Voters in Minneapolis have resoundingly rejected a proposal to reinvent policing in their city, 17 months after the killing of George Floyd by police sparked massive protests and calls for change.
Approximately 56% of voters rejected a ballot question that would have removed the Minneapolis Police Department from the city charter and replaced it with a "public-health oriented" Department of Public Safety.
The "Yes" campaign conceded defeat in a statement that read, in part, "We spoke the truth while the opposition, Democrats and Republicans alike, spread lies and mischaracterized our measure to create confusion, distrust, and fear. "
Nationally, the vote was seen as a test of the political movement to "defund" traditional policing as it ran up against concerns about rising violent crime.
The "defund" movement, which called for shrinking police budgets and shifting the money to other social purposes, gained ground in the summer of 2020. A few days after Floyd's murder, most members of the Minneapolis city council appeared at a "defund" rally.
But as violent crime surged nationally — and in Minneapolis — some of those same local politicians backed away from the idea. In 2021, the "Yes" campaign, supported by national left-of-center groups such as the ACLU and MoveOn.org, also distanced itself from the "police defunding" label.
Campaign spokeswoman JaNaé Bates framed the amendment as an "expansion of public safety." She said the elimination of the traditional department structure — and the requirement for a minimum number of police officers — would give the city more flexibility in how it responds to crime.
"You actually can staff the department the way that meets the needs of the people," Bates told NPR in October. "We wanted to really be centered and focused on the safety of human beings."
The "No" campaign — "All of Mpls," funded partly by local business interests — framed the amendment as a leap in the dark.
"It does not present any sort of plan for what will come after," says campaign manager Leili Fatehi. "There's no specificity as to what services [the Department of Public Safety] would provide, what law enforcement would look like, what residents can expect."
Opponents said it was a dangerous time for that kind of uncertainty as an exodus of police officers left the Minneapolis Police Department understaffed, even as the city endured a near-record spike in gun crimes and homicides.
The two sides jousted over whether traditional police officers would be part of the new system. The "No" campaign pointed to the language of the charter amendment, which said the new Department of Public Safety "could" employ police officers "if necessary."
"Yes" campaigners called the warnings about the disappearance of police "fear-mongering."
"Police will be part of the city of Minneapolis," Bates said during a debate in October. "There is a state mandate that overrides anything that the city sets up, that requires police officers to respond to a whole series of situations."
The two sides also argued over the police chief, Medaria Arradondo. An African-American officer who came up through the ranks of the MPD, he's more popular than most local politicians, and minority groups in the city see him as a force for reform.
Opponents of the amendment warned that eliminating the office of Chief of Police would mean losing Arradondo, while proponents said there would be no reason he couldn't be kept on in the leadership of the new system.
Arradondo roiled the waters last Wednesday when he spoke to the press — in uniform, and in front of an MPD backdrop — to express his misgivings about the charter amendment.
"Yes" campaigners criticized the chief for taking sides, drawing an ethics complaint for using city resources to weigh in on a political matter.
The charter amendment vote also divided Minnesota's Democratic Party. U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and state Attorney General Keith Ellison weighed in to support it, while U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Tim Walz opposed it.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Minneapolis residents voted last night to stick with their police department in a ballot measure on police reform. A year and a half ago, after George Floyd was killed by a police officer, there were large protests calling for change. The proposal that was voted down would have meant change.
NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste is following this one. Good morning, Martin.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: What would this proposal have done exactly?
KASTE: Well, it would have replaced the existing police department with a department of public safety. And that would have been more than just a new label. It would have sort of rearranged the flowchart of who was in charge of policing in Minneapolis. Right now it's the mayor and the police chief who run the police department. But this amendment would have let the city council get more involved, sort of redesign things, set priorities, including fewer police, if that had been their priority. And they could have used that money for other things, such as anti-violence programs with the - sort of a public health approach.
KING: Was this the police defunding that many people were calling for last year?
KASTE: Well, it was not, according to the yes campaign. They objected very strenuously to anybody who called this defund. They said this was about making - what they said - the system more flexible, letting the city try new ways to do things, expanding public safety. That's what they kept calling this. But they also insisted that there would be police in the new system, that cops would be just one piece of the puzzle, alongside more mental health responders and anti-violence volunteers, that kind of thing, but that police would still be present.
KING: OK, so last night, about 56% of voters in Minneapolis said, no, we don't want this. Why do you think that is?
KASTE: Well, I think for the last year or so, Minneapolis has already had sort of a taste of what life would be like with fewer cops because a couple hundred officers left the department starting last summer. The department's been below the city charter's required minimum number - required by law. They've been below that number. And at the same time, the city saw a big jump in homicides and gun crime, like other parts of the country. Just Monday, the day before election day, the city saw six carjackings - or attempted carjackings - in the space of two hours. And, you know, that's the kind of crime that used to be far more rare in Minneapolis. So people can argue whether that violence is somehow connected to fewer cops. But the two things did coincide in time. And a lot of people I talked to in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Minneapolis definitely saw a link there.
KING: Does this no vote mean that the call for change is over?
KASTE: I wouldn't say that. People are still very concerned about a department that has a long history of bad behavior. And people keep getting reminded of things. Like, a federal jury just found a former Minneapolis cop guilty of doing illegal searches and stealing drugs. A few weeks back, people saw some newly released body cam footage from the protests, in which officers seemed to be joking about hitting protesters with less-lethal rounds. So there's a strong sense in the city that this is a department with a culture problem. And even the no campaign kept saying that they wanted to see reform.
KING: So where does reform, such as it is, head now?
KASTE: Well, I think that pressure is not going away - the pressure for reform. A lot of people hope that some of that will come from the police chief, Medaria Arradondo. He's Black. He came up through the ranks of this department. When he was younger. He was part of a group of Black officers who sued the department for discrimination. And as chief, just earlier this year, he got a lot of credit for testifying against one of his officers, Derek Chauvin, during the Floyd murder trial. So, you know, some people in Minneapolis told me that they were voting to keep the current department in part just to keep him in as chief, to give him a chance to reform things. But I'll also add that the feds will play a role here, most likely. They are investigating the department. There could be some sort of move toward either a lawsuit or pressure for reform, so we should definitely watch the Justice Department as well.
KING: NPR's Martin Kaste. Thank you, Martin.
KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.