A public debate, and legal challenges, have been raging around City Question 2 — the "public safety question," which asks voters if they want to amend the Minneapolis city charter to remove the requirement to have a Police Department and create a Department of Public Safety.
If Question 2 is approved, it will likely lead to the resignation or replacement of Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and to having fewer police officers. Recent polling on the question reveals a contradiction: More voters are in favor of approving Question 2 than are opposed, but voters also want more and better police and to retain the services of Arradondo. If you're confused, you're not alone.
The language of City Question 2 — which misleadingly suggests that the Police Department will be "replace[d]" with a Public Safety Department — is the reason people may vote against their own interests. Proponents of the change are furthering the confusion by bullying well-intentioned voters into thinking there are only two choices: Vote yes or be against police reform.
That is a false choice. Voting no on Question 2 doesn't mean you are against police reform or that you accept the "status quo." It means you reject vague policy masquerading as meaningful reform. Voting no means that you want to know what actual reforms will be enacted with a clear timeline before you agree to toss the entire system of public safety out the window without any plan to replace it.
Here is the actual text that will be added to the City Charter defining the proposed Public Safety Department:
7.3 Public Safety.
(a) Department of Public Safety.
(1) Function: The Department of Public Safety is responsible for integrating its public safety functions into a comprehensive public health approach to safety, including licensed peace officers if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department.
(2) Commissioner of Public Safety Department. (a) The Mayor nominates and the City Council appoints a commissioner of the department of public safety under section 8.4.
That's it. If you're skeptical and believe there must be more, you can confirm that there is not: tinyurl.com/bv5sfwaj. There is no proposed structure for the department. The "functions" of the department have not been developed. There is no requirement to have social workers, violence interrupters or, of course, police officers. Arradondo has said that working for 14 different bosses as the commissioner would be a "wholly unbearable position."
In a recent commentary, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, like other "yes" advocates, offered the same false "all or nothing" choice, writing: "My fear is that a no vote extinguishes hope and leaves us with the status quo." Ellison then offered a sunny view of the "reform" that will take place if Question 2 is approved and encourages everyone to "start a conversation." The problem with Ellison's Pollyannish view is that none of the reforms he hopes will take place can be found in the language of the proposed charter amendment.
The amendment, and the misleading language of the ballot question, are a kind of Rorschach test into which everyone can see something they want it to be. Could those words mean there will be social workers and violence interrupters as part of the new department? Sure. But there also may not be.
Could those words mean that there will be no Minneapolis police at all? Yes. Is that likely? We don't know, and you will not know when you cast your vote. Any decision on that issue will be made in the future by a City Council whose members are yet to be elected.
The Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign tries to paper over that uncertainty to make a yes vote more palatable through misinformation. The group writes on its website:
What will happen after this passes? I need to know the plan before I vote yes.
After this passes, in the first 30 day transition to the Department of Public Safety the MPD police officers will become Minneapolis DPS police officers. Then, City Council and the Mayor will work with our community, updated research, health, crime and violence statistics for the city, to pass ordinances that integrate police with trained professionals, such as mental health providers, sexual violence responders, and substance abuse experts.
But the charter amendment does not say anything about MPD officers becoming DPS officers, much less in 30 days. And there is no law, ordinance or charter provision that will cause that to happen. Yes 4 Minneapolis's statement is designed to give false comfort to voters who are rightly concerned about what any "transition" to a department of public safety will look like.
Voters should be clear-eyed about what a yes vote means: it means that you are willing to trust that whatever reforms you want to see will be developed and implemented after the amendment passes, with a different City Council that may or may not share the current council's approving views on defunding the police. And in the meantime, the amendment would take effect just 30 days after being approved, at which point what happens with the police is anyone's guess.
The choice presented by Question 2 is not whether to reform the police or keep the status quo. That is a false choice cleverly designed to dissuade any person who believes in reform — as we do — from voting against the amendment.
You can believe that something has to change and still vote "no" when the alternative is to leave the future of public safety to chance. While there is a strong appeal to voting yes to feel like you are doing something, being a responsible citizen means understanding the consequences of a vote. Here, that is impossible because there is no plan for what comes next.
The proposed charter amendment does not create any police reforms, contains no guarantees that any police or social workers will be employed by Minneapolis, and decreases, rather than increases, the accountability of public officials for police misconduct. For those reasons, we will be voting no on City Question 2. We hope you join us.
Joseph Anthony and Norman Pentelovitch, of the firm Anthony Ostlund Louwagie Dressen and Boylan, are attorneys who represented Minneapolis residents in challenging the ballot language of City Question 2.