I've talked to people who are voting both yes and no on the Minneapolis public safety charter amendment. I'm voting yes, because yes represents the hope that we can have better, more humane and more effective public safety in the future. My fear is that a no vote extinguishes hope and leaves us with the status quo.
I know a lot of no voters also really want change. And I know a lot of yes voters want police officers available to keep the city safe and reject the notion of supposedly "defunding" the police. But in the aftermath of Minneapolis' cataclysmic reaction to the torture and murder of George Floyd, the debate has become extremely polarized. What we really need is a communitywide conversation about what public safety means in every neighborhood, about what the amendment does and doesn't do, and our shared hope for a better city, no matter how we vote.
I'm not new to this conversation. As a young lawyer, I represented victims of police abuse and successfully lobbied the City Council to establish civilian review of complaints against officers. As attorney general, I now assist prosecutors across the state in holding violent criminals accountable and won a conviction against Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.
And a year before George Floyd was murdered, Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and I pulled together a statewide working group of law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, scholars, philanthropy and community — the first of its kind anywhere — on how to reduce deadly force encounters with police. We knew the issue had to be addressed urgently and outside the context of a crisis. That's exactly what we did, and three months before George Floyd was murdered, we released 28 recommendations and 33 actions steps, all of which we came to by consensus.
It wasn't easy. We had hard conversations between people who were just as opposed on some issues as proponents of yes and no on the charter amendment are now. I know those hard conversations can be had and resolved because John Harrington and I led them.
Now more than ever, we need to drive a conversation in Minneapolis about how we can have both safety and human rights, both a feeling of security and a feeling of hope. The vote on the charter amendment gives us that opportunity.
Since I announced I will vote yes, I've talked to many individual no voters: I haven't run into any who don't want reform. I've talked to a lot of yes voters: I haven't heard from any who want to eliminate police entirely. And yet we talk past each other without any real resolution. If we don't get into a higher-quality debate now, we're going to be in a lose/lose situation. If yes wins, some people will be fearful and think about leaving the city. If no wins, some people will think their neighbors don't care about the fact that George Floyd was murdered here.
Part of the problem is that other things you may have heard are not true. It is just not true that the amendment will eliminate the police department, defund the department or fire the chief. Nothing in the actual language says that.
What is true is that the majority of us have the drive to change and the will to hope for a safer and more just city, regardless of how we vote.
My opinion is that while many Minneapolis police officers, including the current chief, have served many people well over the years, good people inside the status quo aren't enough by themselves to make fundamental change: we need a systems change. The charter amendment creates the possibility for the kind of systems change we need by integrating the Police Department into a new Department of Public Safety that includes other safety services like the Fire Department and the Office of Violence Prevention. It frees us up to plan and invest comprehensively for how we define safety today.
The police-only model that we've relied on for decades no longer works for large parts of our city: too many people in communities of color, who want and deserve the same level of safety that exists in other parts of town, are fearful of calling the police when they need protection. That makes everyone less safe in every neighborhood, but it's understandable, given the long history of police killings in Minneapolis of unarmed people, mostly African American — from the elderly couple Lloyd Smalley and Lillian Weiss, killed in a botched drug raid in 1989 with no accountability, to George Floyd in 2020, and too many in between.
Some people are worried the amendment gives the City Council too much control over the police. But the council cannot and will not manage the daily operation of the police department or any department. Under the current charter, however, the council has no power: It can't even pass a policy banning chokeholds. The charter change will allow the council oversight, not management or authority over daily operations. Most importantly, the public will have ample opportunity to weigh in on that issue and others when the council passes ordinances to enact the amendment.
Others are concerned with the amendment language that the new department will employ peace officers "if necessary." Clearly, they are necessary: we still need armed officers to respond appropriately to dangerous situations. The amendment will free them up to focus on that work while mental-health professionals, social workers and violence-reduction specialists respond to calls about nonviolent folks in crisis, panhandlers, the unhoused — and fake $20 bills.
What if that had happened for George Floyd?
To me, a yes vote represents hope in a better, safer future that includes everyone in every neighborhood, with no one left behind — and includes the best police we can imagine. A yes vote also represents us resolving to act. When it comes to too many chronic problems in our society, we don't act: we know what works to build resilience to climate change, bring down the price of prescription drugs, or curb gun violence, for example, but we continually punt. After the murder of George Floyd in our city and the destruction of Lake Street, we in Minneapolis can break that cycle of inaction. Instead of coming up with reasons why the change we say we want isn't practical now, we can rise to meet this historical moment and the needs of the future with a yes vote.
I believe we as a city can get through fear to hope together if we assume the good intentions of folks on the other side of the debate. If we really talk to each other and commit to reform no matter how we plan to vote, I have faith we will leave the status quo behind and get to a better, safer place. Let's get talking.
Keith Ellison is attorney general of Minnesota.