A clear majority of Minneapolis voters oppose reducing the size of the city's police force, and that feeling is especially strong among Black voters, a new Minnesota Poll has found.

At the same time, voters are showing support for replacing the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) with a new agency. Most city residents, white and Black, have an unfavorable view of the department.

The poll, conducted Sept. 9-13, was sponsored by the Star Tribune, MPR News, KARE 11 and FRONTLINE.

The findings appear to suggest that most voters in Minneapolis want a better or different police department, but not a department with fewer officers. That sentiment is emerging as early voting begins on a November ballot measure on whether to give city officials the authority to replace the Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. The proposal would amend the city's charter to eliminate a provision preventing city leaders from cutting the police force below a certain level.

The movement to reduce or defund the Police Department became a rallying cry for activists in Minneapolis and across the country after an officer killed George Floyd in May 2020. The ballot battle over it now is drawing national attention and campaign money.

But city voters expressed little interest in a smaller police force.

Of registered, likely voters surveyed, 55% said they don't want to reduce the size of the police force while 29% do. Meanwhile, almost half favor replacing the Police Department and 41% oppose. The remaining were undecided.

In the poll, 75% of Black voters opposed reducing the police force, compared with 51% of white voters. Half of white voters said they supported replacing the department compared with 42% of Black voters.

Just more than half of voters said in the poll that they have an unfavorable view of the Police Department. Yet, only 22% expressed an unfavorable view of Chief Medaria Arradondo, who became the city's first Black police chief in 2017.

If the charter amendment passes, it would also give the City Council more authority over public safety. The mayor and council would play a large role in determining how many officers are necessary in the new agency.

"For a lot of Minneapolis residents, this charter amendment has become kind of a referendum on your feelings toward the MPD," said Michelle Phelps, an associate sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who is writing a book on police reform in Minneapolis. "It becomes a marker of whether you want big change in the way that the city does policing."

Yes 4 Minneapolis, the lead group backing the policing ballot question, posted a tweet after the poll results went public, saying, "The people of Minneapolis are ready for a better way of doing public safety, we're ready to vote."

Steve Cramer, CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and a vocal opponent of the policing amendment, said the poll shows that voters "believe policing is an important part of our overall public safety strategy." Yet, he said he thinks the policing measure will make achieving the reforms most residents want more difficult.

"There needs to be much more discussion and understanding of what the proposed Department of Public Safety does and doesn't do because it clearly does not, as proposed, guarantee that there would be a significant component of law enforcement in the mix of services," Cramer said.

The Minnesota Poll was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., interviewing 800 registered voters who indicated they're likely to vote in November. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The poll surveyed an additional 343 Black voters, for a total of 500 interviews with a sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. This "oversample" allows for a more direct comparison of the responses of white and Black voters, with similar margins of sampling error.

The poll was conducted before a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling Thursday that finalized the ballot language on the question of whether to replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety.

'A better approach'

Austin Douglas, 35, said he has had negative encounters with police over the years. Douglas, a Black restaurant worker and longtime North Sider, said he hopes a new public safety department would have officers respond to more 911 calls accompanied by therapists.

"I feel like that would be a better approach than what we have right now," he said.

However, he said he has met Arradondo and trusts the chief to reform the department.

Opinions on the Police Department and Arradondo are similar to findings in an August 2020 Minnesota Poll conducted less than three months after Floyd was killed. Fewer voters surveyed now have an unfavorable view of police than a year ago. But slightly more voters have an unfavorable view of the chief.

Arradondo has promised changes to his department since Floyd's murder spurred calls to reform or even abolish his department. In August, he announced that police will no longer stop motorists for minor traffic violations, such as expired tabs or an air freshener dangling from a rearview mirror. This summer, the City Council also launched a new civilian crisis response corps to handle certain mental health emergencies without police.

But the changes may not be enough for some voters.

Derek Davidson, 38, a white teacher who lives in the Seward neighborhood, said he supports the charter amendment because he hopes the staffing in a new public safety department would have more specialized skills and money would be redirected to social services.

"The situations I've had occasion to call the police, I wasn't looking for a militarized person to arrive and help me," said Davidson, who has lived in the city for seven years. "The person who comes to take my statement about a crime that happened to me doesn't necessarily need to be the same person who is kicking down a door in a situation where there might be a criminal that they have a warrant for who's likely armed. Those are different things and they should be treated differently."

Minneapolis is a largely Democratic city, but Democrats are deeply divided over policing. Younger voters are most likely to back replacing the department with a public safety agency. Older voters are more likely against the move.

Eftu Usmael, 39, a Black personal care assistant who lives in Seward, said she will vote no on replacing the Police Department. She said she knows some police have caused harm but there are more good officers protecting people.

She has lived in the city for nearly two decades and said that as crime has spiked, she doesn't feel safe outside with her two children.

Of police, she said: "I still believe they can help."

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141