Minneapolis' elected leaders are writing a proposal to create a new community safety office less than a year after voters rejected a similar measure.

Nine months after a historic election that centered on a question of whether the city should replace its police department, Mayor Jacob Frey is trying to convince council members to work with him to create a new office aimed at better coordinating the city's police, fire and violence-prevention services.

This plan, though, isn't set to go before voters. While some supporters of the earlier version say the city appears to be operating in a gray area, Frey and the staff advising him say they're confident they can proceed as planned. They argue that several key differences — that police would maintain their own department, for example — give elected leaders the ability to make the change on their own.

Frey has said he believes the move has the potential to usher in some of the most significant changes to local policing since George Floyd's murder prompted a global re-examination of the profession two years ago.

Some who campaigned for the proposal last fall say they're watching with cautious optimism. They're encouraged that officials are talking about boosting mental health programs but also want to see more opportunities for public input to ensure the new agency actually improves accountability for police.

"We want to be sure that this department is not just a rebranding of MPD and a distraction from actual real positive material changes that are possible," said JaNaé Bates, who served as a spokesperson for Yes 4 Minneapolis, the group that wrote last year's proposal . "And what does give me hope in all of this is that all of those things are actually possible right now."

How we got here

Facets of police operations are dictated by the city charter, whichsays Minneapolis must have a police department with a minimum number of employees based on the city's population.

After Floyd's murder, local activist groups campaigned for a proposal changing the charter. It would have allowed elected leaders to replace the Police Department with a new agency providing "a comprehensive public health approach to safety," eliminated minimum police staffing requirements and removed the mayor's "complete power" over police, likely granting council more sway over operations.

Voters rejected the proposal. Instead, they approved a different ballot initiative that designated the mayor as the chief executive responsible for overseeing most departments and prohibited council members from usurping his directions.

Frey convened a 12-member work group to recommend a path forward. Their report in March gave three options:

  • Designate a deputy mayor, a move the group advised against in part because having one leader "doing everything may overburden that person and lead to frequent burnout."
  • Designate a chief of staff to oversee the internal workings of his office and a chief operating officer to oversee other city departments.
  • Appoint a chief of staff, a chief operating officer and additional leaders to serve as his point-persons for other departments.

Frey pitched the latter. The mayor envisions a scenario in which the police and fire departments, 911 center, emergency management and violence prevention programs would each have their own department. They would work together under the umbrella of a new community safety office, led by a commissioner who reports directly to the mayor.

The change will help the departments better coordinate with one another and will improve accountability by giving them a point person who specializes in those areas, he said.

"This should be the moment of unity because this is the thing that they all wanted," Frey said.

The path forward

The work group's report said the transition "will require organizational changes and several technical amendments to both the charter and code of ordinances." It did not specify those changes.

"It wasn't in our area of expertise, and so we really said that that was something that would need to be determined by the mayor, council and the appropriate city staff," said Kathleen O'Brien, who co-chaired the group.

The charter provides the framework for city government, and all local ordinances must comply with it. Changing the charter generally requires unanimous approval from the mayor and council or approval from voters. Changing an ordinance requires approval from seven council members and the mayor.

The latest plan is being considered as an ordinance change. Some council members have publicly questioned whether they should instead be changing the charter, a move supporters argue could help ensure the new agency's relative permanence.

"At some point, you need a charter change … and at some point you don't," said Terrance W. Moore, an attorney who represented Yes 4 Minneapolis. "This is in that gray area."

Frey and City Clerk Casey Carl said several differences between this proposal and the last one — that the police department would still exist as its own agency, that power isn't shifting among elected officials — allow city leaders to make the change via an ordinance.

"We're starting with the code, because those changes are not as permanent and it will allow the mayor and the council to partner together to do what I'm calling a 'try before you buy' approach," Carl said.

The plan could come up for approval this fall, after a public hearing. In the meantime, city officials are moving ahead with plans to hire Cedric Alexander as the commissioner to lead the new agency. A public hearing on his nomination is scheduled for Tuesday.