Minneapolis is again considering sweeping changes to the city’s police department more than a year after the failed push to disband the department in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
Residents will vote Nov. 2 on a ballot question that would change the city's charter and create a department of public safety, a proposal that has attracted thousands of local supporters but also fierce community opposition as well as national attention and money.
It was unclear how the question would appear on the ballot until a day before early voting began Sept. 17, when the state Supreme Court approved precise wording of the question. Previously, a lower court judge rejected the question twice, saying the wording failed to adequately describe the effects of the proposal.
The proposal would remove the requirement that the city have a police department with a minimum level of funding. If approved, the department would instead use a “comprehensive public health approach” and include licensed peace officers “if necessary."
The department would also no longer be under the sole control of the mayor’s office, allowing the city council to decide how the new department would be structured, led and funded.
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Yes 4 Minneapolis, a coalition of dozens of local groups, proposed the measure, acquired more than 20,000 signatures to get it on the ballot and raised more than $1 million. Leaders say that shows there is still widespread community support for changes to the police department more than a year after Floyd's murder sparked a national conversation about police brutality and systemic racism.
"I think that the folks of Minneapolis are ready for concrete change. They're ready for a shift, they're ready to unite and heal," said the Rev. JaNaé Bates, a co-leader of the campaign.
If the amendment passes, Bates said the mayor and city council would select a commissioner and pass ordinances to determine how the department functions and is staffed, a process she said could take months. Officers in the Minneapolis Police Department would become part of the new public safety department and work alongside mental health specialists, Bates said.
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In June 2020, a majority of city council members pledged to dismantle the police department, but their amendment never made it onto the ballot. The council proposed another plan in January, similar to the Yes 4 Minneapolis proposal, but later withdrew it to avoid confusion among voters, according to Steve Fletcher, a member of the council.
Fletcher is in favor of the citizen-led measure because it is "unacceptable" and "unsustainable" for the city to maintain the status quo after Floyd's death.
"If 20,000 citizens sign a petition, I think they deserve to have their question heard," he said. "This is actually the direction a lot of cities are going and certainly because we’re at the center of it, it puts even more pressure on us to get it right."
Under the new department, Fletcher said, law enforcement would be reduced and would focus on responding to violent crime while specialized responders would address mental health, addiction, homeless outreach and violence prevention.
The plan from Yes 4 Minneapolis, however, has drawn opposition – including from Operation Safety Now, which leaders describe as a grassroots movement of residents concerned about public safety. Co-founder Bill Rodriguez believes the ultimate goal of Yes 4 Minneapolis is to get rid of the city’s police department all together.
"We need to focus on police reform without question. We also need to have a fully functioning, fully staffed police department that protects us," Rodriguez said. "This is nothing more than a Trojan horse."
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Rodriguez said the thousands of signatures gathered by Yes 4 Minneapolis does not indicate widespread support and that a majority of donations to the campaign came from outside the community.
Yes 4 Minneapolis reported receiving roughly $430,000 of "in-kind" donations, which could include staffing or other nonmonetary help; $75,000 in cash and nearly $4,000 in staff time from the American Civil Liberties Union; and smaller donations from city residents and local groups Black Visions and Reclaim the Block, according to the Star Tribune.
Another opposition group, All of Mpls, launched in July and raised more than $109,000 to campaign against the proposal through door-knocking, mailers and digital ads. Leili Fatehi, the campaign manager, said it's clear the community wants structural reforms to policing, but the amendment does not provide a clear plan for the future of the department.
"It doesn’t have anything in it that guarantees that any structural reforms to policing would even take place," Fatehi said. "When you scrap a department all together without a clearly articulated plan for what comes next, you are basically asking voters to just trust that the next council that’s elected will come up with a plan."
Bates, of Yes 4 Minneapolis, said the public safety department would "absolutely" have police and that the plan intentionally lacks specific details to allow residents to work with elected officials to shape it.
She emphasized that the goal of the amendment is not to defund or disband the police.
"I want to be explicitly and abundantly clear that this entire amendment is dedicated to expanding and fully funding the department of public safety," she said.
Mayor Jacob Frey is opposed to the Yes 4 Minneapolis proposal, saying it would likely leave voters and the department "uncertain" about who is directing and responsible for police activity.
"My primary reason for opposing this charter amendment comes down to accountability," Frey said in a statement in August. "If passed, this proposal will dilute accountability by diffusing responsibility for public safety across 14 policymakers.”
Frey unveiled a budget plan in August that would restore the department’s budget to nearly $192 million, almost the same amount it was before Floyd’s death, and increase recruiting classes to boost staffing by as many as 150 officers. City council will vote on the budget in December.
The department, like others around the country, lost more than 200 officers who quit, retired or took disability leaves after last year's protests.
Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo have enacted several policy changes since Floyd’s death, including requiring new training on de-escalation, overhauling use of force restrictions and strengthening the disciplinary process. The Justice Department and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights are also investigating the policies and practices of the department, a review that could result in more changes.
But Bates said years of reform hasn't led to progress.
"(Arradondo) alone can’t fix this, the mayor alone can’t fix this," she said. "The way the current structure is set up hasn’t been working."
What Minneapolis voters will see on the ballot
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?
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.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Minneapolis defund police: Residents vote on public safety department