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Police Reform Is On The Ballot In Minneapolis. But It’s About More Than Defunding The Police.

On June 7, 2020, in the wake of the high-profile murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, nine members of the City Council made a public statement: The police department couldn’t just be “reformed” — public safety in the city would have to be drastically altered. On that summer afternoon, large white letters leaning against the stage spelled out “Defund Police.”

Since Floyd’s murder, “defund the police” has become a political catchphrase used to rally supporters and opponents of a policy that is far more complex than the rhetoric suggests. Unpopular among the American public, it has been used as a bogeyman by Republicans — and some moderate Democrats — to scare voters away from electing progressives as violent crime rates have risen nationwide. (Despite the fears of some Democrats, though, it’s unclear whether it has actually hurt the broader party at the ballot box.) But the slogan can take many forms in practice, from reallocating part of the police budget to social services to setting up accountability structures. Often it’s an outright misnomer, simply a way for criminal-justice activists to express their anguish and frustration with the repeated killings of people of color at the hands of police.

Such is the case now in Minneapolis, where on Tuesday voters will decide the fate of City Question 2, a municipal ballot measure that would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety under the City Council’s control. The debate leading up to the vote shows just how much one idea can take on wildly different meanings. Just like “defund the police,” Question 2 is more than the sum of its parts.

Black activists who want to protect their communities from violence look at Question 2 and don’t always see the same risks and opportunities. The Rev. JaNaé Bates, director of communications for Isaiah, a faith-based nonprofit that advocates for social and economic justice, is working with the nonprofit coalition that got Question 2 on the ballot. She’s frustrated that Black Minneapolitans are consolidated into neighborhoods that are underserved and overpoliced and wants to see both of those problems change.

But Audua Pugh, the board chair of the Jordan Area Community Council, a neighborhood association on the city’s predominantly Black Northside, said she saw the City Council’s announcement back in the summer of 2020 as a betrayal. To her, Question 2 amounts to a signal that her neighborhood, long ignored by the city and denied infrastructure common in other parts of town, would lose more and not gain anything new. Since Floyd’s death, she has successfully sued the city to demand more police and is a fierce advocate against the ballot question.

That Bates and Pugh — two Black women who share very similar concerns about the dangers posed to their community by both police and criminal gun violence — could end up on opposite sides of a public safety plan says a lot about the divisiveness of Question 2 and the “defund the police” movement generally. The question has roughly split the city in half: Major figures on the left, such as Rep. Ilhan Omar and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, support it; major figures of the establishment, such as Mayor Jacob Frey and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, oppose it.

But the debate around it has less to do with the actual content of the question than it does with the symbolism. Question 2 is a “defund the police” proposal that doesn’t actually defund the police. Instead, it hopes to make police more accountable by creating a broader approach to public safety. Except it might not do that either, depending on how other city races pan out. In a contentious election year marked by a citywide increase in gun violence, the proposal has become a way for citizens to express their feelings on a whole range of issues. As Pugh put it, “It’s not what you say. It’s what people hear.”

An illustration of election ballot ovals and an “I Voted” stickers.

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At its core, Question 2 wouldn’t eliminate the police department, but the city would no longer be required to have a formal police department or minimum police staffing levels that have been mandated since 1961. The question would also create a new Department of Public Safety that could include both police and other kinds of safety officers, such as therapists, social workers or violence interrupters. And the city’s hierarchy would change, too. Right now the MPD is accountable to their chief and the mayor; the new system would have police answering to the head of the Department of Public Safety, who would answer to both the mayor and City Council.

Those are the broad strokes, but the fine details remain difficult to pin down, said Jon Collins, a senior reporter for Minnesota Public Radio who has been covering the question and debates around it. The City Council has not been able to publicly discuss plans for implementing the question should it pass, in part because the city attorney has warned that doing so would violate campaign laws.

On top of that, other elections may affect the way the initiative is enacted if it passes. If a lot of the current City Council members lose their seats, that could result in a Department of Public Safety that’s really just the police department, unchanged, under another name. Meanwhile, a separate proposal, City Question 1, would give the mayor more power than the City Council. These measures are incompatible, because the council wouldn’t be able to be in charge of the Department of Public Safety under the so-called “strong mayor” system. But it’s very possible both could pass. If so, the issue would likely have to be settled by the state Supreme Court, Collins said.

This is all intensely technical and wonkish, but it has inspired equally intense division. A September poll conducted by Mason-Dixon on behalf of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, KARE-TV and the PBS series “Frontline” found that, at the time, 49 percent of likely voters supported Question 2, while 41 percent were opposed.

The poll gave supporters a lead to go along with their financial advantage — as of Oct. 19, they had raised $3.0 million versus opponents’ $1.6 million. But the poll also showed opponents within striking distance and showed Question 2 still doesn’t have majority support in the city. That’s important because support for ballot measures often decreases over the course of a campaign, as change-averse voters default to the status quo.

Meanwhile, it also showed that divisions over the question are particularly strong within the Black community. The poll oversampled Black voters in an effort to get a more accurate read on their feelings about public safety in the city. Black voters said they opposed replacing the MPD with a Department of Public Safety, 47 percent to 42 percent (white voters supported it 51 percent to 40 percent). Bates, Pugh and Collins all said they had seen divisions within the Black community along generational lines, with younger people being more likely to support the question and older people (even individuals who have long been involved in campaigns for police reform and accountability) opposing.

Those numbers reflect years of problems between the MPD and Black and brown Minneapolitans. A decade ago, the city shut down its Metro Gang Strike Force after discovering misconduct by police in the elite unit that included theft and battery. Over the past 20 years, the city has paid out more than $70 million in misconduct settlements, even as city records show that the vast majority of misconduct complaints against MPD results in no internal discipline. Officers killed three other Black men in the five years leading up to Floyd’s death. And in 2007, five high-ranking Black police officers, including the current Chief Medaria Arradondo, sued the city over racism within the department.

The city, particularly the Northside, is also in the midst of a rapid increase in gun violence. As in most of the country, violent crime rose across the state of Minnesota in 2020. There were 48 murders in Minneapolis in 2019 and 84 in 2020, with some parts of the Northside seeing a 200 percent increase in gunfire. Three Black Northside children have died and one remains critically hospitalized after surviving a head wound. 

Both Pugh and Bates told me they see their community trapped between these two dangers. “This is two sides of the same coin,” Bates said, explaining why she was advocating for Question 2. “What folks are feeling in terms of the uptick in violence and also not feeling protected by police officers … watching the response time from police get slower and slower and slower. There has to be an off ramp to that.” 

Pugh, in explaining why she opposed the question, echoed the same ideas: “The system that was made wasn’t designed for us, for Black people. Make sure you put that. Because the system wasn’t made for us, and it continues to oppress us.”

As a whole, the polling shows Minneapolis voters have seemingly paradoxical feelings about their police force. It found that voters have an unfavorable opinion of the MPD, 53 percent to 33 percent — but oppose reducing its size, 55 percent to 29 percent. The message is as clear as it is conflicting: Police are not doing a good job, and people are worried about what happens if there are fewer of them.

That dynamic is especially pronounced among Black voters. They view the department unfavorably by a 58 percent to 28 percent margin, yet they oppose reducing its size by a whopping 75 percent to 14 percent.

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It’s a messy pile of conflicting feelings that can’t really be clarified by science. There’s never been a similar measure anywhere to study in order to understand the likely outcomes of Question 2, said Aaron Chalfin, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. And while research shows that the presence of police and spending on police decreases crime, the question doesn’t actually call for fewer police. Likewise, the research also suggests the availability of good, legal jobs reduces crime and doesn’t show a connection between the severity of punishment and crime reduction. It’s not clear how non-police public safety officers — their presence and spending on them — would fit into these documented trends.

When we spoke to Bates and Pugh, they both talked about their own hope and cynicism, but they put those feelings in different places. Pugh had hope that the police department could be reformed into something that did serve the Black community, and she had a hard time believing the City Council could create a completely new and effective safety program. Bates, on the other hand, had a lot of hopes for the Department of Public Safety and reserved her cynicism for the possibility of change within the MPD culture.

Which leaves another big question besides just “will the question pass?” After this much division, can people who agree on nearly everything come back and work together again? “We all want the same thing,” Bates said. “We all want people in Minneapolis to be safe. We all want people in Minneapolis to be able to have the resources they need. And in the event that a crisis happens, that they can pick up the phone and trust that the right response will show up.”

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.