MINNEAPOLIS — Seventeen months after George Floyd’s murder led to nationwide calls to abolish or defund the police, voters in the city where the movement began soundly rejected a proposal Tuesday to replace its troubled police department in an election likely to have national implications in the debate over policing and racial justice.
City Question Two would have amended the Minneapolis charter to allow the police department to be replaced by a Department of Public Safety. The new agency would have taken a “comprehensive public health approach” to public safety, including dispatching mental health workers to certain calls and more investment in violence prevention efforts.
The measure also would have removed decades-old language from the city charter requiring a minimum number of police officers based on its population. The new department “could include” police officers “if necessary” — wording that potentially doomed the measure among residents concerned about rising violent crime in the city, even as supporters argued the city would still have armed police because state law requires them to respond in certain circumstances.
People on both sides of the fight had predicted results would be close, but with 99 percent of precincts reporting late Tuesday, 56 percent of voters had rejected the measure — a disappointing result for supporters of the initiative, who blamed “disinformation” and “fearmongering” for the loss.
“The empire strikes back,” tweeted D.A. Bullock, a Black filmmaker and activist associated with the racial justice group Reclaim the Block, who had strongly advocated for the measure.
Voters also were considering the fate of Mayor Jacob Frey, a liberal Democrat who has faced criticism over his leadership of the city after Floyd’s murder — including his refusal to defund the police and his response to the city’s rising crime. All 13 members of the city council were also on the ballot in an election that has been driven by the intense debate over public safety in the city’s first election since Floyd died on May 25, 2020, beneath the knee of a White Minneapolis police officer.
Final results on those races, which will be determined by ranked-choice voting, were expected Wednesday. But Frey, who held a commanding lead in first-choice votes, welcomed the ballot measure’s defeat and called on residents to unite in favor of “true and transformational change” in public safety.
“Minneapolis right now is sending a message to the entire nation that real progress requires real work,” Frey told supporters at an election night watch party. “We need deep, structural change to policing in America. At the same time, we need police officers to make sure that they are working directly with the community to keep us safe.”
While Floyd’s murder sparked urgent calls for reform in a city where residents have long complained about the brutal tactics of police, especially toward people of color, the question of how to get there exposed deep divides across this overwhelmingly Democratic city.
“We can’t continue like this. We need change with the police,” said Chris Conner, a 26-year-old retail worker who was preparing to cast his ballot at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, just blocks from the burned-out husk of a South Minneapolis police station that was destroyed in the fiery protests in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
Conner, who is White, recalled how changes made after other high-profile police killings in the city — body cameras and enhanced training — were supposed to fix the department’s problems and offer more accountability. But Floyd was killed, and Conner said he has observed no change in “hostile behavior” from police — “only that you see them less.”
“I feel like it’s better to start over,” said Conner, who voted in support of the ballot measure.
Across town in North Minneapolis, the heart of the city’s Black community, which has been hard hit by rising violence, voters said they strongly supported reform but were uneasy about what replacing the police department would mean, pointing to the lack of specifics about what would happen next.
“It’s a no-win situation,” said Nicole Dillard, who voted against the policing question. Dillard, who is Black, said she was no fan of Minneapolis police, but she worried the ballot measure was a backdoor effort to simply abolish the police, which was untenable in a neighborhood where gun violence has killed and wounded dozens of people this year. “We need someone to call, and if it’s not police, who will it be?” Dillard said. “We already don’t have enough police on the street.”
Not far from where Dillard voted was a large memorial for Aniya Allen, a 6-year-old who was fatally shot while riding in her mother’s car in May — one of several children killed by stray gunfire this year whose killings have gone unsolved.
The policing measure would have expanded oversight of the city’s public safety to include the city council and the mayor, who has had sole administrative oversight of the police department.
But voters appear to have been turned off by the lack of specifics about how the new agency would have been established — a detail raised by high-profile critics of the measure, including Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.
In a news conference last week, Arradondo, the city’s first Black chief, called the idea of having to report to 14 different people “wholly unbearable” and suggested the ballot measure would further endanger the city’s most vulnerable, including people of color who bear the brunt of violent crime.
The state’s best-known Democratic liberals — U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, both of whom live in Minneapolis — actively campaigned in support of the measure, while other top Democrats, including Gov. Tim Walz and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, opposed it.
Although the White House never formally weighed in on the ballot measure, advisers to President Biden worked on opposite sides of the fight, which spurred millions of dollars in contributions to both sides — much of that money from interests outside Minneapolis and a nod to the national implications of the election.
JaNae’ Bates, a minister and leader of Yes 4 Minneapolis, said earlier Tuesday that if the measure failed, “disinformation” put out by the measure’s opponents would be to blame. But she argued the group’s efforts had transformed the conversation around public safety in the city and it would continue to fight for reform.
“No matter what happens today, the eyes of the world will continue to be on Minneapolis as we move forward, because there’s work to be done regardless of the outcome of the election,” Bates said.