Well-funded police reform advocates on Saturday kicked off what promises to be a high-profile campaign to let Minneapolis voters decide the fate of the city's Police Department.

Yes 4 Minneapolis, a political committee, began collecting petition signatures to ask voters this November whether to replace the department with a new entity that would take a "comprehensive public health approach to safety." A coalition of progressive groups, such as Reclaim the Block and TakeAction Minnesota, are part of the effort.

The campaign illustrates the high stakes of Minneapolis' fall election, when voters will have a chance to reshape City Hall for the first time since the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. In addition to a possible referendum on the Police Department, the mayor's office and City Council seats will also be up for grabs.

The debate over the future of the Police Department is playing out during a dramatic spike in violent crime across Minneapolis and as city leaders prepare for the trials of the four police officers involved in the May 25 death of George Floyd.

Nearly three-quarters of registered city voters supported redirecting some police funding to social services in a Star Tribune/MPR/KARE 11 poll this August. Only 40% supported reducing the size of the police force, however.

"The 2021 municipal election will be pretty profound," said Corenia Smith, campaign manager for Yes 4 Minneapolis. "I think that we're making history here in Minneapolis. And having this on the ballot — it's going to be huge."

Interest already extends beyond Minnesota. The Yes 4 Minneapolis committee is being fueled by a $500,000 grant from the Washington, D.C.-based group Open Society Policy Center, the lobbying arm of the Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic group founded by billionaire George Soros.

The committee hopes to collect 20,000 signatures by March 31 to help ensure the proposed charter amendment gets on the ballot. Several City Council members are also proposing a similar referendum, though it could be paused if the citizen petition succeeds.

"We have a policing system that doesn't work for us and we need alternatives," said Rachel Bean, who was among the first signers Saturday at a frigid outdoor event in south Minneapolis. "I'm a social worker and I feel like we have lots of tools that we could try to create more community safety."

Gabriel Smith, another signer, said he is interested in seeing a larger conversation about what public safety can look like. "I think that there are a lot of situations that aren't helped when someone shows up with a gun," he said.

Signer Erik Edsten said merely reforming the Police Department hasn't worked. "I think it's time to try a new and radical approach to how we view policing," he said.

The Yes 4 Minneapolis petition would remove Police Department language from the city charter and create a public health-focused Department of Public Safety, "including licensed peace officers if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department."

The group did not release specifics about how the new department would function. Smith said it will organize this summer around those topics.

"This is going to be a monthslong process … to really get to the root of what Minneapolis residents want public safety to look like," Smith said. "Because we all deserve to feel safe in our community."

Bill Rodriguez, a co-founder of the group Operation Safety Now, which opposes reducing Minneapolis police funding, criticized the petition for lacking detail.

"It's awful bad policy, because they don't have any kind of a specific plan," Rodriguez said. "Just like the council, they're winging it."

He believes there is not significant support in the city for defunding or dismantling the department. "This is not what the people are asking for," Rodriguez said.

Three City Council members have proposed their own amendment, which would also replace the department with a more holistic Department of Public Safety. Council Member Steven Fletcher, one of the cosponsors of that effort, said he doesn't believe there is a conflict between the two proposals. If the citizen petition were successful, he said his colleagues might not proceed with their similar proposal.

"This is all part of the same expression of wanting to make structural change to the way we approach public safety," Fletcher said. "It's taking a different form than the council's form, but I think that's OK."

In addition to TakeAction Minnesota and Reclaim the Block, the coalition behind Yes 4 Minneapolis includes the ACLU of Minnesota, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Color of Change, the Southeast Asian Diaspora Project and Minnesota Youth Collective, among others.

Open Society Policy Center spokesman Jonathan Kaplan said the group is a longtime advocate of policies that "ensure equal justice under the law."

"We support the exploration and development of alternatives to current policing practices through our grantees like Vote Yes 4 Minneapolis," Kaplan wrote in a statement. "We defer to their judgment about what makes sense with respect to law enforcement policies and what they need to achieve safe and healthy communities."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732