Politics

Why Minneapolis Didn’t Reform Its Police Force

Barricades with graffiti are seen in front of a mural depicting George Floyd's face and name.
The George Floyd Memorial in Minneapolis is barricaded on June 3. Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

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On Minneapolis’ ballot last week, Mayor Jacob Frey was up for reelection, as were all 13 City Council members. But, Minnesota Public Radio senior reporter Jon Collins says, all anyone wanted to talk about was “Question 2,” the ballot measure about the police. It was not technically about “defunding” the department—instead, it aimed to dissolve the current force and replace it with a Department of Public Safety. That would include some combination of social workers, mental health practitioners, and, yes, uniformed and armed police. But it was hard to shake the association with the “defund” movement, especially since nine of the 13 City Councilors did pledge to defund the police last year. Around that time, shortly after George Floyd’s murder, a recording was released that showed city protesters tracking down Frey and demanding he defund the police—or lose his race. Frey not only didn’t commit to doing so, but doubled down on his opposition during his election cycle. Then, last week, he won reelection, and the ballot question around public safety failed: It got 44 percent of the vote, with 56 percent of voters saying no. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Jon Collins about what Minneapolis’ recent election may say about the limits of police reform—or whether a new era of accountability is just beginning. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jon Collins: When I spoke to Jacob Frey, that moment where he was shamed by the protesters became almost a symbol to him of how he sticks to his principles even when he gets heat, especially from the left. That’s a theme that he brought up over and over in his campaign, where he was framing himself as the reasonable candidate, the candidate of stability.

There were signs up and down the streets saying “Yes” or “No” to Question 2. Everyone’s mailbox, including mine, was stuffed with mailers about Question 2 from either the campaigns or from outside groups. I got one last week talking about the crime rates here. It’s a reference to the mid-’90s when Minneapolis had relatively high homicide rates, and the mailer had really striking image of blood running from a stuffed animal essentially saying children are being shot—which, there have been some children who’ve been shot. That’s the level of the campaign that people were experiencing.

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Mary Harris: Do you feel like the people opposed to Question 2 were being a little disingenuous in how they talked about it, making it about “defund the police” when it maybe shouldn’t have been? The proposal never talked about defunding the police, but was basically talking about rebranding the police.

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A group that opposed the ballot question went to my bosses, not to me, to ask to adjust a story. The language in the story said that, regarding that a claim they were making—that the police department would be disbanded after 30 days—nothing in my reporting confirmed that. It was just like a talking point that they wanted to push, and I felt they were misleading in this and I wasn’t going to repeat their claims for them. But they pushed back really hard on it.

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I think that’s an example of how the opponents to this mischaracterized it as abolishing the police or defunding the police. It wouldn’t have even done that. But Jacob Frey’s campaign even referred to his mayoral challengers as the “Defund and Abolish Coalition,” even though neither one of them had explicitly said those sorts of things.

Over the course of the past year and a half, the City Council has tried to intervene when it comes to the police, right? They’ve cut some budgets for the police, but they’ve been stymied in doing more structural changes, right?

So the Minneapolis City Council has budgetary control over the Minneapolis police. But the city’s charter—which they were trying to change with this ballot question—gives the mayor complete control over the police, essentially. Frey is the head of the police, and a lot of advocates for this ballot question argued like, He hasn’t actually done that much. He runs this. He can reprimand cops who acted badly and were caught on video last year, but he hasn’t done it.

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I talked to a council member, Jeremiah Ellison, who’s the son of our state attorney general, Keith Ellison, a former congressman. Jeremiah said, regarding Question 2, that the restructuring wasn’t something all the City Council members got elected to office to do. It was something that they realized the city needed as they fought with the police department to get information about what was going on, and as they fought with the mayor. They came to the conclusion that the city needed this restructuring in order to actually make any sort of change. So the City Council did try some things, but its power was limited by the charter.

The ballot measure’s proposed Department of Public Safety would’ve still been controlled by the mayor and the City Council. So what would have changed if this question had passed?

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That was a question a lot of people had, even some people who supported it. The City Attorney’s Office told council members that they couldn’t start setting up the structure for this until it passes. So when voters were looking to council members who supported it for information like, What are you going to do?, they didn’t have any good answers because they hadn’t been able to start the work, and they wouldn’t have been able to until it actually passed.

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I was struck by the fact that even people listeners might think would be natural allies of this ballot question came out against it, like the former head of the local NAACP, Nekima Levy Armstrong. How much should we make of the divisions within activist communities?

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The sort of people we would talk to for stories about police accountability all pretty much came out against Question 2. They essentially said, What use is it renaming the Minneapolis police? We have to up structures of actual accountability and so the police actually change. I think part of it is generational. Many of these people have been doing the work for decades, and they were skeptical not only of the Minneapolis City Council’s ability to make change to the police, but of mere restructuring having any impact on how police actually do their jobs.

Question 2 came out of new folks who were, for the most part, a lot younger and maybe less experienced with organizing. So when they started to pull together this ballot question, what some activists told me is that the organizers didn’t reach out to these people who’d been doing the work for a really long time, and didn’t bring them on board. And many politicians live in areas where the crime increase has taken a toll on people, like North Minneapolis, which has more Black residents than the rest of the city. Violent crime shootings have gone way up there, and there have been some cases of young kids getting caught in the crossfire. And I think Armstrong was also saying, How is this coalition reaching out to Black people and actually addressing this concern that people have about shootings and violent crime?

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Your news organization did a poll and found 75 percent of Minneapolis’ Black likely voters opposed reducing the police force. That seems like a big hurdle for this ballot question to get over.

There was also quite a bit of support for reforming the police or for making big structural changes to the Minneapolis Police Department across the board in the city. I think it’s an indication of how well the people who opposed the ballot question framed the issue for voters. The coalition that supported the ballot question wasn’t able to reframe it as anything else than defunding the police in the end.

It’s interesting that you say some of these activists who had been in the space for a long time were saying, Well, there just isn’t a plan, while at the same time, when you talked to City Council members, they said, Well, we couldn’t make a plan because the city attorney told us that if we did that, it would be against the rules. So they’re kind of stuck.

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I think you have it exactly. It was a confusing situation for people, and when I talked to political scientists about ballot questions like this, they say confusion typically benefits the people who oppose a ballot question because if they’re unsure about something and can’t quite grasp it, voters will say no.

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For what it’s worth, our city clerk says this was the highest turnout for an off-year election in Minneapolis history.

So people weren’t staying at home.

People were not staying at home, and my street is still covered in signs. In a typical off-year election, we’ll get like a quarter to a third of eligible voters. This year saw 54 percent of eligible voters come out. And this year there was no president, no Congress members on the ballot, so that was pretty good.

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What were the reactions when Question 2 failed?

The people who worked on this and supported it really were upset and disillusioned, saying this just proves that people who run the city of Minneapolis—more privileged, more white, typically—put their finger on the scale and beat this. But a lot of people expected that failure. It was a proposal that was unprecedented.

I think it’s hard to have takeaways from what happened in Minneapolis. We had a few members of the media, including our local newspaper, focus on the fact a couple council members who supported Question 2 lost their seats. But, while that happened, we had three socialists elected to the City Council, and they’re all young folks who are engaged in what they’d call “the movement.” And even though voters opposed Question 2, they voted for ballot Question 3, which allows rent control. So it’s not like there was a rightward swing in the city of Minneapolis.

You talked about how confusion can lead people to vote no on a ballot measure. I felt like that most stood out to me when read about how George Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, was thinking about Question 2. When she was asked how she would vote on this measure that was sparked by her boyfriend’s killing, she didn’t know. She said, I’m not sure it would have prevented his death. It’s still a debate in my mind. When I read that, I thought, that’s a problem for a ballot measure like this.

It’s been a year and a half since George Floyd was murdered, and a lot has happened since then. As some activists reminded me this week, a year and a half is not a lot of time to prepare for substantial change to an institution that’s existed for a century and a half. So I talked to folks who said, Yeah, the ballot question failed, but there are all these other things we can keep pushing on. I actually talked to another group that is pushing forward a different question about policing that they want to get on the ballot next year—essentially to create an elected body to oversee the police department. That would shift everything once again. Who would have expected that this would have been on the ballot five or six years ago? Years ago, abolishing the police was a fringe idea, but now, 44 percent of people voted for some sort of compromise version of that, saying to restructure and reenvision the police. I think that is pretty stunning. I look at it as part of a long journey that the city and the country are taking with policing and public safety.

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