An African American protester wears a mask and holds a homemade sign that says, “Defund the Police” as they perform a peaceful protest walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Dismantling the police proved to be too radical a solution for Minneapolis residents who wanted to address problematic policing practices—even 17 months after the murder of George Floyd stirred fervent demands for drastic change.
After a united push by local activists to replace the Minneapolis police with a more service-oriented Department of Public Safety, a majority of voters have decided that fixing the department as it exists today is a better option. More than 80,000 voters checked “no” on the ballot initiative Tuesday, while just under 63,000 voted “yes.”
The results out of Minneapolis mirror the country’s broader dissolution with more experimental and radical approaches to police reform, particularly at a time of rising crime and police staffing shortages. Although some cities have managed to decrease their budgets or change who handles mental health or drug-related crises, defunding—or replacing—the police, as popularized over the last year, has been hard to come by.
While the fight for reform isn’t dead by any means, Minneapolis just proved that this particular method of reform has a messaging problem.
“It was weighed down by the toxic language of the ‘Defund the Police,’” Larry Jacobs, a politics and public affairs professor at the University of Minnesota, told VICE News. “It could never escape that.”
“Defund the Police” has been confusing for just about everyone. Even the movement’s most adamant supporters can’t seem to agree on what exactly “defunding” is supposed to look like. Some think police department funding should be reinvested into local communities and alternatives, while others believe in significantly weakening the institution of policing or getting rid of it altogether. It’s why both Democrats and Republicans have decided to distance themselves from the rhetoric altogether.
But the Yes4Minneapolis campaign, a coalition of 34 local businesses, organizations, and faith groups that advocated in favor of the vote, tried its hardest to clear up the confusion through on-the-ground outreach to voters and explaining the differences to them directly.
Still, the movement could never quite shake the association—partly because of the lack of a concise plan. The city’s council would have had a month to figure out the specifics.
“We knew it was going to be a new Department of Public Safety with a new head. But after that it was not clear,” David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, told VICE News.
Combined with the city’s steadily increasing crime rate following Floyd’s murder last year, the climate didn’t favor such a radical 180 on the city’s approach to public safety.
“We had approximately 80 homicides in the city,” Schultz continued. “Carjackings are up by like 40 percent. I think it might be a sense of residents saying ‘Listen, we want to change the police, but you didn’t tell us what it was supposed to be, and we’re scared. We’re scared about the fact that crime is up.”
Had voters agreed to the proposal, the city’s 13-member council would have controlled the transition away from the current model of “gun and badge-only” policing, in favor of an agency that employs more-specific emergency response specialists, including mental health professionals, substance abuse experts, and people who know how to work with homeless residents facing a crisis. The agency, however, would have still employed armed police officers who would serve the same purpose they do today.
The results of the ballot question weren’t the only sign that Minneapolis residents didn’t like the idea of replacing its police. Voters also ousted two city council members who supported a yes vote on the measure.
“I think it might be a sense of residents saying, ‘Listen, we want to change the police, but you didn’t tell us what it was supposed to be, and we’re scared.”
Police reform has taken many forms across the country. Policies like no-knock warrants, traffic stops, qualified immunity, and more have been under renewed scrutiny in states like Kentucky, Colorado, and Minnesota. But Minneapolis was one of the few places that gave voters direct influence over what kind of change they wanted to see in their city—and the option to completely replace their police department, rather than just fix it.
Minneapolis also wouldn’t have been the first city to make such a huge change. As early as 2013, Camden, New Jersey, disbanded its traditional police department and overhauled the role of its officers to act more as community interventionists and protectors rather than enforcers of the law. What resulted was improved relationships with the community and a reduction in both crime and the use of excessive force, proof that a measure like this can produce results.
But broader, more encompassing change isn’t as popular as it was in the immediate aftermath of last summer’s reckoning with police abuses against the Black community. In September, for example, the bipartisan effort to pass the federal level police reform bill named after George Floyd officially came to an end.
The vote in Minneapolis doesn’t signal an end to the fight for reform, though. For example, the city may consider staffing a police department already struggling to retain officers with social workers or set up a specific hotline so residents in distress can request the assistance of a caseworker as opposed to a police officer.
“This is not a ‘close the door, chapter over’ moment,” Jacobs said. “A different campaign run by a different or broader set of organizations after further evidence of police abuse, could well pass,” Jacobs said. “Public safety and sweeping reform is very much on the agenda still.
The Yes4Minneapolis campaign said Wednesday it still believes the old model of policing won’t prevent another tragedy like George Floyd from happening and has every intent to continue to fight for alternatives that work better.
“Dismantling and abolishing violent institutions and building and resourcing community safety strategies is and continues to be the goal,” the statement said. “We will continue to work with communities across the city to dream and build the infrastructure and programs that will make greater safety possible for all Minneapolis residents, and secure the investments to ensure that they become a reality.”
Policing wasn’t the only issue hanging in the balance on Minneapolis’ election night. Mayor Jacob Frey, the controversial Democratic leader criticized for his response to calls for police reform, managed to win re-election. Additionally, residents voted to hand control over the city’s departments to the incumbent mayor when his second term begins next year.
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