how they’re determining who to vote for.”

What are Ward 4 candidates saying about policing?

Minneapolis’ Fourth Ward makes up the northernmost part of the city. Eleven neighborhoods comprise the city’s Fourth Ward: ​​the Camden Industrial Area, Cleveland, Folwell, the Humboldt Industrial Area, Lind–Bohanon, McKinley, Shingle Creek, Victory, Webber–Camden, and parts of Jordan and Willard–Hay. The City Council approved a development project on October 8 for the Upper Harbor Terminal that will build up parts of the McKinley and Webber–Camden neighborhoods, running east toward the Mississippi River.

North Side residents are also concerned about rising crime. According to Minneapolis Police, 35 of the city’s 75 homicides in 2021 occurred in the Fourth Precinct, which includes Ward 4. 

LaTrisha Vetaw poses for a portrait inside of her campaign offices in North Minneapolis on Tuesday, Sept 21st 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Vetaw’s stance on policing includes partnering with Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo to reform the police department by increasing the role of social service and mental health providers. She also supports diversifying the police force while requiring training on community policing, conflict management, and racial bias.

“I want us to put policies in place that hold police officers accountable. I believe in strong reform,” Vetaw said. 

Cunningham, who’s in his first term as a city council member, led numerous public safety measures, including a version of the public safety charter amendment question drafted by City Council members. 

“You can see the wheels turning in their heads,” Cunningham says about his constituents. “It’s like, ‘We need something to be done about gun violence, but I know that police aren’t the answer. But I don’t know what the other answers are.’”

The City Council withdrew that version when a similar citizen-led question collected enough petition signatures to reach this fall’s ballots. If the ballot measure passes, Cunningham’s priorities will be to build out a new public safety system, while also reducing gun violence, rolling out domestic violence intervention strategies, improving road safety, and reducing the frequency of crime among multiple offenders. Cunningham says he’s seen strong support for a new public safety system.

“You can see the wheels turning in their heads,” Cunningham said about his constituents. “It’s like, We need something to be done about gun violence, but I know that police aren’t the answer. But I don’t know what the other answers are.”

Cunningham said he’s found some of those answers through developing a public health analysis of violence prevention and public safety. He reiterated that police do play a role in a public health approach to policing.

The summer after the police killing of George Floyd, Cunningham attended a rally at Powderhorn Park with eight fellow city council members, hosted by Reclaim the Block and Black Visions. A “DEFUND THE POLICE” sign in large, white letters lined the front of the stage.

The Minnesota Reformer reported Friday that Cunningham said in a virtual forum that he did not see the sign before walking on stage, and recounts telling the rally organizer that he would not pledge to “defund” the police—a word whose very meaning has become confusing and contested.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison greets Minneapolis City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham outside of the Clara Barton Open School in Minneapolis. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

A third candidate is also running for the Ward 4 seat. Leslie Davis, an environmental activist, has led many unsuccessful campaigns over the past 30 years, including bids for city, county, and state offices in Minnesota. This year, he is running as a We The People candidate. He told Sahan Journal he’s against the public safety ballot measure and instead believes in a “well-funded and superbly trained” police force.

“The problem we’re having with the police these years is that they’re not properly trained to be ethical and sensitive and racially just,” Davis said.

Playing a role on the Park Board

Wilson first met Vetaw when she was running for the Minneapolis Park Board in 2017. She stopped by his barbershop to talk about the future of the city’s parks and green space. About four years later, when he started questioning his support for Cunningham, Wilson started initiating more conversations with Vetaw. She had announced her run for City Council in December 2020.

Teto Wilson poses for a portrait inside of Wilson’s Image Barger and Stylists on Sept. 24th, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“She’s concerned more about the inner-city crime,” Wilson said. “We’re both believers in pure reform, reforming the police department from top to bottom.”

Vetaw met with Sahan Journal at her office at the edge of the Webber–Camden neighborhood in north Minneapolis. She wore a denim jacket with pins of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to congress, a pin of a rainbow map of Minnesota, and a Lions Club membership pin, an international community improvement group with a chapter on the North Side. A white board on the wall counted down the days to November 2.

Vetaw is currently the vice president of the Minneapolis Park Board. Through her role, she said she’s developed connections with city officials in the mayor’s office, City Council, and the Minneapolis Police Department. She said running for City Council felt like the right way to utilize those connections to ensure safety and reformed policing in north Minneapolis.

Vetaw is also the director of health policy and advocacy at NorthPoint Health and Wellness. The clinic provides medical, dental, and behavioral health services for low-income residents in north Minneapolis. She’s worked on public health policy in the area for the last 20 years. She’s also a homeowner who lives in Willard–Hay.

Vetaw has listed five priority issues on her campaign website: reforming the police, economic development, livability, housing affordability, and investing in the redevelopment of the Upper Harbor Terminal. The project, which has received $12.5 million in state-funded bonds, will create housing, commercial and green space, and an outdoor amphitheater along the North Side’s riverfront.

“There was a range of things people wanted to talk about when I first announced I was running. Now, it’s just about public safety. It’s just about babies being shot in the head. It’s just about traffic safety.”

Ward 4 challenger LaTrisha Vetaw

“There was a range of things people wanted to talk about when I first announced I was running,” Vetaw said. “Now, it’s just about public safety. It’s just about babies being shot in the head. It’s just about traffic safety.”

When Vetaw first moved to north Minneapolis with her family 30 years ago, she said she appreciated the small-town feel of the city. Everyone knew everyone, she said, and you didn’t have to leave the city to buy essentials because there were several grocery stores within the range of a few bus stops.

“My mom brought us here for a better life and when we got here, it just felt like the best life,” Vetaw said. “I felt safe.”

Vetaw and her family had previously been living in low-income housing in Chicago. Her mother’s family had lived in the same housing project. The family enjoyed a support system, but after a friend was shot in the Vetaw family’s home, Vetaw said her mom decided they had to move. 

When Vetaw settled in north Minneapolis, she said the small-town ties made her feel safer.

“The community surrounded us and helped my mom raise her three children as a single mom,” Vetaw said. “But the last five years haven’t felt like that close-knit North Side that I always felt.”

Who makes up Minneapolis’ Fourth Ward?

Vetaw and Cunningham may disagree, but they both express an appreciation for the incredibly diverse constituency that makes up Ward 4.

Among the people living on Cunningham’s block in Folwell are a Hmong family, an interracial family, multiple trans folks, two gay couples, as well as Black, white, and Latino families. He added that his neighborhood isn’t uncommon in north Minneapolis. 

“That’s exactly the way my block was in the previous block I lived on in Ward 4—except there were three gay couples,” Cunningham said, and laughed.

But Cunningham notes that marginalized communities in Ward 4 face stark disparities.

Cunningham has spoken about his trailblazing role as the first transgender man of color to win political office in the United States: “As a ‘first’ I want to be able to take space where people have not been before and then create space for folks who are like me,” Cunningham told Freedom For All Americans, a nationwide campaign to secure full nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. “I take that responsibility very seriously, and that’s incorporated into my leadership.”

Minnesota Compass, a local nonprofit that looks at demographics, broke down the makeup of the approximate Ward 4 area (which it labels the Camden community). People of color make up almost 57 percent of the Camden community; 39 percent of residents are white. Black residents make up about 35 percent of the population. The population in north Minneapolis also skews younger, with almost 28 percent of Camden residents falling under the age of 17 (versus about 20 percent in the city at large). 

A third of residents make less than $35,000, which is the federal poverty level for a family of six. In terms of housing affordability, almost 58 percent of renters are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. About 42 percent of homeowners are also cost-burdened.

The data look different when you break it down by individual neighborhoods.

In Ward 4’s Victory neighborhood, for example, white residents make up nearly 70 percent of the population. In Folwell, 70 percent of the population are people of color. There’s also a higher percentage of people who make more than $100,000 in Victory than Folwell—28 percent versus 10 percent. 

Because the experiences of residents living in Ward 4 vary by neighborhood, Cunningham said, so does their interaction with crime and policing.

According to police data analyzed by the Star Tribune, Ward 4 saw an 18-percent increase in violent crime (which includes homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault and domestic aggravated assault) in the last five years. The increase isn’t as drastic as, say, Ward 5’s 36-percent increase. However, residents still note a rise in crime as one of the most prevalent issues in the ward.

Jacob Potter is a former Ward 4 resident and a field manager for Yes 4 Minneapolis, the citizen-led coalition that has pushed for the public safety ballot measure. Potter’s work focuses on speaking with residents in Ward 4.

“People are scared,” he said of violent crime in north Minneapolis. “But also, people that I talk to know that these things happened while we still had our current safety system.”

Potter talks to voters about the ways a new department of public safety might pursue ways to preempt crime. A new Department of Public Safety in the city can make sure people—particularly teenagers—have the resources they need to keep them from resorting to criminal behaviors.

Potter said he’s been able to garner support for the public safety ballot measure through these conversations.

“A lot of the divide comes from misinformation that’s being put out—that there’s going to be, like, anarchy when we create this new public safety department, and that’s just not true,” Potter said. “The police will still be a part of this new public safety program, but in a way where they’re not put to calls where they have no business being at.”

Potter explained and said other representatives in the public safety department, such as mental health professionals, could answer certain calls instead.

Cunningham said he, too, has observed significant support for a change in policing in the ward. 
Vetaw, by contrast, said she’s noticed the opposite. “Sometimes I feel like a large percentage of the white people I talk to about the ballot measure just need to hear a Black person say: I’m okay with police. The assumption is that we all hate police,” Vetaw said. “But the conversation shifts when I physically say the words, I support having good police.”

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