Sweeping police reforms have been at the center of a debate in the United States since the May 2020 death of African American George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A year-and-a-half later, amid spiking violent crime rates nationwide, voters in the city rejected scrapping its police department and replacing it with a proposed Department of Public Safety. 

In the first municipal election since Floyd’s death, voters rejected the referendum, known as Ballot Question 2, by a projected margin of 56% to 44%. The measure was seen as a high-profile test of support for the so-called “defund the police” movement. 

“The defund the police movement has been soundly rejected,” said Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York, a non-partisan organization that works to improve public safety through innovation. “I think there’s a growing realization that defunding the police is not an idea that people are going to accept.” 

Critics of the Minneapolis police force maintained the department has a long history of mistrust, abuse and discriminatory practices.

“This vote means maintaining the status quo … a city that continues to devolve,” said JaNaé Bates, an organizer and spokesperson for the initiative, on CNN. Bates said her group will continue to push to reform the police department. 

At issue was whether to amend Minneapolis’ city charter to replace the police department with a Department of Public Safety that would have brought a public health approach to policing rather than a narrow focus on law enforcement. The new public safety model envisioned a greater reliance on social workers and violence prevention counselors in emergency situations.

“The city’s residents decided they wanted their police department to stay in place. Now the real work begins,” Cedric Alexander, a former police chief and director of public safety in Dekalb County, Georgia, told VOA. “You’ve got to have good policing. You’ve got to have great police and you’ve got to have transparent open, well recruited, well-trained and well supervised policing.” 

Calls to shift resources away from police departments collided with headlines as homicides have soared in the United States, up 30% from 2019 to 2020, according to federal statistics. 2021 could eclipse the 2020 estimate of more than 21,500 murders. 


“People have understood that while the United States definitely needs to reform police, we cannot eliminate police. It’s just it’s a wonderful aspiration, but it’s something that’s not going to happen,”  but it’s something that’s not going to happen,” Aborn said. “At the end of the day, people want to know that the police are going to be out there patrolling, maintaining public safety and arresting people that commit violent crimes.” 


Calls for change 

Floyd’s death triggered months of anger, racial justice protests and demands for an end to police brutality in the United States and around the world. Floyd died May 25, 2020 after white former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned the handcuffed Floyd on the street with a knee to Floyd’s neck for roughly nine minutes. The incident was captured on video and disseminated across the globe. Chauvin was convicted of second-degree murder and manslaughter in April 2021 and is serving a 22.5-year prison sentence.

In recent years, videos of police using excessive, sometimes deadly force against Blacks and other people of color have become commonplace, sparking calls for police reforms and reallocating funding for law enforcement. Twenty-three major cities including Washington saw police budgets reduced last year, according to Smart Cities Dive.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department is investigating the Minneapolis Police Department. Launched in April, the probe is focusing on the department’s use of force patterns to determine if it disproportionately targets Blacks and other residents of color.


Clarifying goals 


In Minneapolis, reform advocates sought to clarify their goals ahead of the referendum, maintaining that they did not seek the abolition of law enforcement but rather to change the scope and execution of officers’ duties.

Some residents were not convinced.

“I want the city to hire more officers and not take resources away from the police department,” news reports quoted a Minneapolis voter as saying.

The Minneapolis City Council will vote next month on a proposal to restore $192 million to the police department’s budget. The mayor has proposed hiring as many as 150 officers to replace those who recently left the force.

“We have swung from people calling for no police back to, ‘We want police because of rising crime,’” Alexander said. 

“We have to find that middle ground because we have to have public safety,” added Alexander, who served for four decades in law enforcement.

“Hiring more cops will not reduce violence but something has to be done more structurally to change policing and practices. The police department is not going to change by itself.”

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