Downtown Minneapolis business and community leaders leveled criticism Thursday at a group of City Council and mayoral candidates who said in a recent survey that they believe Minneapolis could one day be a city without police.

At a news conference downtown, members of the Downtown Council and Downtown Improvement District (DID), Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood leaders and staff from the nonprofit YouthLink said the response to the Voices for Racial Justice survey was misguided. Some said the candidates who answered “yes” shouldn’t be elected.

“Helping to oversee a big city police department as a policymaker in today’s environment is serious work,” said Downtown Council President and CEO Steve Cramer. “But the responses these candidates gave demonstrated they aren’t treating that task with the seriousness it requires.”

The debate over policing in Minneapolis has intensified this election season. The Fourth Precinct occupation following the 2015 police killing of Jamar Clark produced candidates focused on police reform — including one mayoral hopeful who, after Police Chief Janeé Harteau resigned in the aftermath of another officer-involved shooting this summer, suggested disarming officers. Meanwhile, there’s rising concern about an uptick in violent crime downtown.

The candidate survey, published with Pollen Midwest and Rhymesayers Entertainment, posed questions about a broad range of issues. Several candidates did not respond. Of those who did, seven council candidates, including Council Members Lisa Bender and Alondra Cano, and mayoral candidates Council Member Jacob Frey and DFL state Rep. Ray Dehn, answered “yes” when asked if they believed “we could ever have a city without police.”

Mayor Betsy Hodges and mayoral candidates Nekima Levy-Pounds, Al Flowers and Aswar Rahman all said “no,” the city could never be without police.

Frey said the yes/no question was not included in the initial survey sent by Voices for Racial Justice. Candidates got a list of questions including one that read, “What does a city look like without police? Do you believe this could work?” But to submit their answers in an online form, the question was split in two: “Do you believe that we could ever have a city without police?” and “What would you do, as an elected official, to bring us closer to police abolition?”

Frey said a campaign staffer submitted the original answer he approved in response to the second question. Other candidates, including Bender, said they faced similar confusion with the survey.

“As I said in my answer, getting rid of the police could only happen in a hypothetical world that doesn’t exist,” Frey said. “I’ve made repeated calls to add police officers, and this confusion arose when the questions were changed by those creating the survey.”

Voices for Racial Justice Executive Director Vina Kay said the wording change wasn’t meant to confuse candidates. The voter guide is an effort to engage people who don’t typically participate in city elections, she said, in part by asking tough questions.

“Really, it’s intended to give [people] a different way of thinking about politics,” she said.

Dehn said a city without police is an “aspirational” long-term goal. It would require big federal and state changes, he said, but the city has to fight crime with early intervention, an emphasis on public health and other efforts.

Balancing support, reform

Speakers at Thursday’s news conference said they want to see an approach to public safety and other issues that includes police. Several talked about the role police have in responding to crises such as the 2007 Interstate 35W bridge collapse, as well as the day-to-day work of connecting homeless youth with services or responding to 911 calls. YouthLink Executive Director Heather Huseby said Minneapolis police have saved nine homeless youth who nearly overdosed downtown in just the past three days.

“We recognize, understand and support the efforts to improve the way policing happens in Minneapolis and our state,” Chamber of Commerce President Jonathan Weinhagen said. “But today, we are here to let the police and law enforcement know that we support and appreciate them.”

Bender said her response to the survey question was not a call for an immediate end to policing in Minneapolis. She’s supported millions of dollars of investments in the police department, she said, and worked to balance those investments with support for alternative violence prevention strategies.

“At the same time that the downtown business community and others are asking for increased police presence and that approach to public safety, there are a lot of people in the city asking us to rethink public safety because their communities do not trust the police,” she said. “That’s just a reality in our city.”