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The city where cops murdered George Floyd last year could become one of the first in the U.S. to replace its police department with an agency dedicated to helping, not punishing, its residents.
The proposed policy shift, to be decided by a ballot initiative in Minneapolis’ Nov. 2 election, would swap out the city’s police department with a Department of Public Safety that employs professionals trained to respond to mental health crises, instances of substance abuse, and issues surrounding homelessness. After a hard push from police reform advocates, several cities around the U.S. have cut back on law enforcement budgets and redirected the cash to social workers, medics, and other people without guns. But no city has completely overhauled its approach to public safety the way Minneapolis could with this vote.
“It’ll make Minneapolis a test case into the future on police reform in the U.S.,” David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in St. Paul told VICE News. “After George Floyd was murdered, Minneapolis became center stage for race policing and police reform. It is ground zero for every major metropolitan city thinking about these issues.”
The new department, which the city’s 13-member council would control, would also include peace officers to fulfill the same role as the cops play now, although the police department would no longer exist. The city would also no longer be required to maintain a minimum number of these officers, as the city charter currently mandates.
“We want to create a model for public safety that is rooted in intervention and prevention.”
Because the initiative is in its infancy, however, more-specific details about the new Department of Public Safety are sparse. If the ballot initiative passes, the city would have 30 days to develop a new public safety structure.
The goal of the change is simple, according to Yes4Minneapolis, a coalition of 34 local businesses, organizations, and faith groups advocating for the change: allocating resources to other forms of public safety response that would help save lives instead of harm them and improve the community’s trust in those services. They hope to decrease unproductive, and at times even violent or deadly, encounters with people who suffer from mental illness and addiction, while improving law enforcement’s relationships with Black and brown communities.
“Having a city that’s actually resourced to have the right first responders is going to allow police officers to be focused on what they’re supposed to do in a disciplined and correct way and build the trust of the community so they’re not terrified to call 911 when they need it,” Bates said. “That on their very worst day, they can pick up a phone and won’t get even worse.”
In the last year, calls for serious police reform escalated dramatically in Minneapolis. In fact, it was a grassroots petition with 34,000 signatures that successfully got the initiative on the ballot for a public vote.
There’s also precedent for this sort of shift in public safety working. The city of Camden, New Jersey, disbanded its traditional police force because of budget cuts in 2013 and gave most law enforcement responsibilities over to the county. Although the move came with its hurdles and controversy, homicides in the city dropped, as did use of force complaints.
The push in Minneapolis has its opponents too. For example, some residents in Minneapolis’ Black community, who’ve felt the brunt of violence and crime there, question the transition away from a traditional police model at a time when crime is up.
For example, Rev. Jerry McAfee, a pastor at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, worries about the lack of concrete plans.
“It raises more questions than it gives answers,” McAfee said during a public debate with Bates and Yes4Minneapolis earlier this month. “I don’t want to be another test case.”
Minister JaNaé Bates of Yes 4 Minneapolis spoke at a press conference about the Yes 4 Minneapolis lawsuit against the City of Minneapolis to remove an explanatory note attached to the ballot question on the proposal seeking to replace the Minneapolis Police Department in Minneapolis, Minn., on Friday, July 30, 2021. Yes 4 Minneapolis is the proposed city charter amendment to replace the Police Department with a new agency. (Photo by Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
The “Defund the Police” movement—popularized after Floyd’s murder, is also working against Yes4Minneapolis. Many people confuse the ballot initiative for an attempt to completely dismantle the institution and all of its day-to-day work. But supporters insist their work isn’t about reducing emergency response funding.
“There’s a national narrative about defunding the police that is actually not relevant here for this election because we are talking about expanding public safety, full stop,” Corenia Smith, the campaign manager for Yes4Minneapolis, told VICE News. “We want to create a model for public safety that is rooted in intervention and prevention. We have been very clear that police will continue to be part of this new Department of Public Safety.”
Current members of Minneapolis law enforcement are also divided on what this change could mean, according to Larry Jacobs, a politics and public affairs professor at the University of Minnesota.
“Some officers are clearly resistant to working a different way,” Jacobs told VICE News.
“We’ve seen a pretty substantial exit from the police force, so I think some of those people are voting with their feet.”
The mass exodus of cops has hit the city hard in the last two years. In May 2019, before Floyd’s death, the police force had 912 officers, according to the New York Times. That number has dipped to 699 in 2021. It’s part of the reason why unions like the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis are advocating against the measure.
“You would have folks who will embrace this new mission,” Jacobs said. “But the question is how many people are going to walk or continue to walk away from the profession.”
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arredondo also said that he strongly favors a “no” vote during a press conference Wednesday.
“We’re down a third of our sworn officers,” he said. “To vote on the measure of reimagining public safety without a solid plan and an implementation or direction of work, this is too critical of a time to wish and hope for that help that we need so desperately right now.”
Despite the opposition, those advocating for a yes in Tuesday’s election are confident the vote will swing in their favor. Smith told VICE News that Yes4Minneapolis has been trying to build support by speaking to residents directly, and most people are on board. And a national poll conducted by The Appeal and Data for Progress in April 2021, found that 65 percent of likely voters would support the introduction of non-police first responders.
Which way the vote will ultimately go, however, is still up in the air.
“I would say stay tuned,” Jacobs said. “The message coming out of Minneapolis is, we could be about to launch a profound experiment.”