Minneapolis voters on Tuesday rejected a proposal to replace the Minneapolis Police Department, crushing the hopes of supporters that outrage over the killing of George Floyd would lead to a historic experiment in transforming public safety.
The final votes ended a contentious and closely watched election cycle centered on how far the city would go to reinvent policing, 18 months after Floyd was filmed pleading for breath under an officer's knee. Since then, a city already battered by a global pandemic was the site of the worst urban riots in three decades, a surge in violent crime and a wrenching trial that resulted in murder convictions for the first officer tried in Floyd's death.
In the days leading up to a historic election, voters were blanketed with messages from political committees that had millions to spend as they attempted to sway people to vote for or against a measure seeking to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new agency focused on alternative responses to crises.
While supporters insisted police would still be part of the department, opponents of the charter change hammered on themes that echoed in voters' reasons for saying no on question 2: Who's going to answer 911 calls? What's the plan for keeping the city safe?
Voters opposed the amendment by a 12-point margin, well short of the 51% needed to pass. The failure of the ballot question came as one of its most outspoken opponents, Mayor Jacob Frey, held a commanding lead in his re-election bid. Voters also approved a separate charter amendment that shifted more power from the City Council to the mayor, and were poised to oust several council members who led the push to replace the police department.
Wynn Wever, who voted at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Longfellow, said the policing question was the only part of the ballot he filled out. He voted no.
"I like the police. We need the police," said Wever, 79, a retired roofer.
At Roosevelt High School, Kevin Nelson said question 2 was the most important issue to him. Nelson, a self-employed woodworker, said calls to "defund the police" sounded like a good idea in the volatile times after Floyd's murder.
But as time went by and details were few, he turned against the idea. "You're voting for whatever they want to do," he said. "It's kind of like giving them a free pass."
Still, there was hardly a consensus.
In the East Phillips neighborhood, resident Linnea Hadaway strongly favored question 2.
"They've been talking about police reform for 25 years and absolutely nothing has changed," Hadaway said. "And that's why I'm willing to take the risk."
The proposal before voters would have amended the city's charter, removing the requirement to maintain a Police Department with a minimum number of officers based on population. Instead, it would have created a Department of Public Safety that takes "a comprehensive public health approach to safety." Details of the new department, including police staffing levels, if any, would have been determined by the mayor and City Council members.
Candidates running in the first municipal elections since Floyd's death largely agreed that Minneapolis should boost mental health programs, increase social services and seek to determine which nonviolent calls could be handled by civilians.
But they disagreed on one fundamental question: whether the city should replace its Police Department with a new agency in its efforts to take a broader approach to public safety.
Supporters argued the proposal would have given the city the flexibility to create a new safety system that can better respond to residents' concerns, without being constrained by the police staffing levels added to the city's charter during another contentious election in the early 1960s.
The idea of having a blank slate was appealing to some voters.
"I think Minneapolis might be a really good place to do a trial run on this," said Kingfield resident Riley Curran, explaining why he voted "yes" on question 2. "If any city is going to stick its toe in first and figure it out, I trust Minneapolis to do it."
Opponents argued there wasn't enough detail to ensure the new department would deliver the change residents desperately needed.
"I think we need to do some changes, maybe make some reforms, but I do not believe in abolishing it without having something in place, and they've had a year to come up with something other than nebulous, 'Oh, we're going to do this or that.' I haven't been swayed," said one voter, Linda Ramson.
Ramson's remarks were similar to ones delivered just days before by Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, whose 11th-hour news conference in full uniform prompted the council president to file an ethics complaint accusing him of misusing city resources.
"This is too critical of a time to wish and hope for that help that we need so desperately right now," Arradondo said. "Again, I was not expecting some sort of robust, detailed, word-for-word plan. But at this point, quite frankly, I would take a drawing on a napkin, and I have not seen either."
The failed ballot question, written by a group called Yes 4 Minneapolis, would have increased City Council oversight of the Police Department. Voters instead approved a separate ballot question that reins in the council's ability to give direction to city staff and solidifies power in the mayor's office over most city departments.
The city's elected leaders were deeply divided on the question of how to change policing. Nearly two weeks after Floyd's death, while the memories of nights of unrest were still fresh in residents' minds, they began cementing their stances.
Protesters shouted "shame, shame," at Mayor Jacob Frey after he told them he did "not support the full abolition of the police department" but instead favored systemic changes. He's been squarely aligned with Arradondo.
The day after that protest, nine City Council members gathered in Powderhorn Park and pledged to "begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department," eliciting strong support from the activists who organized the event and setting off a panic in other community groups who deeply opposed the idea.
Council members tried to get a similar charter question on last year's ballot but were blocked by the court-appointed Minneapolis Charter Commission. Supporters accused the commissioners of obstructing the democratic process, while opponents claimed they were doing the due diligence that council members had failed to provide.
Since the pledge, many council members have softened their rhetoric, seeking to reassure residents that state law makes it difficult to remove police, because it says only officers can respond to some calls. Many of them supported the campaign to replace the Minneapolis Police Department, as well as candidates who back the effort.
Tuesday's election gave residents the chance to decide how the city should proceed — but groups organizing on both sides say it shouldn't end discussions about how to overhaul policing.
Inside the Gold Room downtown Tuesday night, a handful of Yes 4 Minneapolis supporters gathered as they waited for the results. Corenia Smith, the group's campaign manager, said their work was not in vain. "We changed the conversation," Smith said.
A representative of All of Mpls, a political committee that opposed the proposal, said meaningful work must begin now.
"What the voters of Minneapolis have made clear is that we want a planful approach to transforming public safety in our city," said Leili Fatehi, the group's campaign manager.
"It's really time for all the residents of Minneapolis to unite together to hold the next mayor and City Council accountable, to roll up their sleeves and to carry out that public mandate in good faith."
Staff reporters Patrick Condon, John Reinan, James Walsh, David Joles, Matt Gillmer, Mark Vancleave, and Anthony Soufflé contributed to this report.