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Minneapolis voters chose to keep their police department. Is it still possible to overhaul policing?

"We weren't blown out of the water. We were in the fight," said a supporter of the ballot initiative that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department.
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After Minneapolis voters rejected a proposal Tuesday to replace the city's troubled police department with a department of public safety, legal experts cautioned against viewing its failure as an indictment of efforts to overhaul policing.

The measure, born out of anger and frustration after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer last year, was being closely watched as an indicator of future success for similar attempts to bring drastic change to policing in cities across the country.

The proposal lost by 12 percentage points, according to the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State.

"It sounds like a definitive smackdown of the 'defund' movement," said Rachel Moran, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota. "I think it's way more complicated than that. It's worth paying attention to the concerns of the people who voted no. It's also worth noticing how unhappy Minneapolis residents are with their police."

Moran said she believes a "no" vote was not an endorsement of the police department. She said it was more an expression of concern about what "yes" meant.

"It's really easy to pay slight attention from another city, see that this big effort was made in the city that has been arguably the center of the movement to change policing, and say, 'OK, it failed here. It's not going to work for us either,'" she said. "The reality is, I think this was a very complicated and very nuanced decision."

The measure, known as Question 2, asked residents whether the city's charter should be amended to remove the police department and "replace it with a Department of Public Safety" focused on public health. It called for discarding the city's minimum police staffing levels and would have given the City Council more control over law enforcement and public safety.

Turnout for the municipal election, which also included races for mayor and City Council, was 54 percent of registered voters — the highest turnout for an off-year, municipal-only election in at least 45 years, the Minneapolis city clerk said.

While sup­port­ers of the police measure in­sist­ed po­lice would still be part of the new de­part­ment and steered away from describing it as a plan to abolish or defund the police, opponents zeroed in on the ballot language, which said it "could include" licensed police officers "if necessary."

Minneapolis resident Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, a strategy and communications adviser for All of Mpls, the organization that formed in opposition to the ballot measure, said it failed because "there was no clear-cut plan defined by creating a department of public safety."

Residents were essentially being asked to vote in favor of an outline, the details of which would have been filled in later by public officials.

Moran said she suspects the initiative may have failed because residents were voting for a mayor and City Council members who, if the measure had succeeded, would have determined what the new department would look like, without knowing who would be in those roles.

Like Moran, Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota, said he didn't believe the failed measure would hinder efforts to change the culture of police departments elsewhere in the country.

He said people should see the results of Tuesday's elections "as a mixed bag, because you did have voters in Austin, Texas, rejecting a proposal that would have mandated more police."

The mixed results were present in other cities, as well. In Seattle, candidates who had called to "defund the police" appeared to have been bested by their more moderate opponents, according to early results. But in Des Moines, Iowa, a Black Lives Matter activist who ran on a "defund" platform beat a two-term incumbent for a seat on the Des Moines City Council.

Miski Noor, 36, a co-founder of Black Visions, which had organized voters to support the Minneapolis initiative, has taken some comfort in the results: 62,813 people, or 43.83 percent of voters, supported the measure.

"I'm definitely disappointed that the measure didn't pass," Noor said. "And I also find myself really, really hopeful."

Noor, who uses they/them pronouns, said they do not believe 43 percent "is something to sneeze at."

"We weren't blown out of the water. We were in the fight," Noor said. "Sixty-thousand people in Minneapolis voted for a new vision of public safety."

Black Visions, an organization that says it aims to "dismantle systems of violence," is also a part of Yes 4 Minneapolis, the coalition that collected 22,000 signatures to put the item on the ballot.

"We tripled that 22,000 into over 60,000 votes," Noor said. "And so what that tells me is, there's a lot of momentum, a lot of excitement and folks who are really ready for this new vision of safety and really invested."

Some of the opposition to the measure came from people in predominantly Black neighborhoods at a time when the city has recorded homicide rates not seen since the mid-1990s.

"For a lot of those folks, the conversation was, 'Of course, we want better police, but we still want them very much,'" Moran said. "And in fact, some some people want more police."

There have been at least 80 homicides this year in Minneapolis. The city is on pace to break records set in the 1990s, when Minneapolis was dubbed "Murderapolis."

But Osler said the failure of the measure, even during a period of high crime, "speaks to our reluctance to change things in a systemic way."

The ballot measure, he said, was an attempt to change the culture of the police department that "gave us Derek Chauvin," who was captured on a graphic video May 25, 2020, kneeling on Floyd's neck for 9 1/2 minutes. Chauvin was convicted of murder and sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison.

"So to say, 'Let's keep doing things the way we are,' when that's not working doesn't seem to really address that problem," Osler said.

Both opponents and supporters said they will continue fighting for police accountability.

Smith-Akinsanya, who opposed the measure, said both sides have shared concerns.

"The reason why the measure got 43 percent is because people still want change," she said. "All that means is that we're both looking for the same thing. We just have to figure out how to get there."

Mayor Jacob Frey, a Democrat who led the city when Floyd was killed and who was elected to a second term this week, has pledged, among other things, to hire "community-oriented officers" and to "get serious about reform on a multi-jurisdictional level." He campaigned on improving the current police department.

In his victory speech Wednesday, Frey said, "Anyone that is willing to work with us, even where I disagree, we are willing to do so in good faith, in good faith being the important piece."

"All of the work around safety and accountability is complex — none of it you can fix with a hashtag or a slogan," Frey said.