Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar are backing a Minneapolis ballot measure to replace the city's Police Department with a public safety agency, putting them at odds with other prominent Democrats who oppose the ballot question.
A yes vote in November would change the city's charter and create a Department of Public Safety to employ "a comprehensive public health approach" that could include police officers "if necessary." The issue is dividing some progressives from their moderate Minnesota DFL colleagues as national attention is trained on Minneapolis.
"We have an opportunity, once and for all, to listen to those most impacted by police brutality and the communities who have been demanding change for decades," Omar, who lives in Minneapolis and represents the city in Congress, wrote in a Star Tribune opinion piece published online Tuesday. "We have a mandate, in the wake of George Floyd's murder, to deliver a public safety system rooted in compassion, humanity and love, and to deliver true justice. I hope we fulfill it."
Ellison tweeted later in the day that "as a resident of Mpls where George Floyd's murder sparked a national call for real reform, I will vote Yes for greater public safety & more human rights for all."
Their public shows of support came days after U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who lives in Minneapolis, and Gov. Tim Walz expressed their opposition to the ballot question. When Walz was asked about the topic last week, he pointed to the potential for voter confusion over the ballot question and shared his view that "we see this both here and across the country, increasing crime coming out of COVID."
"We need to recognize that the police force is going to be part of that solution," Walz said.
The proposal on the ballot is drawing intense attention ahead of the November election. Floyd's killing last year by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the protests that followed became a national flash point in debates over race and violence by police. Ellison's office led the state prosecution of Chauvin and will lead the pending trial of the three other ex-Minneapolis officers charged in connection with Floyd's killing.
Ellison served in Congress before being elected attorney general in 2018. He's the father of Jeremiah Ellison, who serves on the Minneapolis City Council.
"Fundamentally, communities across Mpls need & want the possibility for reform & accountability, which the current Charter blocks by locking us into an outdated model for law enforcement and safety," Keith Ellison said on Twitter. "They want to end the cycle of inaction."
In her opinion piece, Omar urged a system of public safety "actually rooted in people's basic human needs." She criticized the city's current charter and called for an approach that has a focus on social and mental health workers who would "work alongside officers to give people the help they need and make our communities safer."
Omar also pushed back on what she said is "a well-funded campaign trying to mislead voters" on the ballot question. "Let's be clear about what the amendment is not: It has nothing to do with funding levels, much less 'defunding' public safety in Minneapolis," wrote Omar. "There are no financial components of this amendment."
The proposal, written by a political coalition called Yes 4 Minneapolis, would remove the requirement for Minneapolis to fund a police department with a minimum number of officers based on the city's population. Earlier this year, a judge ordered the city to hire more police officers, saying it wasn't fulfilling the requirements outlined in the city charter.
If the proposal passes, the mayor and City Council would flesh out details of the new department, including its specific funding levels.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, quiet for much of the public debate, on Tuesday issued his most forceful statement yet regarding the proposal that would replace his department with a new public safety agency. He focused his criticisms on a provision that removes the mayor's "complete power" over police, likely granting council members more sway over officers.
"If the current city charter amendment to the reporting structure passes and results in bringing 14 different people into Minneapolis' daily reporting structure, it would not just be confusing it would be a wholly unbearable position for any law enforcement leader or police chief," Arradondo said.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who lives in Minneapolis, said in a statement last week she was still weighing the ballot question. "I do not support defunding the police, but I strongly believe we need to reform policing and create much better ways of focusing on public safety and violence prevention," Smith said.
Some GOP members of Minnesota's congressional delegation were highly critical of the ballot measure when asked this week. Among the delegation's Democrats, Rep. Angie Craig, who represents a swing district south of Minneapolis, wrote in a statement last week that she is "strongly opposed" to the ballot question.
"The Yes 4 Minneapolis referendum is shortsighted, misguided and likely to harm the very communities that it seeks to protect," Craig said.
Staff writers Libor Jany, Briana Bierschbach and Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.