Minneapolis voters won’t get to decide the fate of the city’s Police Department this year.
In a 10-5 vote, the Minneapolis Charter Commission decided Wednesday to block a controversial policing proposal from the November ballot by invoking its right to take more time to review it.
“We have an obligation to make sure that what is going on the ballot gives the voters an informed choice, that they can make a decision in a thoughtful way,” said Charter Commissioner Andrew Kozak, adding that he didn’t think the proposal accomplished that.
It could still come before voters next year. But the commission’s action to keep it off this year’s ballot dealt a major setback to activists and City Council members who have worked to transform Minneapolis’ public safety system following the police killing of George Floyd.
“People in Minneapolis have been in the streets for months demanding change, only to hear from the Charter Commission that there haven’t been enough studies and consultants,” Sophia Benrud, an organizer with the Black Visions Collective, said in a statement. “When white supremacy is the law of the land, it is a luxury to say we need ‘more time’ before we can make change. Every single voter should have had the chance to vote on this amendment in 2020.”
In recent weeks, the commissioners, all volunteers appointed by a judge, found themselves the focus of intense pressure from people lobbying on all sides of the fight over whether to end the Minneapolis Police Department.
At the center of that debate is the city’s charter, which serves as its constitution, and requires Minneapolis to keep a police department with a minimum force based on its population. A plan, written by five City Council members, would have ended that requirement and replaced the police department with a Department of Community Safety & Violence Prevention that would prioritize “a holistic, public health-oriented approach.”
As part of a last-ditch effort to send the proposal over the hurdle, a group of City Council members sent the commissioners a letter Wednesday assuring them that they “expect the transformed system to include law enforcement as part of a multifaceted approach to public safety.”
“The Minneapolis City Council is not asking you to put police abolition on the ballot, nor does the amendment propose this,” they wrote. “We are asking you to let Minneapolis vote on a new framework for public safety that aligns with the State of Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety.”
In impassioned public hearings and a deluge of written comments in recent weeks, some urged the charter commissioners to wield their powers of review to prevent what they believe is a dangerously vague proposal from heading to voters.
Others said they urgently needed greater freedom to replace a department that disproportionately uses force on people of color, and particularly Black residents. They urged the commissioners not to block the proposal from this year’s ballot.
Leading the effort to delay the proposal on Wednesday night was Charter Commissioner Jill Garcia, who questioned whether the council’s proposal would actually solve the police department’s underlying problems.
“This is an issue that involves the lives, the well-being, the safety of Minneapolis residents,” Garcia said. “This isn’t a bumper-sticker slogan, sound-bite debate. This is something that the city has begun looking at in various times throughout the past several years. The ground is fertile to continue to look at that work and to look at something that prevents the loss of lives.”
On the opposite side was her colleague, Commissioner Andrea Rubenstein, who chaired a work group that studied the plan. Rubenstein said she was skeptical that another 90 days would allow them to gather any more information that would sway their opinions on the measure.
She, like many of her colleagues, shared major concerns about the council’s plan. Still, she said, “I’m concerned that we need to vote this amendment up or down but I’m further concerned that if we table it, it feels more like a sleight of hand.”
Commissioner Toni Newborn said she had significant concerns about the council’s proposal, including how it will affect the police command structure. Still, she said, the need for change is urgent. She fears calling the police when she hears gunshots outside because she worries officers will harass or hurt her husband, who is Black.
“The time is now,” she said. “We should not and cannot wait for change.”
Voting in favor of the delay were commissioners Kozak, Garcia, Barry Clegg, Greg Abbott, Peter Ginder, Barbara Lickness, Jana Metge, Lyall Schwarzkopf, Dan Cohen and Matt Perry.
Voting against the delay were commissioners Rubenstein, Newborn, Al Giraud-Isaacson, Jan Sandberg, and Christopher Smith.
Council Member Cam Gordon, one of five council members who drafted the proposed amendment, said he was disappointed though not surprised with the commission’s vote.
“They were predisposed to not like the idea. They seemed more comfortable with the status quo,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re going to hope to accomplish by reviewing it longer, except to keep it off the ballot, which seemed to be the motivation of the majority of them.”
If the charter commissioners had chosen to issue a recommendation on the council’s proposal, the council would have been allowed to ignore it. The council and the mayor would have then needed to vote on whether to send the measure to voters this year and, if so, how it should appear on the ballot.
With the measure off the table for this year’s election, there are still several scenarios that could unfold.
The council members who wrote the proposal are vowing to push for some version of it to be added to the 2021 ballot. Community groups could also launch petitions to get questions on next year’s ballot.
“We’ve had an unprecedented outpouring of demand for change, demand for justice, unprecedented involvement from folks who are getting engaged in city government for the first time and I don’t want people to feel too discouraged,” City Council President Lisa Bender said. “I’m disappointed and I share the disappointment that I’m sure people are feeling, but we have more ways to move forward as we continue to build this work.”
Council Member Steve Fletcher said he thinks the council will likely try to create this new public safety department on its own.
“We don’t have a choice now,” he said. It would be challenging, though, because they still have to fully fund the police department.
Council Member Jeremiah Ellison promised to continue pursuing other changes.
The killing of George Floyd was a “harsh reality check” that there was no path to reforming the police department, he said. He added that the commission’s decision will not lessen his urgency to find alternatives to policing.
“We’re going to keep pursuing that transformative change,” he said. “I think that at some point, changing the charter is going to have to be a part of that.”