The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A ballot initiative on overhauling police after George Floyd’s death is tearing Minneapolis apart

While some liberal activists support the measure, others — including many Black leaders — say it’s too vague and will only exacerbate the city’s violent crime spike

People stand at a makeshift cemetery during a remembrance gathering for George Floyd near 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, also know as George Floyd Square, on May 25 in Minneapolis. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

MINNEAPOLIS — There are no memorials to the dead along West Broadway in north Minneapolis, but many in this historic heart of the Black community can point out where lives have been lost.

There’s the gas station at the corner of Lyndale Avenue. The parking lot of the liquor store across the street. Even Shiloh Temple, one of the city’s oldest Black churches, hasn’t been spared. A gun battle after a funeral there in June killed one man and injured several others. On the adjacent residential streets, rolling gunfights have sent bullets flying, further traumatizing residents after the police killing of George Floyd.

“It feels like no place is sacred,” said Brian Herron, a pastor at nearby Zion Baptist Church, where residents have sought shelter from gunfire in recent months. “It has been trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma.”

Last year, hundreds of people gathered in the pews here to mourn Floyd, including scores of Black residents who shared their own stories of being treated unfairly by police.

But even as Floyd’s murder sparked urgent calls for police reform, the question of how to get there has exposed deep divides across Minneapolis, exacerbated by a spike in violent crime. A Nov. 2 ballot question that would dramatically reshape the size and scope of the Minneapolis police force has fractured the city even more in the first major electoral test of the police reform movement since Floyd’s death.

City Question Two, as it is known, would amend the Minneapolis charter to allow the police department to be replaced by a Department of Public Safety overseen by both the mayor and city council. The Department would take a “comprehensive public health approach” to safety, including the dispatch of mental health workers to certain calls and more investment in violence prevention efforts.

If approved by voters, the initiative would remove decades-old language from the charter requiring a minimum number of police officers based on the city’s population. The new department “could include” police officers “if necessary” — wording that has left some residents afraid the city would descend into lawlessness.

Authors of the proposed charter amendment insist armed officers wouldn’t entirely go away, because they are mandated by Minnesota law to respond to specific calls. “We’re still going to have police,” said JaNaé Bates, a Black reverend and leader of Yes 4 Minneapolis, a coalition of labor, religious and racial justice groups that wrote the question and gathered more than 20,000 signatures to get it on the ballot. “What this does is give the city more flexibility in how we approach safety.”

But the measure’s critics say the initiative’s wording is intentionally vague, leaving out the words “defund” or “abolish” to obscure its true meaning. “This amendment is about abolishing the police,” said Sondra Samuels, a Black activist from north Minneapolis who was part of a group that unsuccessfully sued to get the question off the ballot. “It has nothing to do with safety and systemic change.”

The ballot question comes after a majority of the Minneapolis City Council took the stage at a rally days after Floyd’s death and pledged to dismantle the police department — a dramatic statement that reverberated across the country, becoming an issue in political races big and small.

“All eyes are on Minneapolis,” said Mayor Jacob Frey, who is simultaneously running for a second term in office and against the charter amendment on policing, which he argues will send a city already struggling with violent crime into further distress.

“We need deep structural reform and change. … But here in Minneapolis, we have the fewest officers per capita than just about any major city in the entire country,” said Frey, who currently has sole oversight of the police department as mayor. “The notion of further reducing our officer count just does not make sense.”

But Sheila Nezhad, an organizer and one of more than a dozen candidates trying to unseat Frey, said the city had spent years trying to enact police reforms in a department that has been resistant to change. Nezhad’s organization, Reclaim the Block, has advocated for a “police-free future” and helped write the ballot language.

“We’ve been reforming, and things aren’t getting better,” Nezhad said. “We need bigger solutions.”

The debate has also drawn attention from outside the city — sharply dividing state and national Democrats along ideological lines in an election that could have implications far beyond Minneapolis as the party looks to the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential race.

The state’s best known Democratic liberals — U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, both of whom live in Minneapolis — have come out in favor of the question, while other top Democrats — including Gov. Tim Walz and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, who also live in Minneapolis — oppose it. And while the White House has not formally weighed in on the measure, advisers to President Biden are working on opposite sides of the fight.

A year after George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis remains scarred, divided

Less than two weeks before Election Day, people on both sides of the ballot question say things remain unpredictable, pointing to private polling and data from citywide canvassing that suggests residents are deeply split on the question — with many undecided even as early voting has begun.

In one of the few public surveys on the issue, a September poll of 800 Minneapolis likely voters by the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, KARE 11 and PBS’s “Frontline” found that 49 percent supported replacing the MPD with a new department of public safety; 41 percent were opposed, while 10 percent were undecided.

Yet 55 percent also said Minneapolis “should not reduce” the size of the police force — including 75 percent of Black residents and 51 percent of White residents.

On the city’s north side, deciding how to vote on Question Two is particularly fraught. Many here say there needs to be reform in a police department long accused of racism and abuse, but they are fearful of what this particular ballot language would mean in a city suffering through a “pandemic of violence.”

“Nobody disagrees that the culture of policing and policing in and of itself needs to be transformed,” Herron said. “And yet with the violence in our community, it is unconscionable right now to talk about abolishing the police without a concrete plan of public safety.” Members of his congregation complain of police mistreatment, he said, but also acknowledge they need to be able to call police when crime strikes, as it has with disturbing frequency in the months since Floyd’s death.

There have been at least 80 homicides so far this year in Minneapolis — a number on pace to break records set in the 1990s, when the city was dubbed “Murderapolis” during a spike in crime. Almost half have occurred on the north side. More than 530 people across the city have been shot, including young children who have been fatally wounded in the crossfire and whose killings remain unsolved.

The uptick in crime has coincided with a slowdown in police response, which the department blames on staffing shortages. Since Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, nearly 300 officers have left the department — many claiming post-traumatic stress disorder from the fiery protests that erupted after his killing. According to numbers presented to the city council this month, 588 officers were working at the department as of Sept. 30 — down from the 888 positions that had been funded last year.

Police Chief Medaria Arradondo told the city council during an Oct. 18 budget hearing the officer departures were equal to the loss of staffing an entire police precinct. As of this week, just 307 officers were available to respond to 911 calls — “the lowest number” he could recall in his more than 30 years with the department, Arradondo said.

Some residents have also accused the MPD of a deliberate slowdown in service in protest of the debate over policing — an allegation Arradondo has strongly denied.

“In many ways, we are already experiencing what it would feel like to have less police,” said Herron, who, along with clergy from other Black churches in north Minneapolis, have taken to patrolling the streets in the absence of police in recent months in an effort to calm tensions and curb violence.

Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and activist from north Minneapolis who heads the Racial Justice Network, ended weeks of speculation Tuesday when she announced in a nearly hour-long Facebook video that she would vote against question two.

Armstrong, a former mayoral candidate, cited the uncertainty of what the ballot question would mean for public safety — especially for Black communities that often “bear the brunt” of violence both from police and community members.

“Why nearly a year and a half after George Floyd was killed do we not have a written plan of what we are voting for?” Armstrong said.

But she was equally critical of Frey and city council members who she said had not done enough to improve police accountability. “It’s basically a false dichotomy between keep MPD the way it is and tinker around the edges and call it reform or come up with a whole new department with a lot of unanswered questions and uncertainty and the need to trust people who haven’t earned our trust,” Armstrong said.

But D.A. Bullock, an activist and filmmaker who lives in north Minneapolis and supports the ballot question, pointed to recently released body camera videos showing Minneapolis police officers “hunting” and firing on people with rubber bullets during protests after Floyd’s death as a sign of the aggressive culture that residents have long suffered from a department that has resisted change.

Even in the aftermath of former officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction for murder in Floyd’s killing, “they have not kept us safe,” Bullock argued at a recent forum sponsored by the Racial Justice Network, describing it as an “insult” to Black people to suggest that more officers are the solution to the city’s public safety problems.

“Now they’ve got us in a position of desperation, where we’re begging for the same low quality,” Bullock said of the violence that has erupted across the city in the last year.

“Nobody is saying that this charter amendment is providing all the change,” Bullock added. “But if you don’t remove the [officer minimum] in the charter, what magical thinking makes us believe that we’re going to have a legitimate investment in prevention and intervention?”

City council members who support the proposal — including Jeremiah Ellison and Phillipe Cunningham, two Black lawmakers who represent north Minneapolis — have pushed back on critics who question the lack of a “plan,” pointing to guidance from the city attorney who warned elected officials that using city resources to draft potential policy language could violate ethics laws.

With violent crime spiking, the push for police reform collides with voters’ fears

The debate has also played out among racial and geographical lines — with many Black residents of north Minneapolis accusing liberal White residents of south Minneapolis of supporting “an experiment” that could prove harmful to Black residents as they are trying to be better allies in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

“If this thing, if this vote passes, it will pass because a lot of well-meaning progressive White people in south Minneapolis really want to be anti-racist,” Samuels said. “And they feel like if they miss this opportunity, they won’t be allies to us.”

While Yes 4 Minneapolis found support citywide for getting the proposed charter amendment on the ballot, the highest number of signatures in support of the measure came from residents in the south Minneapolis neighborhoods near where Floyd was killed. There, White people in neighborhoods known as havens for liberal activists faced a reckoning of their own after Floyd’s death.

Erika Thorne, a longtime activist who lives about five blocks from 38th and Chicago, the intersection where Floyd was killed, recalled how neighbors organized block meetings to talk about the “sometimes tense” issues of race and social justice. Many residents vowed to stop calling police, fearful of putting their neighbors of color at risk.

It’s a pledge that Thorne has held to, even as shooting has erupted in front of her home three times in recent months.

Thorne, who supports the proposed charter amendment and has been knocking on doors across the city on behalf of Yes 4 Minneapolis, said she has considered the criticism from Samuels and others. But she pointed to other Black activists in the community who argue the opposite — that a vote for the measure will ultimately make the city safer for all residents, including people of color.

“I am both moved and convinced by Black people who are saying reforms that everybody lobbied for have not actually helped the situation,” Thorne said. “We are not seeing the level of change in the MPD that would need to happen for them to stop murdering unarmed Black men, as well as hurting and harming all kinds of people.”

Many of her neighbors remain traumatized by Floyd’s death and the events that happened afterward, when blocks of nearby Lake Street were burned, covering the neighborhood in ash and smoke. “The sheer brutality of his killing and what followed … there were uprisings in lots of places, but here, it was this visceral thing and continues to be,” Thorne said. “People worry there will be another George Floyd."