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Voters in Minneapolis will soon be able to vote on a brand-new system for public safety. The Minnesota Supreme Court recently announced that the Yes4Minneapolis charter amendment, which would replace the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) with a multi-functional Department of Public Safety, could be included on the November 2021 city ballot. 

Ballot Question 2 is the result of a community-driven effort to expand public safety in the city by eliminating the minimum number of police officers required per capita and allowing other types of professionals and crisis intervention experts to step in. The legislation is a direct response to the killing of George Floyd, whose death by city police sparked international protests last year. Organizers want to see the city’s public safety approach reprioritized so that there is a public health approach and a reconfiguration of how the city spends the MPD budget. 

“Here in Minneapolis, we only have two city employees focusing on wage theft,” said Eric Willis, an organizer with Centro Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha, a Minneapolis-based workers’ rights organization. “As many officers as we have working on small crimes or petty crimes, we only have two advocates working on wage theft throughout the city. We need to take a look at the budget and where our priorities are. The Minneapolis police budget is $148 million, for example.”

Activism and endorsements

Yes4Minneapolis is a Black-led, multi-racial coalition made up of 39 organizations, including local unions, non-union workers’ rights groups, and community-based racial justice organizations. Others, including Unite Here Local 17, a union for hospitality workers, have endorsed the ballot question and possible charter amendment. 

Organizers gathered 22,000 signatures in order to get the question on the ballot—double the required number. The new system would be run by a local Department of Public Safety commissioner who would be accountable to both the mayor and city council. The envisioned Department of Public Safety would include police, mental health professionals, sexual violence responders, social workers, housing experts, and others. Proponents describe the ballot questions’ provisions as part of a “public health approach” to public safety. 

“Everyone realizes that there will be some element of crime always, but at the same time, Minneapolis only has an armed response and that’s not what we need,” Willis said. “Sometimes you just need an advocate.” 

Members of the Yes4Minneapolis coalition and other proponents of the amendment rallied on Sept. 17 outside of Minneapolis City Hall. One of the groups in attendance was the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 (MFT59), a Yes4Minneapolis coalition member. 

“Last spring, our union’s executive board voted unanimously to endorse Yes on 2,” said MFT59 Education Support Professional President Shaun Laden. “What educators intuitively understand is that we need to address the range of crises and services required by our public safety system, [and] we need the correct tools to do so. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when dealing with the wide-range of demands on our current police department.” 

Members of the business community, including Northeast Minneapolis-based Fair State Brewing Cooperative, were also present at the Sept. 17 rally. 

“We believe that it is important to be able to call and have mental support,” said Evan Sallee, the co-founder of Fair State Brewing Cooperative. “We believe that our businesses need something more than just a badge and a gun. [Fair State Brewing] is organized as a cooperative because we believe in the power of democracy. We believe in the power of the people’s voice to bring change and to better our own community.”

Strong opposition

The Yes4Minneapolis ballot question is also the work of city councilmembers Phillipe Cunningham, Jeremy Schroeder, and Steve Fletcher, who introduced language for a Transforming Public Safety Charter Amendment in January this year. At the time, the proposed language, which sought to allow Minneapolis voters to vote on the future structure for public safety in the city, was opposed by some who felt that it diminished accountability for the Minneapolis Police Department. The charter amendment has been the source of much dialogue, with critics arguing that the question is too vague and that it doesn’t adequately lay out a clear plan post-election.

Minneapolis Public Schools board member Don Samuels and his wife Sondra Samuels, president of the Northside Achievement Zone, alongside Minneapolis resident Bruce Dachis, had sued to stop the Yes4Minneapolis ballot question from being on the ballot. The Samuels are well-known Black leaders in Minneapolis. The Samuels and Dachis did not respond to requests for comment, but Sondra Samuels was recently interviewed by the Star Tribune where she spoke about her opposition. 

The lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis by the Samuels’ and Dachis was originally aimed at getting the question revised on the ballot. They believe the ballot question misconstrues or hides important information on the future of policing and the Minneapolis Police Department, according to the Associated Press. The fight for the ballot amendment is occurring alongside a decrease in property crimes and a slight rise in violent crimes in Minneapolis, facts that are impacting public debates over public safety. 

“We’re in this lawsuit for all the children who have been shot and killed, and for all our neighbors,” Sondra Samuels said. “We are pawns in a political experiment that has no plan.”

According to Yes4Minneapolis organizers, the Minneapolis Police Department would remain until the city council voted differently and began to implement the proposed Department of Public Safety, but some, like the Samuels’ and other ballot question opponents, feel their concerns are not being considered.

“There are a whole lot of voices that have been ignored and shut out,” Don Samuels told the Star Tribune

Mayor Jacob Frey, who is up for reelection, as well as Gov. Tim Walz, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and some other state leaders have spoken in opposition to the amendment. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who represents Minneapolis and surrounding neighborhoods, and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison have both endorsed the Yes4Minneapolis charter amendment. 

Early voting has begun in Minneapolis and Election Day is Nov. 2. Yes4Minneapolis is the second of three ballot questions on the city of Minneapolis’ ballot this year. 

Cirien Saadeh, PhD is an Arab-American community journalist, community organizer, and college professor teaching Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College. Saadeh believes that journalism...