The candidates who want to be mayor of Minneapolis share an almost single-minded focus on the issue preoccupying Minnesota's largest city: how to ensure public safety.

Mayor Jacob Frey says the Minneapolis Police Department, under the leadership of a popular chief, is crucial to that effort, and he is asking voters to trust him with another term to reform the department after the murder of George Floyd.

His opponents are attacking him from all sides, saying he fails to weed out bad cops, protect the city from rioters or end one of the worst violent crime waves in city history.

More than 500 people have been shot and 78 killed so far this year, at least seven of them under the age of 18, according to a Star Tribune analysis of police data. All the candidates are under pressure to create a plan that keeps people safe from both crime and police violence.

Their solutions vary starkly. Two leading candidates, Sheila Nezhad and Kate Knuth, say it starts with the charter amendment creating a new public safety agency that replaces the Police Department and ensures a holistic approach that goes beyond armed officers.

"When we really stop to think about the things that keep us safe, the first thing that comes to mind are not police," Knuth said. "It's a safe home to come home to. It's knowing your neighbors. It's feeling like your government is invested in you and your government is worth investing in."

AJ Awed and Clint Conner, candidates who like Frey oppose the policing charter amendment, want to hire more officers to rebuild a department that is down an estimated 300 officers.

"The year we've had since the aftermath of George Floyd, where was our mayor when violent crime was skyrocketing?" said Conner, an attorney who joined the race this summer. "Where was our mayor when we were losing police?"

Frey said he and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo "are working every day, every single hour to ensure that everyone, regardless of which neighborhood they're from, is safe and feels safe." He added that they "fought tooth-and-nail to ensure the necessary resources for law enforcement with great pushback."

"You need a both-and approach and what we've provided has been honest," Frey said. "We've provided an honest take as to the direction we need to go. There are no magic wand fixes, there's no hashtag that you can utter that suddenly makes everything better."

The mayor's leading challengers all list themselves as DFL members, though they come from opposite edges of a party that is grappling with how to change policing.

They largely agree on the need for more mental health services, violence prevention programs and safe, affordable housing. They differ on how those programs should be run and the levels at which they should be funded. They differ, too, on the number of officers the city should employ.

On top of the plans he's already pitching in budgets and other public platforms, Frey, 40, said he's considering offering pay raises or other financial incentives as he tries to build the police ranks back up to the level they were before Floyd's death, and recruit candidates with more ties to Minneapolis. In the interim, at times when violent crime has spiked, Frey has asked outside agencies to provide help in hot spots.

Together with the council, the mayor has approved efforts to fund work by community groups promising to provide violence prevention services.

Two of his earliest challengers are Nezhad, 33, of the Central neighborhood, and Knuth, 40, who lives in Bryn Mawr.

Nezhad gained recognition as a policy organizer for Reclaim the Block, an organization that in recent years pushed city officials to move money from police to other services, such as violence prevention.

On her website, Nezhad lists herself as a co-author of the Yes 4 Minneapolis charter amendment to replace the Police Department with a new agency. In response to follow-up questions, both Nezhad and Yes 4 Minneapolis said she was part of a large group that contributed to the proposal.

While Nezhad's platform does discuss changes to police, much of it focuses on boosting 311, 911, violence prevention and other programs. Her views on safety, she said, were influenced by her experiences as a queer, mixed-race woman and police reform research that convinced her "we've tried the same things over and over again, and we're not seeing better results."

Nezhad promises to hold a "census-style community engagement program" to garner feedback on public safety, a process that she expects would take a "couple years" and involve knocking on residents' doors.

"What makes me feel safe is different than what makes my elderly neighbor feel safe is different than what makes someone who lived through a civil war feel safe," she said.

Like Nezhad, Knuth hopes the proposal to replace the MPD passes.

She wants to "dramatically reduce" the use of "coaching," which typically prohibits information about officers' misconduct from being publicly released, and calls for creating a civilian oversight council "that has all necessary power to investigate police misconduct," contingent on a change in the state Legislature.

In 2012, when she was a state representative, Knuth voted for a bill that eliminated the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority's ability to "make a finding of fact or determination regarding a complaint against an officer or impose discipline on an officer."

On the House floor, the lawmaker describing the bill claimed it would bring the city's authority "into compliance with" other similar entities across the state and ensure officers "have due process."

Knuth said she voted for the bill because she thought "it would help with public safety and police accountability." She said she's learned a lot over the past nine years — and especially the last 18 months — and now believes that civilians can play a crucial role in improving discipline.

"It's clear that this civilian oversight is supported," she said, "and I think many believe it would help us have a more effective oversight system in general."

Knuth is most excited to talk about safety efforts outside of police. She wants to create college savings plans for children and boost job programs for young people. "I've been asked, 'Is the goal more or less police?' The goal is public safety," said Knuth.

Knuth said her views on safety were shaped by discussions with people affected by gun violence, community leaders and the death of her cousin in 2008 after he was shot with a stun gun by police following a car crash.

"I really grappled with the fact that government didn't meet my family in our moment of deep grief with what we needed," she said.

Joining later in the race was Awed, 30, a court mediator who lives in Marcy-Holmes. Awed ran for City Council in a special election last year and described himself at the time as an "abolitionist" who believes "we need to defund, disarm and abolish the MPD." Now, he's calling for increasing police staffing, including hiring some officers who would be unarmed.

Awed said he thinks those views can coexist, and he fears the race has lost much-needed nuance amid a debate on rhetoric.

He said, "Abolish really means abolish racism" and, to him, the term "defund" means diversifying how the city spends money.

Awed, who is Black, said he has been harassed by police officers because of his race but also believes the city needs an "appropriate and proportioned" police force to respond to crime. He says the city needs a charter amendment to improve safety, but he fears the current version is flawed and the voices of Black residents have been lost amid "this feeding frenzy on capitalizing politically in this moment."

If elected, he promises to spend the first two years holding a citizens' assembly to gather feedback on a new public safety system, the third year getting a question on the ballot, and the fourth trying to put a new department in place.

Another challenger stepping up his campaign in the final weeks is Conner, a 47-year-old attorney who lives in Lowry Hill. He hopes to bring "some concept of stability" to the Minneapolis Police Department and opposes an effort to replace it.

Some of Conner's childhood friends became police officers and he eventually married into a family that includes officers. Conner said he's done three ride-alongs with police and believes "they are stretched thin" amid a crime wave that has taken an unacceptable toll on children.

"We need someone to step up and be a buck-stops-here leader," he said. "That means acknowledging these things and that means being there and exposing the stories of the families who are suffering and talking about how we're going to catch these people so that they're not roaming around on our streets."

Conner said he wants to bring in a former police officer to consult on how they can improve the recruiting process to bring in more diverse candidates and to work with state lawmakers and landlords to provide financial incentives to officers who live in Minneapolis.

Where the candidates stand

On the policing amendment:

AJ Awed: Opposed
Clint Conner: Opposed
Jacob Frey: Opposed
Kate Knuth: Supports
Sheila Nezhad: Supports

On the number of officers Minneapolis should employ:
AJ Awed: 900-1300 (200-400 of them unarmed)
Clint Conner: About 1,000
Jacob Frey: Increase to 888 by 2024
Kate Knuth: About 750-770 for the first two years, re-evaluate after that
Sheila Nezhad: Will look at 911 data and work with council before deciding on a number

Staff writers Jeff Hargarten and Faiza Mahamud contributed to this report.

Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994