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Minneapolis will soon put the future of their police department to a vote


Voters in Minneapolis are deciding whether to replace their police department. A ballot measure to do that is a follow-up to last year's murder of George Floyd. NPR's Martin Kaste has been listening to the debate.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: On the face of it, the ballot question is simple - no more traditional police department directly controlled by the mayor. Instead, there'd be a department of public safety, which would take, quote, "a comprehensive public health approach." The new department could employ police officers, quote, "if necessary." And today, these canvassers are knocking on doors trying to stop it.

JACKIE: Hey, Daniel. Are you Daniel?


JACKIE: Hi, I'm Jackie, and we're here just to talk a little bit about the November 2 ballot.

KASTE: They're with All of Minneapolis. It's the no campaign, which argues that this is a bad time to replace the police department given the city's recent surge in shootings. And the person in this house, Daniel James Hibbard, would seem to be a good audience for that argument.

HIBBARD: As of a couple of weeks ago, we did get a fresh bullet hole right there and another one on the other side there, so...

KASTE: And yet he says he's inclined to vote yes because he wants to see the police reformed. One of the canvassers, Donna Anderson, jumps in to say, that's what the no campaign wants, too.

DONNA ANDERSON: We're hoping that folks will consider let's reform it, let's fix it, let's make it what it should be versus getting rid of it.

KASTE: Replacing the police department just goes too far, she says. She warns him that even basic aspects of policing could disappear.

ANDERSON: If you have a car accident, what does your insurance ask for? Police report.

HIBBARD: File a police report. Right. Right.

ANDERSON: There you go. Think about it.

HIBBARD: There's a lot of stuff there.

ANDERSON: There is a lot of stuff there that is not mentioned when they talk about abolish.

KASTE: Abolish is a word that the yes campaigners reject. They say it's unfair that the ballot question does not actually abolish or even defund the police - words that have become politically toxic for many voters here. In fact, the yes campaign's Janae Bates prefers to call this an expansion of public safety.

JANAE BATES: You actually can staff the department the way that meets the needs of the people. And so that...

KASTE: Because the ballot question gets rid of current requirements that the city employ a minimum number of cops, she says it'll give the city council more freedom to hire non-police responders, such as mental health teams.

BATES: I think it's a false argument to say, like, is this about less or more police when the reality is it's actually about making sure people are safe.

KASTE: You get a similar analysis from the yes campaign's national backers.

UDI OFER: We just sent another check for $100,000.

KASTE: That's Udi Ofer, deputy national political director of the ACLU, one of the top funders of the yes campaign. He also rejects words such as abolish and defund. But if you ask him, does the ACLU hope Minneapolis will end up with fewer cops, this is his answer.

OFER: Yes. Well, look, I mean, in general, we believe the police today - the vast majority of what police does today are things that should not involve policing in the first place.

KASTE: Ofer and others on the national level see Minneapolis as a focal point of the post-George Floyd movement to reduce the role of armed cops in minor incidents. The feds aren't doing this, he says, so it's up to the cities to experiment. And that's just what Minneapolis Pastor Jerry McAfee does not want to hear.

JERRY MCAFEE: I don't want to be another test case.

KASTE: McAfee is a prominent opponent of the ballot question. He debated the yes spokeswoman Janae Bates in front of a mostly Black audience, and the encounter captured the generational rift on this issue. She, the young activist, preached a bold vision of reimagine public safety. He, the veteran community leader, was skeptical of any vision that could include police officers if necessary.

MCAFEE: Because those of us who are waking up to the rat-a-tat-tat of the guns, we ain't got time for no if and no could. We need something right now. Our folk dying at alarming rates. They getting shot at a lot and that ain't no could. That's facts.

KASTE: But after the debate, a lot of the younger people dismiss McAfee's arguments as scare tactics, such as Vine Adams, who says she is voting yes.

VINE ADAMS: I want to see something different. I mean, I do - I love my elders. I do. I love them. But I do feel like sometimes to see something different, to envision something different, it's hard for them to see.

KASTE: Neither side can say for sure what public safety will look like in Minneapolis if this passes. For some, that uncertainty is frightening. For others, it's exhilarating. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.