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Politics & Government

State Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of Minneapolis Vote To Reimagine Police Department

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Minneapolis, voters will soon decide the future of public safety in their city. A proposed amendment to the city charter would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new public safety agency. And after some last-minute legal wrangling, the Minnesota Supreme Court is allowing the question to remain on the ballot. Reporter Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio joins us now.

Hey, Matt.

MATT SEPIC, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So tell us more about this amendment to the city charter. If voters do approve it, what exactly would it do?

SEPIC: The measure would get rid of the Minneapolis Police Department as it exists now and replace it with a city agency that supporters say would implement a more holistic, health-centered approach to public safety. It's still unclear exactly how that would work. This agency could include a law enforcement division with armed police, quote, "if necessary," in the words of the ballot proposal. The amendment would also do away with a minimum police staffing requirement and give the city council some authority over public safety.

CHANG: And just remind us, what is the context for this proposal right now?

SEPIC: This all goes back to the killing of George Floyd last year by former police officer Derek Chauvin, who's serving a 22 1/2-year sentence for murder. Less than two weeks after the incident, nine city council members, a supermajority, stood on a stage at a park near the intersection where Floyd died. At their feet were large block letters that spelled the words, defund police. Here's councilmember Jeremiah Ellison speaking to the crowd that day 15 months ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEREMIAH ELLISON: All right, they're telling me to say it again. This council is going to dismantle this police department.

(CHEERING)

SEPIC: But dismantling the department is easier said than done. The city charter requires a police department, and that meant that the council could really only nip around the edges of the major changes they'd promised. They moved a few million dollars to crime prevention and other programs but did continue to set aside money for new police cadet classes. I should add that the department is down several hundred officers since Floyd's murder because of attrition and medical leave.

CHANG: And, you know, I understand that the charter amendment has widespread community support, but opponents to it did mount this legal challenge. And as we mentioned, that challenge failed. But what exactly do people object to about this measure?

SEPIC: Well, amendment supporters got the measure on the ballot after gathering thousands of citizen signatures. But the proposal is facing a lot of pushback, mainly from the business community and from many Black leaders on the city's north side, where there's been a big spike in homicides and other violent crime. Sondra Samuels, who leads a social service nonprofit, and her husband Don, a former city councilmember, sued the city along with a local businessman over the ballot language. They say voters should get to decide the issue but contend that the wording on the ballot is vague and misleading. A lower court agreed and ordered multiple rewrites. Amendment supporters appealed with the state's highest court, and they won.

CHANG: Well, early voting starts tomorrow in Minnesota. Does this state Supreme Court decision mean that voting on the charter amendment can just go ahead now as soon as tomorrow?

SEPIC: Yes, it does. Several thousand absentee ballots that included the charter question were already printed while the courts were deciding if the vote should proceed. This decision moves quite a bit of uncertainty for elections officials, who were gaming out several scenarios about what to do if the court would have removed the measure from the ballot.

CHANG: That is reporter Matt Sepic with Minnesota Public Radio.

Thank you, Matt.

SEPIC: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.