'Let's try something different': Minneapolis residents to vote on ballot measure to replace police department

'Let's try something different': Minneapolis residents to vote on ballot measure to replace police department

On Nov. 2, Minneapolis residents will decide whether to replace the city's police department with a Department of Public Safety.


MINNEAPOLIS — Three weeks before Election Day in the city's municipal races, Candis McKelvy attended a debate about a ballot initiative to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety.

She listened intently for 90 minutes as a representative from Yes 4 Minneapolis, the coalition that petitioned to put the item on the ballot, and a supporter of All of Mpls, which opposes the measure, tried to pull residents to their respective sides.

By the night's end, McKelvy was stuck in the middle.

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"I'm on both sides," said McKelvy, a North Minneapolis resident in her 60s who was among the roughly 250 people at North High School, where the debate was held.

She agrees with the measure's proponents that the city's police department is broken and in desperate need of an overhaul. But she fears that revamping it would mean losing the city's popular Black police chief.

"I need one more piece of information," she said as she left the debate. "If I vote no, then do things just stay the same?"

That question is on the minds of many Minneapolis residents as they grapple with how to vote Nov. 2 on one of the first major tests of the national police reform movement since George Floyd's death last year.

The measure before them, Question Two, would amend the city's charter to get rid of the police department and replace it with an agency that provides a "comprehensive public health approach" to public safety. The specifics of that department, including who would serve as its commissioner, would be decided later by the mayor and City Council.

Supporters of the proposal say it would bolster public safety to include not just police officers but also mental health and substance abuse experts, violence interrupters and others better suited to handle situations that armed police officers ordinarily face. The goal is to reduce the role of police in calls involving homeless people, mental health issues and substance abuse, said JaNaé Bates, a spokeswoman for Yes 4 Minneapolis.

But opponents have seized on the vague wording and newness of the ballot initiative to encourage residents to vote against it, suggesting that it would effectively "defund" the police and fail to address violence in the city.

"It raises more questions than it gives answers," said the Rev. Jerry McAfee, a pastor at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, who represented the "no" vote during the debate

The proposal has divided the community, including those who previously had been aligned in calling for changes in policing after Floyd was killed by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020. It also has divided some of the state's top Democrats. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Attorney General Keith Ellison, for example, support the plan, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who is running for a second term, oppose it.

'Let's try something different'

Demonstrators began pressuring Minneapolis to overhaul its police department last year shortly after Floyd's death sparked a racial reckoning against police brutality and racial injustice. The request drew early support from a majority of the City Council who already had been calling for reform.

City Council member Steve Fletcher said Floyd's death "accelerated the conversation quite a lot."

Yes 4 Minneapolis, a coalition of more than 100 businesses and organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said it gathered more than 20,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

The council, which would get more control over law enforcement and public safety if the measure passes, approved the ballot language in July, and after it was challenged, the state Supreme Court last month cleared the way for voters to consider it.

Minneapolis is among a number of municipalities considering or trying to overhaul its police department, an outgrowth of calls to "defund" the police following Floyd's death.

The ballot measure says the new department "could include" police officers "if necessary." It does not include the word "defund," but critics say the measure is intentionally vague so as to conceal its goal to do so.

"I've been really challenging everybody to get past the word," Fletcher said. "Pick whichever word you want. Reimagine, transform, defund, disband, restructure, reinvest, whatever the word is that works for you ... and focus on what would it do and what we actually have to change together."