MINNEAPOLIS – On a hot summer afternoon, Latrell Snider and his partner knocked on Abdullahi Mohamed’s door, introduced themselves and launched their pitch: Minneapolis, they said, has a chance to replace its police department with something new, and they wanted Mohamed’s support.
With his children looking on from a living room window, Mohamed reacted cautiously, saying he likes police and relies on them to keep his family safe. When Snider assured him that a new public safety department would still have a police unit but would do things differently — such as responding to some 911 calls without armed officers — Mohamed brightened.
“I think that would be a better idea,” he said.
More than a year after George Floyd’s death sparked a failed push to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department, activists and several City Council members are trying again, with a well-funded initiative that would ask voters in November whether the department — disparaged by critics for what they say is an enduring culture of brutality — should be dismantled.
In its place would be a public safety department that employs a “comprehensive public health approach” and licensed peace officers “if necessary.” The new department would no longer be under the sole command of the mayor’s office, which is significant given that incumbent Mayor Jacob Frey opposes abolishing the police department while a majority of City Council members supports the idea.
More than 30 local groups are pushing for change under the “Yes 4 Minneapolis” banner. They gathered 20,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot — almost twice the number necessary — and have raised about $1 million, including $500,000 from Open Society Policy Center, which has ties to billionaire George Soros.
“What we knew as public safety — which is only the police right now, the only option that we have — was unacceptable,” said Brian Fullman, lead organizer with one of the groups, Barbershop and Black Congregation Cooperative. “The murder of George Floyd ignited a lot of historical pain and disrespect that we have been going through, and we made the decision that we no longer wanted to have what we have now as the only option for public safety.”
A majority of City Council members first began pushing to eliminate the police department soon after Floyd’s death, but they failed to meet deadlines to get it on the ballot last November. The Rev. JaNaé Bates, a leader of the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign, said the ease with which the campaign gathered signatures shows the momentum for change is still there more than a year after Floyd’s death.
“The residents of Minneapolis really were the ones who made the call for this, who were like, we can’t just let this lesson that took place in the summer to be something that fizzles out, and then what? We just wait for the next person to be killed by the police?” she said.
Minneapolis, like most other major U.S. cities, has been on edge due to rising violence and property crime in almost every neighborhood in the past year. And the police department is more than 200 officers, or about 25%, below its authorized strength due mostly to a wave of retirements and disability leaves following Floyd’s death.
Both factors have energized opponents of the initiative. All of Mpls — a new group that has raised more than $109,000 — will begin campaigning against the proposal in the coming weeks with door knocking, community events, mailers and digital ads through the fall.
All of Mpls campaign manager Leili Fatehi called the proposal to eliminate the department “a gimmick.” She said plenty of residents want police to be held accountable and changes in the department, but they also worry about rising crime.
“It’s not getting us to the real solutions that balance those two concerns,” she said.
Opponents also say the ballot question doesn’t guarantee that a new public safety department would have police officers at all. Instead, it says officers would be included “if necessary to fulfill the department’s duties.” Bill Rodriguez, co-founder of Operation Safety Now, called the proposed amendment a “trojan horse” and warned that the campaign's end goal is to abolish police.
“The amendment doesn't say there will be a police force — it says there could be, maybe, if necessary,” he said. “That's the most important thing that needs to be understood about this amendment.”
It's among several aspects of the ballot question that city officials plan to highlight with an explanatory note in November. Activists are trying to block such a note, arguing that the city is improperly trying to influence voters.
Regardless of how the ballot question fares, the city remains under pressure to make changes. The police department is the target of federal and state investigations into policing practices, and both investigations could force widespread change. In addition, the mayor and Chief Medaria Arradondo have launched several policy changes since Floyd's death, including requiring new training on de-escalation, overhauling use of force restrictions and strengthening the disciplinary process.
Details of what a new public safety department would look like are scarce, but Bates said that’s intentional, to get city residents involved in the process. If the amendment passes, council members would need to first pass an ordinance to establish the new department, explain how it would function and how its commissioner is selected. It's not clear how long such a process would take.
Ed Brown, 69, listened to Snider's pitch on his north Minneapolis doorstep in July. Brown, who is Black, told The Associated Press that a new public safety department seems like a good plan. He thinks it would mean police officers are no longer sent to some calls that they aren't equipped to deal with and that can otherwise end in violence.
“What we need to do is reimagine the police department," Brown said.
"That is to say not necessarily defund but maybe in some cases even give them more money if they’re going to do the right thing with it,” he said. “We have to have the proper responses for the proper situations.”
Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.