MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Early voting got underway in Minneapolis on Friday on a contentious ballot question over whether the city where George Floyd was killed should replace its police department with a new Department of Public Safety.
Supporters of the proposed city charter amendment, led by the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign, say it's the only way to fix an intransigent culture of brutal policing that culminated in Floyd's death last summer after white Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the Black man’s neck for about 9 1/2 minutes as Floyd was facedown on the pavement, pleading for air.
Opponents, including Mayor Jacob Frey, say too many questions remain about how the new department would work.
Among the first-day voters was attorney Chris Henjum, who said he was enthusiastically in favor of the amendment and would like a more “nuanced and tailored” approach to public safety. Changes to how authorities respond to mental health calls and low-level traffic stops would “both protect residents but also protect police from preventable incidents,” he said.
“I think the city’s seen a clear track record of unrest, and it’s time to change the status quo to make public safety accountable to its residents,” Henjum said.
Laurie Schlosser, a child psychologist, voted against the amendment, calling it “too vague and too quick.” She lives on the city’s north side, where several residents have died in shootings in the past year, including children who were unintended targets of gun violence between rival gangs, according to police. She agreed the city needs a public health approach to public safety, as amendment advocates envision, but she would like to see those programs built up and working first.
“Our children are traumatized, our teens, our adults, our families are grieving and suffering, and being down 200 officers is not working,” Schlosser said. “We need to build up the public health approach before having any chance of being able to decrease the number of officers.”
Voting concludes Nov. 2. Yes 4 Minneapolis has raised over $1 million in cash and nearly $500,000 worth of in-kind donations from across the country, according to campaign finance reports filed last month. The much newer All of Mpls, which opposes the amendment, raised more than $100,000 in its first few weeks, mostly locally.
The Minnesota Supreme Court cleared the way for the policing amendment to go forward Thursday, ending a bitter court fight over ballot language. Amendment supporters were blocked in their effort to get a version on last year's ballot.
The proposal has its roots in the “defund the police” movement, which gained momentum after Floyd’s death sparked a national reckoning on racial justice. However, support and opposition doesn’t break down neatly along racial lines, with some Black leaders opposed.
The amendment does not use the term “defund,” but it would remove the city charter’s requirement that Minneapolis have a police department with a minimum staffing level. The City Council would decide later how the new department would be structured, led and funded.
Dozens of supporters attended a rally Friday near Minneapolis City Hall. Minister JaNaé Bates led them in chants, including “Black lives they matter here” and “Show me what democracy looks like,” before several activists, union members and elected officials addressed the group.
The speakers touted Thursday’s court decision as a victory for residents and for democracy, and urged people to vote for the proposal, which they say has attracted the ire of wealthy interests.
“The wealthy and the powerful have tried to stop us — the corporations, the faceless actors putting their thumb on the scale. ... They tried to manipulate the will of the people," said Aurin Chowdhury of the Minnesota Youth Collective. “They tried to suppress our vote. But at every step we said no.”
Meanwhile, All of Mpls launched a canvassing campaign on the north side — which has one of the city's largest Black communities —- to build on a door-knocking drive it began five weeks ago.
“Residents want to see real solutions for transforming the Minneapolis Police Department and not a vague promise with no plan from the same City Council that promised a year ago to defund the police," campaign manager Leili Fatehi said.
Regardless of the vote, the police force is the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into whether it has a “pattern or practice” of unconstitutional or unlawful policing. Such investigations usually result in court-ordered changes.
Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.