An already heated debate over Question 2 became more so on Wednesday, as Minneapolis' police chief questioned whether residents would be any safer with the passage of the ballot measure that could dramatically change policing in the city.
His remarks set off an immediate frenzy, both privately in local political circles and on social media, where some questioned whether the chief violated ethics rules that forbid city officials from engaging in partisan campaigns.
Standing in full uniform against a backdrop featuring the department's logo, Chief Medaria Arradondo told reporters that he was never asked for input into the proposed charter amendment that would remove a minimum police staffing requirement, paving the way for a new "public health-oriented" agency that would send trained professionals to emergencies involving substance use, mental health and homelessness — while maintaining an unspecific number of armed "peace officers" to respond to violent crimes. But, Arradondo said, the amendment's proponents have never laid out a specific plan for addressing rising gun violence, in a city where four of every five shooting victims are Black.
At this point, he said, "frankly, I would take a drawing on a napkin."
Arradondo said that while he respected residents' constitutionally protected right to vote, he didn't believe the ballot measure would lead to a safer city, nor solve the current problems with policing.
Yes 4 Minneapolis, the political committee that crafted the proposal, released a statement critical of MPD and the city's approach to public safety.
"Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo campaigning in uniform, in explicit contradiction of the policy he himself wrote last year, is one of many examples revealed in his press conference today, why structural change is imperative to keep the people of Minneapolis safe and to implement an accountable and transparent relationship with those who are called to protect and serve," said Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign manager Corenia Smith.
Susan Trammell, the city's ethics officer, had publicly warned elected officials earlier this year that they needed to be careful not to use government resources to advocate for or against the proposals that would come before voters this fall.
"It has long been understood in Minnesota that public funds may not be used to promote one side of a ballot question seeking a particular outcome at an election," she wrote in a May memo.
With Election Day less than a week away, the political rhetoric around Question 2 is heating up.
Arradondo has until now stuck to the fringes of the debate, at least in news interviews, offering a single written statement that said the proposed changes to the department would make it "wholly unbearable" for any law enforcement leader. Speaking to a group of several dozen supporters on the city's North Side earlier this month, he said that any attempts to decrease the department's size amid a rise in violent crime was "absolutely ridiculous."
But his office and that of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey have in recent months coordinated behind the scenes with a group called Operation Safety Now that campaigned against Question 2, according to a trove of e-mails released through a public records request. Proponents of the charter amendment have been backed by similarly well-funded outside groups, the e-mails showed.
When asked whether he would stay on with the department if the charter amendment passed, Arradondo was noncommittal, saying he would make a decision after talking to his family and Frey. He also said that officers would continue to show up to work on Nov. 3, even if the ballot measure passed. He added that he would work with the measure's authors if it passes.
The city's upcoming elections have gained national attention as the country watches to see whether — and how — Minneapolis will fulfill a promise to transform public safety. For months, Frey and some members of the City Council have been locked in a divisive debate about whether the money for violence prevention and mental health programs should come from the department's budget or other sources.
Wednesday's news conference was not held in a city or department building, but rather at a South Side church that regularly hosts police graduation and awards ceremonies. But critics on social media questioned the appropriateness of the city's top law enforcement official seeming to so publicly endorse a political issue. Council Member Cam Gordon posted on Twitter a screenshot of city rules barring any "local official, employee or candidate for elective office" from using "city facilities, property, funds, personnel, the city logo, the city seal or other city resources to engage in political activity."
Others drew parallels to an episode earlier this year in which City Council members were scolded at a public hearing when they began to discuss particulars about what the new public safety agency might look like.
The chief's comments come as the department's number of officers has dipped below 600, with dozens of officers retiring, going on medical leave or taking jobs elsewhere.
At the same time, the spike in violence that began in the wake of Floyd's death last year has continued.
On Wednesday, Arradondo reiterated that the department, down nearly a third of its officers since last year, had turned largely "one-dimensional" in its crime-fighting efforts.
The chief touched on staffing shortages during his budget address last week, in which he told council members that given the disproportionate number of Black residents being victimized by a rise in gun violence, it's "not acceptable to have any more reductions right now in our staffing."
Policing and politics have long been intertwined in Minneapolis, dating to when the city's notoriously corrupt Mayor Albert Alonzo "Doc" Ames named his brother as police chief in 1902.
By the 1950s, the police union was a player in city politics, helping elect mayors and City Council members, with cops putting up lawn signs and distributing campaign literature. What followed was a period of extreme politicization of the department, which peaked with the election of former union boss Charlie Stenvig as mayor in 1969, several years after the race riots on Plymouth Avenue. His successor, Don Fraser, lamented that politics "had so seeped into the department's being that it could barely function," and hired an outsider, Tony Bouza, to clean up the department.
The union's sway at City Hall eventually waned as more officers moved out of Minneapolis, but its influence at the state Legislature has grown. In recent years, several officers have run for public office, most notably Richard Stanek, a former police captain who was elected to the state House of Representatives in the mid-1990s.
As law enforcement became more professionalized, departments like Minneapolis became somewhat "insulated" from political meddling, according to Michelle Phelps, a University of Minnesota sociology professor.
"And yet it's still in the case like Minneapolis, you have the mayor and the police chief pretty connected," she said, pointing out that the chief's picture appeared in much of the mayor's campaign literature.
This suggests, she said, that Arradondo is "an essential to part of their campaign strategy."
She said that Arradondo's comments seemed to ignore the fact that City Council members had been explicitly instructed not to work on transition plans. She also questioned the timing of the news conference, with the election right around the corner and polls showing that voters were split on Question 2.
"This seems suspiciously timed as a last-ditch response to try to bolster opposition to this charter amendment, and that has probably raised people's hackles as well," she said.
Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.