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Why voters rejected a plan to replace Minneapolis Police Department

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Choosing among candidates was not the only decision voters had to make this past Tuesday. In Minneapolis, voters had the chance to weigh in on an issue that's been front and center around the country for more than a year. We're talking about policing. Last June, weeks after Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, City Councilman Jeremiah Ellison was adamant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEREMIAH ELLISON: This council is going to dismantle this police department.

MARTIN: But when the question of whether to replace the police department with something else showed up on ballots more than a year later, 56% of voters in Minneapolis said no. And the racial dynamics that led to Tuesday's results are not as simple as you might think. That's according to our next guest, Michelle Phelps. She is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota who studies attitudes toward policing. She dug into the election results, and she's going to tell us more about them. Professor Phelps is on Skype with us. Thank you so much for joining us.

MICHELLE PHELPS: Sure thing. Thank you for having me today.

MARTIN: Before we get into the results, I just wanted to ask you a bit more about the proposal. I understand that if it had passed, it would have eliminated a minimum funding requirement for the police department. But aside from that, how would a department of public safety be different from a police department?

PHELPS: What the amendment would have actually done was replace in the city charter the department that we currently have with a new department of public safety that, it wrote, would take a public health approach. And the new department would no longer be under the exclusive power of the mayor, so it would shift power back to the city council. And it wouldn't have that mandatory number of minimum officers written into the city charter. But the details of what that new department would look like and especially how many police officers or law enforcement that it would have in the department would have been left up to ordinance that would have been drafted after the amendment passed. So we don't actually know the details of exactly what that department might have looked like, had it passed.

MARTIN: So help us understand the vote because there are a lot of narratives flying around that - one is that more affluent white voters in Minneapolis overwhelmingly struck this down. But the other story is that predominantly Black voters didn't want it, either.

PHELPS: That's right. So it is certainly true that the predominantly white and wealthiest neighborhoods, which are clustered in Southwest Minneapolis, overwhelmingly rejected the amendment. But if you look up in North Minneapolis, the two wards in North Minneapolis are the precincts with the highest number of Black voters. Those precincts, in general, voted no on the amendment as well, although it was a more contested no.

And that tracks with what was pretty divided support among Black community leaders for and against the amendment. So there were certainly arguments, even by folks affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, who had been at Black Lives Matter protests before, and leaders in that movement about whether this charter was going to lead us towards a department that was fundamentally more just and safer for people of color.

MARTIN: You know, Minneapolis, like other large cities, has seen an increase in violent crime this past year, including children killed by gunfire in some of these neighborhoods. What effect do you think that that had on the vote?

PHELPS: I think it was incredibly important. You know, so if you think about folks who live in very high-crime communities, much of the sociological research suggests that those folks sort of feel pinned between community violence and police violence. You know, now that we are a year and a half out from the murder of George Floyd and in a context where violent crime has increased, particularly shootings, I mean, that kind of shifts the lens that people are thinking about this issue through.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, we should mention that the scrutiny of the police department isn't over. There's a Department of Justice investigation going on. The city actually needs to hire more officers to comply with the city charter, as I understand it. So what is your sense of the direction that conversation takes in Minneapolis?

PHELPS: What I expect to see in the coming year - so the city is working to stand up a new program that - the idea is to send trained mental health professionals to mental health crisis calls. The city will also be hiring several hundreds of officers to meet this decree by the courts, assuming they can meet that. And the city will soon likely be under some kind of memorandum of agreement or consent decree with the Department of Justice around what kinds of reforms the Department of Justice thinks are relevant to implement for the city.

So I think we're going to be in a period of a lot of reform efforts and a lot of change. And I also think, you know, all of the activists who fought for Question 2 are continuing to play a role in local politics. And I would be very surprised if a question about reducing that mandatory minimum number of officers from the city charter doesn't appear on the ballot again moving forward.

MARTIN: That was professor Michelle Phelps. She teaches sociology at the University of Minnesota and researches attitudes toward policing. Professor Phelps, thank you so much for joining us today.

PHELPS: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.