Minnesota Supreme Court may strike down Minneapolis ballot initiative to abolish police

Activists have faced numerous court challenges to their plan to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 16 September 2021 19:27 BST
Derek Chauvin verdict

On the eve of municipal elections, the Minnesota Supreme Court may strike down Minneapolis’ plan to have residents vote on replacing its police force with a new, holistic public safety agency.

It’s yet another blow to the long-running campaign to reform the city’s policing after the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, and one of the nation’s most high-profile efforts to abolish or defund the police.

The Minneapolis city council asked the court for an appeal, after a county judge rejected the language of a proposed ballot measure which, if approved, would strike the requirement for a Minneapolis police force from the city constitution.

On Tuesday, Hennepin County Judge Jaime Anderson held that the ballot language was “an insufficiently identified and misleading question on the ballot”, the third time she has rejected the proposed measure.

Activists and police reform campaigners, who have spent months gathering the 20,000 signatures to put the question before Minneapolis voters, were outraged by the decision.

"For them, that group of people, to snatch away something that 22,000 people fought for, that 100,000 more said they are ready for, that is heinous! That is completely undemocratic!" Rev Janae Bates, one of the leaders of the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition pushing the measure, said after the decision. "The reality is Judge Anderson took something that should’ve been legal and procedural and made it political."

The county has already printed 350,000 ballots with the language that has been invalidated, and absentee voting in city elections begins on Friday.

The individuals challenging the language in the ballot measure include real estate developer Bruce Dachis; Don Samuels, a former city council member; and his wife Sondra, head of the Northside Achievement Zone non-profit, for which Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey’s wife is a lobbyist.

"I am a Black mother! That’s why I wanted the ballot to speak fairly about what it was doing," Sondra Samuels told reporters on Wednesday, arguing she still wants police reform, which is possible under the current police governing structure and Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo. "Because we believe that we want reform, but it has to be in participation with Police Chief Arradondo. And with the police who are not all Chauvin."

The contested ballot language contained an explanatory note, detailing how under the proposed charter amendment, the city constitution of Minneapolis would no longer be required to have a police department with a minimum funding level. Instead, the department would be replace with a public safety agency, with the the city council exercising greater control over its policies and leadership.

"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,” it read. “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."

After the lower court ruling, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who has made police reform a major priority but has a contentious relationship with the council and justice activists, said he still “adamantly opposed” to the charter amendment but still wanted voters to be able to have their say on it.

The decision to imperil the ballot question came in for condemnation from national leaders as well. US Congresswoman Illhan Omar, who represents parts of Minneapolis, slammed the decision at a town hall meeting on Tuesday.

"We have people pouring in so much money to make us enslaved to a charter that the majority of us [oppose]," she said. "This is the opposite of what democracy should produce. The people had a vision for what they wanted, and there’s a judge, there’s a mayor, there is a police chief, and their monied friends who are telling us we can’t have a city that is flexible to our needs and to our demands. How else are we supposed to make progress if we can’t do that?"

Not long after George Floyd was murdered, touching off a nationwide civil rights uprising, activists began pushing to entirely replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a more holistic, less violent police agency.

At a rally last June, the city council created national shockwaves, vowing to end its “toxic relationship” with the MPD.

"Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it, and to re-create systems of public safety that actually keep us safe," Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender said at the time.

Since then, the city’s charter commission, an unelected body that advises on charter issues, stalled consideration of the ballot question until last year’s city elections were finished, and efforts to scrap the MPD have faced hurdles in court ever since.

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