Why Voters Rejected Plans to Replace the Minneapolis Police Department – and What’s Next for Policing Reform

Yves here. It was not hard to anticipate that “Defund the police” was not going to succeed as a call to political action. “Defund the police” sounded too much like “Get rid of the police” when societies with high levels of income inequality have low levels of trust and high levels of crime. Important first steps like making it easier to prosecute and fire bad cops don’t make for sexy slogans but would make a meaningful difference near term.1

Even though the Minneapolis ballot initiative was narrowly not a “Defund the police” measure, it was complex and some voters appear to have conflated with cutting the budget. As this post indicates, people of color who too often are the victims of police bias can live in neighbors with high crime rates and still want police to come when they call.

By Michelle S. Phelps, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Law, University of Minnesota. Originally published at The Conversation

Voters in Minneapolis rejected a measure that would have transformed the city’s policing 18 months after the killing of George Floyd thrust the city into the forefront of the police reform debate.

By a 56% to 44% margin, voters said “no” to a charter amendment that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety focused on public health solutions.

Michelle Phelps at the University of Minnesota leads a project looking at attitudes toward policing in the city. The Conversation asked her to explain what happened in the Nov. 2, 2021, vote and where it leaves both Minneapolis’ beleaguered police department and police reform movements nationwide. An edited version of her responses are below.

What Have Voters in Minneapolis Rejected?

The wording of the amendment was quite complicated.

In essence, the amendment would have eliminated the existing police department in the city charter and replaced it with a Department of Public Safety charged with delivering “a comprehensive public health approach” to public safety, with the details of the new department to be determined by the mayor and city council.

So This Was a ‘Defund the Police’ Bill?

The proposed amendment itself didn’t require police numbers be reduced, but it removed a barrier to defunding. It was a chance for a new approach to policing.

The amendment would have eliminated a city charter requirement that Minneapolis maintain a minimum number of officers based on population size. And it would have shifted some of the power for policing matters from the mayor to the city council, which could have required the new department to focus resources on alternatives to uniformed police, such as unarmed community officers or mental health specialists.

Why Did the Amendment Fail?

The vote should not be seen as evidence that Minneapolis residents are content with city policing. Polls have shown that the Minneapolis Police Department is viewed broadly unfavorably, especially among Black residents. And 44% of voters did vote in favor of the amendment, so it is very much a mixed signal.

The reasons people voted against the amendment were complex. Yes, there was an element of resentment among white, more conservative Minneapolis residents who saw this as a radical attack on law and order. But it failed to get enough support among precincts with majority Black residents too.

One possible reason: As well as being more likely to face police brutality, Black Americans are also more likely to ask for the assistance of officers due to neighborhood violence. This bled into concerns over the impact that the amendment would have on police officer numbers.

As a result, the Black community was divided over the amendment. At the same time that some Black activists and city leaders were calling for dismantling or abolishing the Minneapolis Police Department, other Black residents in North Minneapolis were suing the city to hire more officers.

Who Voted Against the Amendment?

We don’t have a full breakdown of the vote yet, but we have precinct heat maps that give a rough indication of who voted “yes” and who “no.”

Support for the amendment was high in some parts of South Minneapolis, especially the multiracial communities around George Floyd Square. There was also strong support in some gentrifying neighborhoods where there are a lot of young white voters.

In the southwest precincts – where there are clusters of wealthy, white residents – there was very strong opposition to the amendment. But most precincts in North Minneapolis, which has the highest proportion of Black voters, also voted “no” on average. When looked at through the lens of race, the story of the amendment is complicated.

Initial poll results also suggest age was an important a divide, if not more so than race.

In sum, both support for, and opposition against, question 2 in Minneapolis highlights the complex racial politics around both fear of police violence and fear of crime.

Are Those Fears Supported?

Certainly opponents of the amendment have tried to argue that efforts to reimagine policing has left Minneapolis less safe. It is true that a lot of officers have left the force since the summer of 2020 – many have left to go to departments outside the city, while others are on medical leave for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

And there is a perception among the public that fewer officers results in greater community violence. But the truth of the matter is trickier. The city has not defunded the police – the budget for 2021 was roughly in line with 2020. So the drop in officer numbers is not a result of the city defunding the department. Instead, officers are leaving the force. And there’s some evidence too that the officers that remain have at times shirked their duties to the public or “pulled back” in proactive activities.

It is too simple to say that the reduction in police numbers has resulted in the increase in violent crime. We also have to factor in the economic and social impacts of the pandemic, along with the fact that the courts were also shut down during that period.

At the same time, there has been an intense scrutiny on police violence in Minneapolis since George Floyd’s murder, and this has changed how officers and citizens interact – 911 calls have declined, relative to the rate of shootings, and trust is at a low. Meanwhile the uptick in gun sales likely contributed to the increase as well. So there are a lot of factors beyond the number of police, or what they do, that can fuel violence or promote safety.

What Is Next for Police Reform in Minneapolis?

I’m not convinced this is the end of the amendment – it could return in some form. Yes, it failed this time, but there is a core of residents, organizers and activists who want to move away from the status quo when it comes to law enforcement.

The immediate concern for the city will be hiring officers to comply with a court order to comply with the minimum officers standard in the city charter, in addition to continuing to work to reform the department. So we will likely see more officers, not less, in the immediate future.

But there is real momentum for transformations in policing beyond reform. It is still possible that Minneapolis gets a Department of Public Safety, but through city ordinances rather than amendment and without disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department. And the city is continuing to onboard new mental health professionals to respond to some 911 calls.

Meanwhile, we have an ongoing federal Department of Justice investigation. That could well end with a consent decree or memorandum of understanding that would mandate some of the changes that activists and community members are looking for.

How Will This Vote Affect the Wider Police Reform Movement?

After George Floyd, what happens with policing in Minneapolis is no longer just about Minneapolis.

For advocates of the type of transformative changes envisioned by the amendment, it is a mixed result. While some may argue that the failure of the amendment to pass confirms that police defunding or abolition is politically toxic, close to half of the electorate voted for it – momentum has never been higher, despite the loss.

And had it been followed by continued increases in shootings, the danger would have been that the amendment would have been held responsible. The silver lining for those pushing for a “yes” vote is that perhaps the city now has the chance to develop alternative public health models without as much national scrutiny.

One thing is sure: This is not the end of the conversation.


1 Remember that Derek Chauvin was a stereotypical bad cop, with a record of complaints. And a study of failed policing reforms in Los Angeles found that it was a classic power law problem: a small number of officers accounted for nearly all of the serious misconduct, and they were all repeat offenders. But it is rational for “better” cops to stay silent about abuses they see, lest they wind up with no backup when they are in a bad situation.

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  1. johnnyme

    Here is the text of the ballot question Minneapolis residents were voting on:

    Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions by the Department of Public Safety, with those specific functions to be determined by the Mayor and City Council by ordinance; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?

    Explanatory note:

    This amendment would create a Department of Public Safety combining public safety functions through a comprehensive public health approach to be determined by the Mayor and Council. The department would be led by a Commissioner nominated by the Mayor and appointed by the Council. The Police Department, and its chief, would be removed from the City Charter. The Public Safety Department could include police officers, but the minimum funding requirement would be eliminated.

    I think the inclusion of the phrases “could include” and “if necessary” were the poison pills that doomed the amendment’s chances of passing.

    An amendment with specific implementation details, instead of one giving our cringeworthy city council (and mayor who just got re-elected) a blank check to do as they please, would have stood a much greater chance of passing.

    1. Sawdust

      Yeah, the range of actual action following from that could be anything from just changing some names to scrapping the whole PD to making the mayor God Emperor of Minneapolis. No wonder the voters turned it down.

    2. truly

      I do believe it failed to pass due to precise wording. Two of the biggest cheerleaders and supporters of the intellectual concept of “defund the police” in the end did not support the initiative. I have met and talked with these two over the years. Michele Gross, a law professor, and Frank Chapman, a former political prisoner who has dedicated the last 40 years of his life to police reform. These two have local organizational support. Networks and newsletters and such. They have been working on this issue since long before the George Floyd murder. They were initially very supportive of this. It was their baby in a sense. But by the end I was receiving newsletters explaining their position in not supporting it. And it was due to the wording and that it had basically been “defanged” by the wording.
      I hate to be one of those people that points a finger at Soros when things go awry. But there is quite a bit of evidence that heavily funded outsiders came in and pushed aside the local grass roots activists that had been on the task for decades. And in the process set themselves up to fail. In a way that appears it was the actual goal- to look like they were trying to succeed while making sure they did not. A friend did quite a bit of digging into their funding and besides the obviousness of money coming in in half million dollar increments she also found that smaller amounts that she tried to trace back came from very very elderly looking people who had addresses in strip malls and commercial property not in MN. Again, I hate to be the reactionary pointing a finger at Soros, but whether exactly true or not, the belief that it is true influenced many.
      Mpls has a long troubled history with its police. In the 70s and 80s cops would hang out just outside gay bars until they were paid off to leave. These bars were forced to pay the troll cops or no one would come thru the doors. Then in the 90s the cops infamously threw two chronic inebriates in the trunk of a squad car rather than let them “foul” the interior of their cars. It was around this time that CUAPB was born. Citizens United Against Police Brutality (founded? cofounded? by aforementioned Michele?) worked to establish an effective Civilian Review Board in which citizens could anonymously file complaints against the police. The review board was made up of two cops, two local citizens and one clergy. This guaranteed that a complainant had a reasonable chance at a fair outcome. The CRB was watered down and ruined over successive mayoral terms. Hence our concern about wording and details.
      Besides the killing of George, they gunned down Justine not so long ago. Justine Damon was gunned down within earshot of my house (rather traumatizing for me- and I don’t traumatize easily). And word on the street is that in the “North” neighborhoods (largely POC, and high crime areas) the police are managing turf. Yes, the locals tell me that it is their observation that cops are managing who sells what on which street corner. And in my wealthy primarily white neighborhood the cops appear to make runs with their sirens on just to traumatize the hand wringing class. I actually saw cops preparing an hour in advance for a “chase” one night. Cops were positioned along a major thoroughfare to block side streets into the truly wealthy enclaves. And then about an hour later a major car chase that wound up and down streets and alleys of all of the people who would eventually vote heavily against defund the police.

      There isn’t enough ink in my computer to tell all the stories….
      But I suspicion we will be back to work on this issue immediately. And if the Dem party can be forced to do anything decent we will try make it happen here.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Always thought of the motto “Defund the police” of being deliberately self-sabotaging as it could mean anything, especially in the hands of a bunch of wokesters fresh out of college. Perhaps a better motto would have been “Demilitarize the police” instead. People can understand and get behind that one straight away. It can lend itself to simple memes for the purposes of publicity. So you could have an image of a normal cop wearing a shirt, tie and cap on one side and on the other side showing a militarized cop with body armour, Kevlar helmet, assault rifle, camos and all the rest of it. That simple double image would tell the whole story and I actually once saw an image just like that not long ago. The different image at the top of the following pages illustrates what I mean-


    Another aspect of this “Demilitarize the police” motto is that it could easily appeal to conservatives on fiscal grounds so I will give an example here. You mention to them the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles being given to police by the Pentagon and which can weigh up to 20 tons. They might counter by saying that it is a freeby. So then you remind them that when they buy a car, it is only the beginning of a whole series of expenses and so it must be the same with these police MRAPs. There is all the associated costs of running them like the cost of training police to drive and use one, maintenance, spare parts, fuel & lubricants, insurance costs, repairs, mechanic’s training, replacements of heavy-duty transmissions, engines, axles, and tires, etc. This must add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars each and every year, especially as they get older and wouldn’t it be better to spend that money to train the present police in a combination of non-confrontational techniques instead. Remind them to that overly aggressive police can cost their town/city millions of dollars annually in fighting and paying lawsuits racked up by them. So wouldn’t it be far cheaper to have better & smarter cops instead?

    1. Dr. John Carpenter

      The confusion of the wording I’ve always seen as a feature, not a bug for the reasons you’re describing. Maybe my timeline is crooked, but I think BLM was well on it’s way to being co-oped by neolib and NGO hacks by the time of the defund messaging.

    2. TBellT

      And why do they need to be bringing a gun to every situation? That is not something you see with European police forces.

    3. Questa Nota

      Wokester sloganeering, the latest bastard offspring of Obamaesque organizing. Their approach is late night dorm lounge bull session, although that is obviously bovinist.

    4. lyman alpha blob

      Demilitarizing the police should be the start. Allowing the police to have military equipment and hiring so many ex-military to be police is just an end run around the constitutional prohibition against using the military against US citizens.

      Getting rid of the military toys may also lead to fewer people applying to be police officers so they can use those toys.

    5. Soredemos

      Everything related to BLM has been self-sabotaging from the start. Including BLM itself: had the slogan been Black Lives Matter Too, it wouldn’t have been possible for it to be portrayed as some sort of black supremacist motto.

      As for Defund the Police, not only is it vague, but it doesn’t help that it came amidst calls to abolish the police entirely (there have been attempts to retcon this; “we never said that!”, but yes. It was said. Explicitly. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abolish-defund-police.html https://twitter.com/rashidatlaib/status/1381745303997534216).

    6. Michael Fiorillo

      As Adolph Reed has pointed out, if you need to explain your slogan, then you need a new slogan.

  3. Glossolalia

    Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che (who is black) on defunding the police: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just bought a gun last summer when all those white kids started talking about getting rid of the police.”

  4. aleric

    I don’t see how making it easier to prosecute and fire bad cops can be seen as a simple first step when the policies that protect police are set in concrete in state and federal law.

  5. William Hunter Duncan

    I live in Minneapolis, and I think the ballot question lost for two primary reasons:

    1. Supporters didn’t sell it. There was simply no clear vision of what a Dept of Public Safety would actually look like. Questions in that regard were met with vague presumptions and little detail as to structure or cost. It began to feel like they would get around to figuring out what they were going to do after it passed, which this particular voter assumed then, whatever came after would be considerably more expensive than the Police Dept, much like a jobs program for the PMC. This general vagueness and lack of vision led to voters thinking wrongly that if the measure passed the Police Dept would be immediately disbanded and it would be a crime free for all in the streets.

    2. Supporters mostly ignored the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the first calls to defund the police, violent crime skyrocketed in this city. My black co-workers who live in north Minneapolis tell me there are 50-60 shots fired every day up there, you are awakened through the night with sounds of gunfire. A bunch of kids have been hit by stray bullets. Car jackings are becoming a fixture, to the point that organized crime will use two vehicles to box in the target vehicle, with Ride-Share vehicles a prime target. Supporters mostly acted like crime would decrease once the police dept was abolished, lending no confidence that they would be any more honest about crime after a Dept of Public Safety was instituted.

    I think a majority of people in Minneapolis agree with the spirit of a Dept of Public Safety, and a fundamental change in policing. A majority of Minneapolitans however, didn’t have any confidence in supporters ability to maintain law and order.

    1. enoughisenough

      also the DFL endorsed against it, and people in Mpls are 80% white and average age of 63, and they do party-line voting.

  6. Cetra Ess

    What stands out for me is that even here on NC people don’t see the police as a criminal organization. I do, and I think such entities need to be delegitimized as a first step towards solving specific problems (such as the war on and crriminalization of the poor and impoverished). When I see observations along the lines of crime in Minneapolis increased, or people in high crime areas will vote to keep police, to me it’s like saying we need the mafia to keep crime down. The crux is we shouldn’t fight crime with still more crime, with criminal enterprises, or with criminals who don’t even believe in law. Law enforcement agencies should believe in law, to the point of internal policing, or get out.

  7. Mark Anderson

    One thing left out of this account is that outside of Ilhan Omar and Keith Ellison, the DFL (Minnesota’s version of the Democratic Party) was so terrified of the Republicans calling them pro-Defund the police, they led the charge against the reform measure. The Governor, both senators, and pretty much every other state and national representative vehemently and loudly opposed the measure. Every piece of literature relentlessly caricatured the measure as a defund the police measure and was part of the DFL campaign to defeat the pro-reform mayoral candidates (who to be fair, were literal defund the police advocates before moved to the restructuring, public safey language). Lastly, based on the campaign literature we received at a house about six blocks from George Floyd square, the anti-ballot measure
    Senior DFL group that funded opposition outspent proponents by perhaps 30 to 1. We had multiple anti-reform flyers every single weekday for about two months. We received a total of 5 or 6 that whole time that were for moving to the public safety structure.
    To my mind, the main point of the reform measure was to demote the police department to part of a largery non-cop structure they would have to answer. The just re-elected Mayor Frey, the current police chief and the state DFL party outside of Omar and Ellison, considered this absolutely intolerable and attacked the reform movement with exactly the language the Republicans were using against the Democratic candidates on right wing outlets. To make matters even worse, the ballot measure empowering the mayor’s office’s control over the cops at the expense of the city council passed. It was laughably promoted as a way of increasing transparency regarding police behavior.

  8. Soredemos

    They rejected it because it’s fundamentally a stupid idea.

    In reality, some form of public security force is as old as civilization itself. It is a legitimate function of the state. The simple fact is you actually do need people to investigate thefts and murders, break up violent fights or domestic abuse, etc. Marxists (and I am one, of a sort) sneering that police are just there to protect private property and delving into the histories of western police as an institution doesn’t change the fact that little of what they do today is related to functions like union busting.

    People don’t like murderous and abusive cops, but that’s a far cry from not wanting police at all. Even the minority communities (supposedly) most victimized by racist police will more often than not call the police when there’s trouble.

    And even with some of the more reasonable proposals for reform, like diverting funding away from cops and into other social services, well, when anyone actually asks social workers, they usually insist there still be a cop with them when they answer a call just in case things go bad.

    Just to be clear, American policing is absolutely rotten, but even in its degraded form it still serves an important, beneficial social function. The well of much needed, meaningful police reform has been thoroughly poisoned by now. BLM took a huge amount of public goodwill and real political momentum for meaningful reform, and pissed it all away on stupidity.

    BLM has made me better appreciate how foreign color revolutions can be organized though. Apparently it isn’t all that hard to get enthusiastic young people out en masse to protest for something that is semi-coherent at best.

    1. enoughisenough

      “a far cry from not wanting police at all”

      that is NOT what the ballot question was. It was very intelligent, about creating new divisions that were options besides calling the police for every occasion. See a homeless person in distress? Your call can get routed to a social worker, rather than a ‘roid raging cop on adderall. So you know that person can be helped, and not beaten and murdered.

      The police would not have been eliminated, not at all. There would be more emergency depts, that’s all. We need that everywhere, not just Mpls.

    2. Cetra Ess

      I would dispute your assertion that some form of security force is as old as civilization. Policing is a modern phenomenon, both conceptually and in terms of function, and very different from the town watchmen of middle ages. I would further say that the Constabulary as conceived by Peel was very fundamentally different from how police forces originated from the slave patrols in the US, thus evolving into the present form of policing (and its associated problems).

      Understood that you’re arguing American policing is rotten, but how can any form of policing originating from the slave patrols not be rotten? Police everywhere, but especially in America, need to be eliminated, we need to start from scratch, reconceive and rebuild from the ground up. But that is only possible if you accept the premise that police aren’t necessary, which I would argue they’re not and would further argue that if police are deemed necessary then reform is essentially impossible.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Police departments as we’ve come to know them are artifacts of mid-19th century urban development. The story about them originating as slave patrols sounds compelling, but is false.

  9. MDA

    Like some other commenters, I also live in Minneapolis. I agree with some of the sentiments expressed, that the proposal was too vague and unspecific and that it would give power to the notoriously dysfunctional City Council (it bears mentioning the voters approved a different proposal, to shift power from the Council to the mayor). I’d also argue a lot of our problems would improve if we required the police to be residents of Minneapolis and paid them extra to make that happen.

    That said, what drives me utterly bananas is no one’s talking about the elephant in the room, that Minneapolis and many other cities are battlegrounds in the War on Drugs, and that fundamentally nothing will change until that war ends. How can we talk about defunding police and not talk about defunding crime? Replace drug prohibition with cheap, licensed, regulated/doctor prescribed and taxed distribution, as well as free treatment for addicts, and I guarantee crime will plummet. Today, the police can barely be bothered for a police report number if you’re burglarized or your car is stolen. End the war on drugs and remaining crime could get CSI treatment, from non-militarized officers who would be highly valued in the community. Sadly, there’s too much money in war for this solution to attract any mainstream discussion.

    1. David in Santa Cruz

      The War on Drugs is a misnomer. Globalization, the WTO, and NAFTA opened our borders to enormous quantities of drugs as a matter of government policy.

      It is a War on the Disenfranchised, Disemployed, Dis-housed, and Discarded Working Class that is being waged by our untethered and militarized police.

      However, the discarded and drugged underclass are terrifying to the remainder of the non-elite population. To change policing, we must discard the neoliberal order, not formerly-working people.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        If the discarded underclass became UN-drugged, they could become a lot more terrifying to the remainder of the non-elite population. I suspect the non-elite population would rather seem them stay drugged.

        The Democratic Socialists of America could test that theory the following way: They could promise and actually deliver an AR-15 “assault style” rifle and a thousand rounds of ammunition to every member of the underclass who becomes medically provably de-addicted to any and all drugs and remains that way for some period of time.

        Now , if we gave the drug free Underclass a map to the elite neighborhoods along with their AR-15 and their ammo, then the non-elite remainder classes might be less terrified by that plan. Maybe.

  10. Matthew G. Saroff

    Here’s an idea for reforming the Minneapolis PD, which is one of the worst in the nation which do not involve changing the charter:

    * Create a separate prosecutors office that does not answer to the district attorney whose remit is solely to address accusations of law enforcement misconduct. (Including prosecutors)
    * Hive off internal affairs so that it is no longer under the authority of the chief of police, and add new cops there.

    You have then created a dynamic where prosecutors and cops who are confronted by evidence of law enforcement misconduct don’t have to worry about working with the that same police force the next day, and their professional advancement is predicated on investigating, arresting, and convicting bad cops.

    Certainly, it could not hurt.

  11. Mark Anderson

    I agree on the Minneapolis police treatment of stolen cars. I reported my car stolen about 10 years ago. Their response was, “We’ll let you know if someone calls it in.”

  12. drumlin woodchuckles

    Perhaps ” abolish the Police Union” might be a winner in some cities. Coupled with “fire every officer who objects” if necessary.

  13. YetAnotherChris

    I’ve lived in Minneapolis since 1990. Prior to that I lived in Chicago, no model of clean policing, but I knew the cop who walked his beat. He would share information with merchants, residents, familiar vagrants – whomever – and garner intel from same. He had established a relationship with the neighborhood and was a welcome sight. He carried a nightstick, mace, and a revolver, but none of us ever imagined him wanting to use them. Minneapolis cops by contrast are a weird kettle of fish. Cruising around in their SUVs behind tinted glass, as a group they are a much more remote and hostile presence. And the other side of the coin is fear. How does an officer decide it’s OK to fire across his partner at a woman in pajamas? I learned pretty quickly to avoid their attention. Dozens of people have not been so lucky. We’ve heard talk of police reform for decades. It has been slow-footed by the police union at every turn. I knew the charter amendment had no chance of passing as written, but I voted for it anyway as a rebuke to the status quo.

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