On June 7, 2020, nine members of the Minneapolis city council pledged to dismantle the police department during a public meeting in Powderhorn Park. Credit: Ben Hovland | (c) 2020

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Updated Friday, September 17, 3:25 p.m.

Minneapolis voters will finally have their chance to vote on the future of their police department this fall, more than a year after George Floyd died under Derek Chauvin’s knee.

The upcoming election marks a major step for the movement sparked by Floyd’s murder—and a test for Minneapolis voters after a labyrinthine, bureaucratic, and needlessly confusing process. Just days before early voting was scheduled to begin, a district judge, Jamie Anderson, struck down the ballot language, leaving Minneapolis residents wondering whether their votes on the amendment would even count. But the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed Judge Anderson’s decision the night before early voting began, clearing the way for voters to make their voices heard.

Want to find out more? Here’s what you need to know! But if you just want to know whether you, a Minneapolis voter, can weigh in during this election cycle on the future of public safety in your city—the answer is unequivocally, despite all the confusion, yes!

Here’s how we got here: After Floyd’s murder, Minneapolis residents took to the streets by the thousands, demanding real change. At times, the protests turned violent and destructive. In some parts of the city, residents and business owners banded together block by block to defend their neighborhoods, feeling abandoned by the police. And after a harrowing, heartbreaking week, a supermajority of City Council members stood on a stage at Powderhorn Park and pledged to begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.

Since then, the story has taken many twists and turns, as community activists and politicians pushed for changes to the city’s public safety policy. But those proposals have run into seemingly endless barriers. An unelected group called the “charter commission” that oversees changes to the city constitution. Three lawsuits over word choice. Vetoes and veto overrides. A last-minute Supreme Court ruling.

For a subset of people who follow local Minneapolis politics like sports fans (yes, they exist), the drama may have provided some excitement. But for many voters, all the back-and-forth has proved confusing. And throughout that time, you may have seen misleading national headlines about how Minneapolis has defunded the police (wrong) or failed to defund the police after promising to do so (too soon to judge). 

Now, more than a year after the promise on that stage, Minneapolis voters will have the chance to weigh in on the future of the police department.

But if you tuned out for the last dozen twists and turns of this saga, keep your eye on the ball. The season finale is coming on Election Day: Tuesday, November 2. Early voting is already underway. And if you are a Minneapolis voter, you can have your say on whether the city restructures its approach to public safety.

Here’s your guide to the charter amendment that you’ll actually be voting on.

Wait. Are you sure I can actually vote on this? Will my vote count? I thought a judge struck it down.

Yes! If you are a Minneapolis voter, you can vote on it and your vote will count. A district judge, Jamie Anderson, struck down the final ballot language, but the Supreme Court reversed her decision, and they have the final say. Do not be confused. Your vote counts.

What is a charter amendment anyway?

The charter is the city’s constitution. An amendment is a change to that charter. Simple, right?

What would this proposed charter amendment actually do?

Right now, the city charter requires that Minneapolis maintain a police department. The charter also says the city should employ 1.7 police officers for every 1,000 residents. At the city’s current population levels, that comes to about 730 officers. 

The charter entitles the city to levy a $3 tax for every $1,000 of taxable property to fund the police department. The charter also currently states that the mayor has “complete power” over the department. The mayor appoints and the City Council approves a police chief with a three-year term.

The proposed change would strike the entire section about the police department. Instead, it would replace that entity with a Department of Public Safety. The proposed charter language states: “The Department of Public Safety is responsible for integrating its public safety functions into a comprehensive public health approach to safety, including licensed peace officers if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department.”

The mayor would not have “complete power” over the Department of Public Safety. The mayor would appoint, and the City Council would approve, a Commissioner of Public Safety, rather than a police chief. Like other departments (though unlike the current police department), the City Council would be able to pass ordinances that guide the department’s operation. And there would be no minimum staffing or funding requirement.

So, does that mean this charter amendment would abolish the police?

Well, the charter amendment language abolishes the requirement for a police department. But it does not, in and of itself, abolish the police.

“It absolutely does not do that,” said Minister JaNaé Bates, communications director and campaign co-lead for Yes 4 Minneapolis, the coalition pushing for the charter amendment.

The requirement for a police department is distinct from the existence of a police department. Council Member Steve Fletcher, who represents parts of downtown and northeast Minneapolis, told Sahan Journal that if the amendment passes, the council will have to pass an ordinance laying out the structure of the new Department of Public Safety. He expects that department would include a division of law enforcement.

“Particularly in year one, as we make the transition, that division is going to look an awful lot like the current police department,” he said.

Even if there were widespread consensus among the mayor, the City Council, and the people of Minneapolis to abolish the police overnight—and to be clear, this political consensus does not exist—the city would face some logistical hurdles to doing so.

For one thing, under state law, only licensed peace officers (the official legal term for “police officers”) can respond to certain types of calls. Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader outlined these types of incidents in a September 2020 memo to the Charter Commission, including responses to domestic abuse, car accidents, crimes in progress, and anything that might necessitate use of a gun or an expedited response: that is, a patrol car with lights or sirens.

Leili Fatehi, campaign manager of All of Mpls, a newly formed political action committee that opposes the charter amendment, said it wasn’t clear what policing would look like if the amendment were to pass. (Fatehi is an ally of Mayor Jacob Frey: her public affairs firm, Apparatus, managed communications for his 2017 successful mayoral campaign.) Minneapolis could, perhaps, contract with the Hennepin County sheriff or state troopers to provide policing services, she said—which in her view, would make law enforcement less accountable to Minneapolis government and voters.

“There’s no clarity on what comes after this amendment, other than Minneapolis does not have a police department, and it does not have a chief of police, and it now has the Department of Public Safety that reports to a City Council that’s going to design it later on down the line by ordinance,” she said. “I do not know that there will be, necessarily, policing services.”

But Fletcher said that those are services city residents expect, and city police officers will continue providing them.

Wait—so we are keeping the police regardless? Then what’s the point of restructuring the department?

The Minneapolis Police Department is a “police-only model,” Bates explained. A new Department of Public Safety would take a more expansive approach to include other professionals who could respond to different kinds of emergencies. And it would allow more flexibility for staffing and funding.

“It makes it possible for our public safety to be fit for purpose for the city,” Bates said. “And that means that when people call 911, they can feel confident that a right-sized response will show up. So if they have a loved one who’s having a mental health crisis, they would not expect an armed police officer to show up, but instead someone who specializes in mental health crises.”

Some programs like these, including a co-responder program pairing an MPD officer with a mental health professional, have already been piloted in Minneapolis. 

“We want to be able to get that to scale,” Bates said. “If we create the Department of Public Safety, we can really fully staff this up…they’ve really been making magic happen on a shoestring budget.”

Bates imagines other kinds of specialists who can respond better to people experiencing homelessness or sexual abuse, and a focus on preventative strategies that reduce crime and violence in the long term. As the needs of the city change over time, the Department of Public Safety would have flexibility to adapt to what residents want and need, Bates said.

Bringing all these public safety functions into one department would help the organization coordinate better in the short term, Fletcher said. Instead of trying to get a squad car as fast as possible to any 911 call, the department could figure out the best and most appropriate response.

“I think that’s actually a very big paradigm shift,” he said.

In the long term, he said, “The vision for the future is that public safety workers, whether they’re mental health responders or law enforcement, have a role to play, know what that role is, are trusted to do that role, and feel like part of the city.”

Do we really need a charter amendment to create a Department of Public Safety?

No. But Minneapolis would need a charter amendment to change the structure of the Minneapolis Police Department.

The charter is the city’s constitution. The only way to change the charter is for people to vote on it, like we’re doing now. As we’ve seen, that may involve a multi-year process.

Many city departments are established and detailed by ordinance, rather than in the charter. They do not have required staffing and funding minimums. The City Council votes on ordinances, which makes them easier to change than provisions in the charter. The council also passes budgets, which determine annual staffing and funding resources. 

A 1961 push with help from the police federation enshrined the Minneapolis Police Department in the charter with specific funding and staffing minimums that are constitutionally required.

The City Council could, by ordinance, establish a Department of Public Safety. And they can fund alternative public safety programs, like mental health co-responders, through the budget.

“By definition, anything that is beyond policing is already within the purview of the City Council,” Fatehi said. “These guys have wanted to fund group violence intervention, they wanted to fund mental health co-responders, that was already happening under the existing system. When council members have worked in good faith in coordination with the mayor’s office, those are things that have ended up in the budget.”

But without a charter amendment, they cannot change the structure of the Minneapolis Police Department. By bringing law enforcement functions into the Department of Public Safety, the proposed charter amendment would do both.

What’s more, without a charter change, the City Council cannot change the staffing and funding minimums required in the charter.

“It allows there to be flexibility and staffing and budgeting, which we currently don’t have in the way that the charter is set up,” Bates said. “It’s very rigid.”

So why are people opposed to this charter change?

Fatehi, of All of Mpls, said her group wants to see “serious structural reforms” to the Minneapolis Police Department, including training, accountability, discipline, and recruitment. But, she said, this amendment would make those reforms harder.

“It basically calls for an abandonment of all efforts to have transformation of the police department through comprehensive reforms. And instead, it calls on the City Council to, somewhere in the future, come up with an undefined plan for public safety,” she said. “If you eliminate the police department, and you eliminate the police chief, and you eliminate the line of accountability for the police, you are eliminating those very fundamentals of policing that would be reformed.”

Besides, she added, structural reforms for more training and accountability, and additional funding for safety beyond policing, don’t require changing the charter. And the proposed amendment doesn’t guarantee them, either.

“The residents of Minneapolis are very united in the demand that we have more accountable, more transparent, and more just policing,” she said. “And this amendment moves us in the opposite direction of that happening.”

Mayor Frey agreed.

“I think probably everybody who’s running for election this year is for a comprehensive approach to public safety,” Frey told Sahan Journal. “The issue is the reporting structure.”

Wasn’t there a lawsuit over ballot language? What was that about?

Well actually…there were three lawsuits over ballot language.

When you go to vote, you don’t see the actual charter language (though you can see it here). You see a summary of the language that fits on the ballot. In this case, the question of what constitutes a fair summary of the charter language became a hot political issue.

Judge Jamie Anderson struck down three different versions of the ballot language—one which Yes 4 Minneapolis found “unreasonable and misleading,” and two that amendment opponents also found “unreasonable and misleading.”

After Judge Anderson struck down the third version of the ballot language, when the ballots were already printed, many voters who wanted to exercise their rights declared the entire process unreasonable and misleading.

On September 16, the day before early voting began, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed her decision, letting the third version of the ballot language stand and allowing votes on it to count. That’s the version you’ll see when you go to vote.

And remember, all of these lawsuits were just about how the potential charter change is presented to voters. None of these language changes actually affected the impact of the proposed charter amendment.

So after all of that confusion, what will the ballot actually say?

City Question #2 

Department of Public Safety 

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions by the Department of Public Safety, with those specific functions to be determined by the Mayor and City Council by ordinance; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?

Explanatory Note: This amendment would create a Department of Public Safety combining public safety functions through a comprehensive public health approach to be determined by the Mayor and Council. The department would be led by a Commissioner nominated by the Mayor and appointed by the Council. The Police Department, and its chief, would be removed from the City Charter. The Public Safety Department could include police officers, but the minimum funding requirement would be eliminated.

What happens to the police union if this amendment passes?

It would largely remain intact. Even if there is no city department called the Minneapolis Police Department, as long as the city employs people who are performing law enforcement functions, the union remains.

“What we’re not allowed to do would be to create the same job with a slightly different title and slightly different responsibilities: You’re no longer represented by the Federation anymore and you’re not a police officer anymore, but you’re basically doing the same things,” Fletcher said. 

But, he said, under management rights, the city would be able to eliminate policing positions if they’re performing functions the city no longer deems necessary.

Supporters say that eliminating the staffing and funding requirements would give the city more power in union negotiations. (Minneapolis police are currently working on a union contract that expired in December 2019; negotiations are ongoing.)

“Only their department has funding specified in the charter and an inflexible staffing ratio set in the city’s constitution,” tweeted Javier Morillo, former president of SEIU 26, a local union representing janitors and security guards. “It gives them enormous leverage over the city in contract negotiations.”

If the mayor doesn’t have “complete power” over the police, will there be 14 bosses—the 13 City Council members plus the mayor? Won’t that make it hard to respond to an emergency?

Right now, the City Council plays a role overseeing all departments except the police department, over which the mayor has “complete power.” Under this amendment, that would change.

The mayor would still hold sole power over emergency situations, Fletcher said: As the city’s legislative body, the council does not play a role in emergency management.

But Frey said while that in theory, the mayor has control after declaring an emergency, it doesn’t always play out that way in practice even now. If the amendment passes, he foresees “multiple council members telling the head of public safety, or the head of police, to do different things.”

The change in the reporting structure would be the amendment’s biggest change, he said—and it would be a move in the wrong direction.

“You need a clear line of accountability,” Frey said. “People want to have an accountable police department. They want to make sure that there’s a clear line of both command and direction. And this would go against that.”

He pointed to a summary of interviews with department heads in a report from the Charter Commission (remember them? That’s the judge-appointed, unelected commission that stopped a similar charter amendment from reaching the ballot last year). The report depicts heads of departments as feeling frustrated by direction from multiple elected officials and a lack of central authority.

“They themselves said it’s extremely problematic,” Frey said.

Fletcher pushed back on this interpretation. “I’ve always thought the ‘14 bosses’ argument was really disingenuous,” Fletcher said. “We don’t do policy by one council member talking to the department.”

(A separate “strong mayor” charter amendment aims to bring all city departments under clearer mayoral control; here’s our FAQ about that one.)

One change from the potential reporting-structure shift in the policing amendment: a change in how city leaders determine public safety policies.

For example, in August Chief Medaria Arradondo announced an end to three types of low-level traffic stops: expired tabs, an item dangling from a mirror (e.g., an air freshener), and a broken license plate light. 

During routine traffic stops, Minneapolis police stop and search Black and East African drivers at much higher rates than other drivers. While stops have declined since May 2020, which may be due to lower police staffing levels, the disparities have persisted. And traffic stops that started as routine have led in recent years to the shooting deaths of Philando Castile (in Falcon Heights) and Daunte Wright (in Brooklyn Center).

If the City Council had had an opportunity to weigh in on the new policy, Fletcher said, it would have looked very different.

“I think that the approach that they took is not a very impactful one,” Fletcher said. “I certainly would have advocated for more categories of stop to be included.”

But under the current structure, he said, the council didn’t have an opportunity to weigh in.

What would the Department of Public Safety look like? Is there a plan?

As Fletcher said, the City Council would have to create it by ordinance.

But Fatehi finds that plan insufficient.

“No plan has yet been defined,” she said. “As far as voters know, it’s only the things that have been left at the suggestion of some of the things City Council have said. Nothing has been reduced to writing or any other fixed format.”

The City Council prepared a plan this spring for a public engagement process to create a new department. This plan included a survey in June, public meetings throughout the summer, an outline of a draft ordinance by September, and then public comment on that outline in October through December.

But in May, the city ethics officer, Susan Trammell, warned City Council members that laying the groundwork for a new ordinance during the campaign, and using city resources to create support for the amendment, could violate the law. So council members did not follow through on their proposed plan.

After voter confusion about the lack of a clearly outlined plan for a Department of Public Safety, Trammell clarified this position on September 13. “The council members can work behind the scenes with professional staff on developing the framework for and the components of the policies necessary to implement the measure, if approved by voters,” she said in a statement to the Star Tribune. 

However, she warned they would have to be careful not to use government resources for any form of advocacy. That would include using the city plans for community engagement or to influence voters to vote yes or no on this fall’s ballot.

If the new charter language doesn’t require a police chief, will Chief Medaria Arradondo lose his job?

The new charter language does not specify a police chief. But there’s nothing in the proposed language that would explicitly fire Arradondo.

Remember, if the charter amendment passes, the City Council will need to pass an ordinance outlining the structure of the new department.

That structure would likely include a leader of the division of law enforcement, Fletcher said. And the mayor would need to name a Commissioner of Public Safety. Either of those people could, theoretically, be Arradondo.

But Fatehi doubts he would want the job in a restructured department.

“I imagine that it would be at best untenable and at worst impossible for the voters to count on Chief Arradondo staying with the city of Minneapolis with a totally undefined set of roles,” she said.

Indeed, it sounds like he wouldn’t want that newly defined job. “If the current city charter amendment to the reporting structure passes and results in bringing 14 different people into Minneapolis’ daily reporting structure, it would not just be confusing—it would be a wholly unbearable position for any law enforcement leader or police chief,” Arradondo said in a public statement first reported by Fox 9.  

Regardless, Arradondo’s term is up in January. If the amendment does not pass, the mayor—whether Frey or someone else—will need to reappoint Arradondo or appoint a new chief of police, who must be approved by the City Council.

To Fletcher, the question about Arradondo’s employment misses the point.

“We should not be passing charter amendments based on current personalities,” Fletcher said. “You don’t write the constitution so that it only works for the people in the room…we’ve got to try to create a document that 20 councils from now and 20 years from now, it’s still a useful living document.”

What happens if I leave the question blank? Does that count as a “no” vote?

That’s true for state constitutional amendments, but not for city charter amendments. Only “yes” and “no” votes count toward the total—blank votes don’t count. If 51 percent of voters who vote on that amendment choose “yes,” the amendment passes.

So, what’s next? Who decides?

Are you a Minneapolis voter? In that case, you do!

Early voting starts Friday, September 17. You can vote early in-person or by mail, or go to your polling place on Election Day. The final day to vote is Tuesday, November 2.

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