The Rev. JaNaé Bates, co-lead of the campaign to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety, addresses media after the amendment's defeat. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Minneapolis voters on Tuesday rejected a proposal to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. The amendment’s defeat marks a major blow to efforts to overhaul public safety in the city where a police officer killed George Floyd last May, and to the hopes of people across the country who wanted to see Minneapolis blaze a new path for public safety.

Voters also approved a “strong mayor” amendment to bring the city government under more mayoral control and a charter amendment that would give the City Council authority to pass a rent control policy.

At a press event meant to be an election party, the Rev. JaNaé Bates, campaign co-lead for the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition declared the public safety amendment’s defeat “a lesson, not a loss.”

“What we saw was a whole lot of money, a misinformation campaign, and a handful of people with a real commitment to the status quo,” Bates said in an interview. But, she said, the initiative also saw new heights of civic engagement from the Black and brown volunteers who powered the campaign and had never been involved in politics before. “That will continue the movement.”

The public safety amendment would have moved policing services under a Department of Public Safety that could also have included unarmed response providers who specialize in mental health, opioids, and homelessness. It would have eliminated the staffing and funding minimums required in the charter.

“Progressives went up against powerful and monied forces including landlords, developers, the police federation, Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Business Council and the political establishment who could not stop City Question 2 from passing without telling lies, spreading misinformation, and violating the City’s code of ethics,” said progressive advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota in a statement. “While we did not pass City Question 2, we won hearts and minds and found that most residents in Minneapolis agree with the Yes 4 Minneapolis vision of an expanded public safety system.”

Floyd’s murder under Derek Chauvin’s knee, captured on video by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, sparked protest movements and uprisings across the country. In Minneapolis, thousands took to the streets in peaceful protest. Some turned to property destruction. Large sections of major commercial corridors burned, including the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct building. In the unrest, police officers were caught on camera talking about “hunting” civilians in the streets. Police used an extraordinary amount of force during the protests, in at least one case, partly blinding a journalist. 

So far, the only member of the department to be disciplined for actions during the protest is an officer who spoke anonymously to the media about the department’s toxic culture. And many of the officers who remain have adopted a “hands-off” approach to law enforcement.

In early June 2020, days after Floyd’s murder, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council stood on a stage in Powderhorn Park, in front of a sign reading “Defund Police,” and made a pledge.

“Decades of police reform efforts have proved that the Minneapolis Police Department cannot be reformed and will never be accountable for its actions,” nine members of the City Council read in a joint statement. “We are here today to begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department and creating a new, transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis.”

But they soon identified an obstacle: the city charter—essentially, Minneapolis’ constitution—required both the existence of a police department and a minimum number of officers.

The Charter Commission, a judge-appointed, unelected body that oversees the city’s governing document, blocked the council’s proposed charter amendment for the 2020 election. That action delayed voters from weighing in until this fall. A judge struck down three different versions of the ballot language, all of which declared the proposal’s wording to voters was “unreasonable and misleading.” But the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down her last decision, clearing the way for Minneapolis voters to make their voices heard on the proposed amendment.

Yet ultimately, voters rejected the amendment, leaving in place the staffing and funding minimums and existing structure of the police department. An MPR News/Star Tribune/KARE 11/FRONTLINE poll this fall indicated that Black voters were slightly less likely than white voters to favor the amendment. 

It’s not immediately clear what the next steps might be for the movement to transform public safety. Police reform efforts have stalled in Congress. While some minor changes have passed the state legislature, including a ban on chokeholds, lawmakers have continually refused to pass the changes many police reform advocates—including Mayor Jacob Frey—say are necessary. 

Throughout the campaign, Frey pledged to continue his police reform efforts alongside Chief Medaria Arradondo. But Arradondo has refused to say whether he plans to stay after his term expires in January. And Frey’s reforms have not always resulted in clear change. For example, after Frey banned no-knock warrants in all but the most extreme circumstances, MinnPost found that police were still requesting these warrants at high rates.

Bates, the Yes 4 Minneapolis co-leader, told Sahan Journal she hopes that all the mayoral candidates who have pledged to create a Department of Public Safety—including Frey—follow through.

“We expect that, wholeheartedly, to take place,” she said. That will include adding qualified professionals to the department, like mental health workers, who can address a variety of crises, she said.

Black voters discuss their feelings about the amendment: ‘Bad if you do, bad if you don’t’

At Jenny Lind Elementary School in North Minneapolis, Tyron Vetaw, 41, the brother of city council candidate LaTrisha Vetaw, came to vote against the amendment. “It’s like they’re trying to take my distrust for the police or my distrust for the system and they’re trying to use that to make me think I’m getting a foot forward, when actually I’m taking a step back,” said Vetaw.

Adair Mosley, the president and CEO of Pillsbury United Communities, also voted at Jenny Lind. Mosley supported the premise of the public safety amendment, he said. 

“I don’t know if it does the structural changes that we need in the city as it relates to arbitration, as it relates to the culture, the unions,” said Mosley, who is Black. “But at the same time, I do think that we need to continue to push ourselves around the radical reimagination of what public safety can look like in the city.”

At Cityview School in the McKinley neighborhood of North Minneapolis, voters stepped into a small gymnasium to cast their ballot. Conversations with voters revealed a generational divide.

Some voters seemed to be under the impression that the amendment would abolish the police altogether.  “By tomorrow at this time, there could be a for-sale sign in front of my house, because I do not want to live in a city with no police,” said 75-year-old Marie Lorbiecki, who is white.

Others were concerned about the absence of a clear plan for a Department of Public Safety. 

“I think it’s a complicated issue,” said one 44-year-old Black voter who preferred not to share his name. “I’m not sure that enough information was available to really do anything. Like, if you want to vote for it, you’ve gotta vote for it on faith. And if you didn’t want to vote for it, then you just didn’t vote for it and vote to keep whatever is there now. And it’s kind of bad if you do, bad if you don’t.”

Strong mayor amendment and rent control also pass 

Voters also approved a “strong mayor” amendment. Until now, the police department was the only city department under sole mayoral control. Now, the City Council will no longer be able to issue any orders to city staff without express permission from the mayor. They may seek information from staff in furtherance of their legislative duties “with the mayor’s consent or in a manner that the mayor arranges,” as the charter will now read. The new measure also eliminates the executive committee, a group of four council members plus the mayor, who could, until now, evaluate and fire department heads. 

The failure of the public safety amendment combined with the passage of the governance amendment will not change the structure of policing in Minneapolis, as the mayor already exercised full control of the police department.

However, the amendment eliminated the provision that the police chief’s term last three years; the chief’s term will now coincide with the mayor’s. It also removed the council’s one power over the chief: They will no longer be able to give the chief orders related to “preservation of health.”

JD Duggan and Ben Hovland contributed reporting.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.