How will city unite after ‘defund’ vote?

November 10, 2021
Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign manager Corenia Smith, left; Greg Nammacher, president of SEIU Local 26, center; and Yes 4 Minneapolis communications director JaNaé Bates, right, pose for a photo.


  • A USA TODAY analysis of last week’s voting data on the Minneapolis police charter shows a divided city – but not cleanly along racial lines.
  • The momentum to “defund” police after George’s Floyd death in May 2020 seems to have slowed as national polling shows a pullback from the movement, as well as Black Lives Matter.
  • Minneapolis is facing a “scary and dangerous” status quo: The city has tallied at least 81 homicides this year, compared with 82 in all of 2020.

Minneapolis activists who failed in their bid to overhaul the city’s policing structure are hardly calling it a loss.

The measure to replace the police department garnered 44% of the vote on Nov. 2 –   a large enough share that proponents hope will hold DemocraticMayor Jacob Frey accountable to drastically change a city riven on racial, economic and geographic lines.

“We have shifted the conversation in the city of Minneapolis … that public safety and policing are not synonymous,” said JaNaé Bates, a leader of Yes 4 Minneapolis, the primary campaign behind the ballot question to create a department of public safety.

“We have advanced … the possibility for some really dynamic policy changes within the city and the state – and, quite frankly, the country.”

A USA TODAY analysis of last week’s voting data shows a city divided, with some white neighborhoods voting overwhelmingly “no” and Black neighborhoods split on the question.

Still, Frey – who opposed the proposal – police officials and activists pledge that there will be unity going forward. They all agree on one thing: The city needs to move past the chaos that has marked the 18 months since George Floyd’s murder by former police officer Derek Chauvin.

Opinion:We’re all for police reform. Minneapolis measure wouldn’t have done it.

Opinion: Win or lose, police reform ballot measure shows America is over status quo policing

“This historic election needs to mark a moment for our city to come together and do the hard work required to achieve the accountability and safety goals we broadly share,” Frey said in a statement to USA TODAY. “… Our administration will not mistake unity for unanimity.”

Frey is expected to release details of efforts to better the department in areas like police-community relations, violence reduction and overall accountability.

Cities need time to figure out their needs when it comes to police and public safety reform, said Domonique James, head of Politics with Purpose, which advised the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign.

“Nationally, it’s important for each city to have some space or breathing room,” she said. 

That’s precisely what happened in Minneapolis, according to James and observers like Vincent Atchity, founder of Care Not Cuffs, which engages departments to focus more on social service and mental health training. The group was not associated with the Minneapolis ballot question. 

“The failure of the Minneapolis measure does not indicate a lack of interest in transforming policing, just some hesitation about getting it right,” Atchity said.

The election result was “an acknowledgment of the community’s need for police. We shouldn’t interpret this as the community saying that they’re OK with brutality and racial profiling.”

Minneapolis voters appear to reject temporary ‘vacuum of policing’

The measure had been criticized by opponents for lacking specificity. There was no outline or detailed plan for how a public safety department would operate, though supporters said that was intentional to allow the city council to get the needed pieces in place and ensure a new department ran according to community needs.

“It was kind of going to move the city into a vacuum of power, or a vacuum of policing, for some period of time while they got their stuff together for a public safety agency,” Atchity said. “And that’s not ideal. An ideal path is methodical and deliberate and very taut, closely tied to transformational change in the way policing happens.”

Few in the community understand the political and legislative intricacies that govern large agencies like the police, said law professor Anthony O’Rourke, of the University of Buffalo.

“Efforts to change police agencies are in some ways a one-way ratchet,” O’Rourke said, explaining that existing police structures can do things like increase the budget with “relatively few structural or legal impediments.”

On the other hand, he said, “If you want to reduce that budget out of concern that it’s not being used wisely or out of a desire to transfer resources to other social service agencies that might be equally effective in addressing and reducing violence and crime, you’re going to encounter a host of barriers.”

O’Rourke said grassroots efforts seek to rethink what public safety means, but the public often “reasonably assumes that, given the barriers to reform, police are the only option available.” 

A break in the ‘blue wall’? A trial for American policing, the struggle for public trust begins anew

The “no” vote on Question 2 was the second loss for changing Minneapolis policing since Floyd’s death on Memorial Day 2020. The first came months later when a proposed city council measure to replace police with a public safety department fizzled.

Frey characterized the proposal as “defunding police,” an often-miscast catchphrase that grew up after Floyd’s murder.

But activists said that was inaccurate and part of a “fear-mongering effort,” according to supporters like James. The defeated measure did not call for a bankrupt police department, but rather to replace the traditional force with a “holistic” public safety department with the charge of meeting the social needs of the city while allowing “peace officers” to focus on violence.

The fast start of police “defunding” after Floyd was killed seems to have slowed nationally, as polling shows a pullback from the movement, as well as Black Lives Matter, amid high violent crime in the U.S. Also, more voters want to spend on law and order, according to polling and research by Gallup and Pew Research Center.

Minneapolis voters last week appeared to reject the dearth of specifics against a backdrop of rising crime in the city – at least 81 homicides have so far been tallied in the city this year, compared with 82 in all of 2020.

About 80,000 people, or 56% of the vote, rejected the measure and about 63,000, or 44%, voted for it. 

An analysis of voting trends appears to show the results did not break cleanly along racial lines.

Opposition to the ballot measure came from downtown and some whiter neighborhoods like Kenwood and Southwest, election data shows. And some predominantly white neighborhoods such as Uptown and student-rich areas near the University of Minnesota tended to vote “yes.”

Meanwhile, predominantly Black neighborhoods like Near North and Camden were split on the question, according to the data. 

Before the vote, Black pastors and other leaders, including the city’s first Black Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, spoke against it.

“There is no real reform or plan in Question 2,” wrote a coalition of Minneapolis Black pastors in an op-ed published in the Star Tribune on Oct. 24. “Nothing about police accountability, training, hiring, discipline, or anything to achieve organizational change.” 

Jacob Frey faces ‘scary’ status quo after winning reelection as mayor

Despite the disappointment of a loss at the ballot box, the campaign achieved many goals, said Miski Noor, co-director of Black Visions Collective, a civil rights and anti-police brutality group. Among them: Activists doubled the 12,000 required signatures to get the question on the ballot. The measure also survived a challenge at the state Supreme Court.

The number of “yes” votes is hard to ignore, too, Noor said.

Bates, Noor and other activists said they plan to hold Frey to his promises to expand the social safety net and better answer unique community safety needs.

“These moments definitely put pressure on elected officials,” Noor said. “I think community organizing also puts pressure on them to actually move in alignment with what the people want.”

Frey was reelected but didn’t win the first round of the ranked-choice voting, which requires 51%. The second and third choices were then tallied, showing Frey with 56% over Kate Knuth, who was in favor of the ballot question and secured 40% of the vote. 

Activists and Frey have agreed the city needs more mental health specialists, social workers and homeless outreach.

But part of the continuing tension between city officials and community activists deals with the budget, Noor said. As it is, traditional policing soaks up most of the funds that could help create a system to care for people in need with a different approach.

Under the budget proposed by Frey in August, about $192 million was dedicated to the police. The department’s share of the city’s funds had shrunk after Floyd’s killing, and Frey’s requested amount would make the police budget roughly the same as before.

Meanwhile, Frey said that he has invested “record amounts” in his budgets since first elected to social services. He also has called for better weeding out troubled police officers, much like Chauvin, who had a record of civilian abuses. Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, and the three other officers involved go on trial next year.

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“Police often, when not properly trained in certain kinds of interventions, either misread the situation or just bungle the response and bad things happen,” said Atchity, of Care Not Cuffs. “The path forward for transforming policing is better training and awareness of health needs and how health needs can drive behaviors and knowing how to de-escalate people.”

No matter the result of the election, activists say people want to feel safe in their homes – and from police. Doing so requires the sort of public safety response that Frey and activists both see, although through different structures – Frey through the existing department and activists by starting over with a new one.

“What folks are clearly saying is that the status quo is very scary and dangerous, and that they don’t want that to continue,” Noor said. “We have to reimagine public safety… Organizers will absolutely work to hold the leaders accountable.”

Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest Criminal Justice Reporter for USA TODAY Network. Follow him at @EricFerk. Aleszu Bajak is a senior data reporter at USA TODAY and can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Signal at 646-543-3017.


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