Minneapolis Business Community Mixed on Public Safety Amendment
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Minneapolis Business Community Mixed on Public Safety Amendment

With all eyes trained on Minneapolis for today's election, business leaders are split on whether to remove the city’s police department as it currently exists.

[Editor’s note: The Associated Press late Tuesday reported that Minneapolis voters have rejected Question 2. According to city data, 56 percent of residents voted against the measure.]

There’s no denying it: The business community and law enforcement are closely intertwined. It was, after all, a 911 call from a small business in south Minneapolis that triggered a police response that eventually led to the murder of George Floyd 18 months ago. At the same time, rising crime across the city and nation has put business owners on edge.

But on the eve of a historic election in Minneapolis, there’s no consensus on the best path forward among local business leaders. Everyone acknowledges that crime is increasing, and most tend to agree that the police department needs some change. What exactly those changes should be is up for debate.

On Tuesday, Minneapolis voters will get a chance to decide for themselves. An upcoming ballot question will ask voters whether they want to amend the city’s charter to remove the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety, to be overseen by the City Council. Today, the mayor oversees the police department. The language of the ballot says that the new department “could include peace officers (police officers), if necessary,” but does not mandate a police force as we know it now.

A “yes” vote on Question 2 would also remove the charter’s current minimum funding requirements for police officers in the city. Notably, the charter would not explicitly defund the department. But some leaders in town say that difference is inconsequential.

(as it will appear on ballots Nov. 2)

Department of Public Safety
Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions by the Department of Public Safety, with those specific functions to be determined by the Mayor and City Council by ordinance; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?

Explanatory Note: 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. 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.

“Advocates can say there still will be some police, but it’s not going to be the same number that is currently required under the charter,” says Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, a coalition of dozens of chief executives across the state. “That’s defunding.”

Weaver concedes that the department “needs more accountability.” In summer 2020, the Partnership sent a list of police policy recommendations to Minnesota lawmakers. Since then, the Minnesota Legislature has implemented some modest police reforms, such as an early intervention program for problem officers—one of the recommendations requested by the partnership. But activists say those still fall far short. And indeed, the Legislature didn’t even take up all of the Business Partnership’s suggestions.

Small businesses push for change

The Minnesota Business Partnership primarily represents the interests of the big dogs in town. It’s composed of chief executives from places like Target, Best Buy, and Ecolab. Weaver maintains that, if Question 2 is passed, there may be a “mass exodus” of big businesses out of Minneapolis. No business has yet announced formal plans to leave, but Weaver says that “absolutely, our members are talking about it.” That’s among the reasons, he says, that his group “strongly opposes” the charter change.

But that sentiment doesn’t hold true among some smaller businesses in town. On Oct. 25, a group of more than 30 Minneapolis businesses formally came out in support of Question 2. Known as “Common Sense Safety,” the group includes Modist Brewing Co., Sociable Ciderworks, Butter Bakery Cafe, and several dozen others.

Davis Senseman, owner of Minneapolis law firm Davis Law Office, is among the small business owners that support Question 2. A 20-year Minneapolis resident, Senseman says that the change would actually lead to a more transparent, democratic process for public safety. She notes that she was not initially in favor of the charter amendment; she wasn’t one of the 22,000 people who signed a petition to get the question on the ballot.

“I took a wait-and-see approach,” Senseman says. “But as I spoke with business owners about what real public safety looks like for our community, I just came to the realization that the only path I see forward is to change the charter.”

A common criticism among opponents of the measure: There’s no concrete plan in place if Question 2 is passed. But Senseman says that response is a “very easy, knee-jerk reaction.” She raises another question: “What exactly is the current plan for public safety?”

“I don’t know what it is, and the reason for that is because right now, the only people who are planning public safety are the mayor and the chief of police,” Senseman says. “What they do happens behind closed doors. They don’t have to have public hearings.”

For some citizens, attending a public hearing is, of course, not a common occurrence. A lack of familiarity might lead them to fear the process, Senseman argues. But not business owners, many of whom have likely testified before council members on any number of issues. Some have lobbied for more funds for business services, for example. Others have come before the council with more mundane matters, like requests to extend a patio.

“The business owners that I talk to, they’re more familiar with the process,” she says. “That there isn’t a plan doesn’t concern them; we kind of make the plan together.”

As for developing a plan ahead of the vote, some Minneapolis city leaders have said their hands have been tied. City council president Lisa Bender, who’s not seeking reelection on Tuesday, said that city staff “have said they won’t work on developing a plan unless the charter question passes.”

“That has been a challenge in creating a glossy, public-facing plan,” Bender says. “But there’s a clear roadmap to implementing a new department of public safety, based on years of work with community engagement.”

She points to a city-led 911 work group, which did a wide-reaching analysis on reasons that citizens have called the emergency line. The research showed that many calls were for administrative reasons or for mental health-related issues, Bender says. They’re issues that she and others maintain wouldn’t require an armed police officer.

What’s more, in Bender’s view, the police department as it exists today isn’t financially tenable in the long term. In a MinnPost op-ed earlier this month, she called out the increasing budget of the police department, even as the number of sworn officers has declined. In 2020, the city council provided $193.3 million for 888 officers. That figure was up about 3.1 percent from the prior year. But with a number of officers out of the force due to PTSD claims, that number is now around 598 officers, according to figures from the department.

“At some point, there should be a cost savings from having hundreds fewer employees,” Bender says.

Year Minneapolis total budget Minneapolis Police Department budget (Adopted) Sworn police officers Percent change in police spending
2012 $1.2246 billion $135.4 million 839 0.3 percent
2013 $1.1958 billion $136.1 million 833 0.7 percent
2014 $1.2375 billion $147.7 million 829 7.7 percent
2015 $1.3025 billion $153.4 million 850 5.7 percent
2016 $1.3412 billion $157.8 million 876 2.9 percent
2017 $1.4539 billion $163.2 million 890 3.4 percent
2018 $1.5402 billion $179.4 million 900 10 percent
2019 $1.6991 billion $184.9 million 853 3.1 percent
2020 $1.53621 billion $193.3 million 731 4.5 percent
2021 $1.4495 billion $164.3 million 598 (15 percent)

Source: Minneapolis city budget documents, Minneapolis Police Department

No clear consensus

While Senseman and other business owners are championing the charter amendment, their views are certainly not universal among the Minneapolis business community. Teto Wilson, owner of Wilson’s Image Barbers and Stylists in North Minneapolis, opposes Question 2. So much so that he’s appeared in an advertisement for opposition group “All of Mpls.” He appeared in the ad voluntarily, he says. He also penned an op-ed in the Minnesota Reformer denouncing the measure.

Wilson is quick to note that the police force does need changes. “Police have murdered Black people in this city for decades and gotten away with it,” he says. “We want to see cops that go rogue get charged and convicted.”

Indeed, it wasn’t until the 2017 murder of Justine Damond—a white woman—that a Minnesota officer was convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting. Still, Wilson doesn’t think that Question 2 will solve the larger issues surrounding policing.

Group meets to demand for defunding of police
Various Twin Cities groups have called for defunding the police force.

“I’m definitely in opposition for many reasons, but my biggest reason is that we don’t know what we’re voting for,” Wilson says.

Organizers behind Question 2 “didn’t take time to engage the community,” particularly Black residents who would be most affected by it, Wilson says.

That’s one of the key reasons that Sondra Samuels, a longtime Minneapolis resident and nonprofit leader, also opposes the measure. She’s been vocal in her opposition, and has even filed a lawsuit against the city questioning the language of the ballot. In her view, the change would be an “experiment” carried out at the expense of the Black community.

Samuels is intimately acquainted with the impact of crimes in the city. Her nonprofit, Northside Achievement Zone, has had its windows shot out three different times. “I have boarded up windows, and right now, I’m trying to figure out the cost of bulletproof windows, which are exorbitant,” Samuels says. “It’s caused me to have to move back the day of our staff returning to work [post-Covid] because it’s unsettling.”

Like Wilson, Samuels is frank about the state of policing in Minneapolis. She’s “no apologist for the Minneapolis police,” she says. The murder of George Floyd, she says, was simply “the tip of the racist iceberg. Underneath that waterline is the racism that this city and state is known for.” But changing the city charter would do nothing to address that racism, she maintains.

The battle over Question 2 has generated a substantial amount of campaign funding, both locally and nationally. According to MinnPost, Yes 4 Minneapolis, which supports the measure, has raised $1.8 million for the year. Opposition group All of Mpls, meanwhile, has pulled in $1.6 million this year. National brands have also entered the fray: Vermont-based ice cream chain Ben & Jerry’s, long known for being outspoken on politics, has come out in favor of the amendment. The company, which operates a few stores in Minnesota, was also heavily critical of Minneapolis police in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Regardless of where the vote lands, the relationship between businesses and law enforcement will likely look quite different going forward. Some business leaders—even those opposing the charter amendment like Wilson—have reevaluated whether calling 911 is the best option. Others are taking security matters into their own hands.

“A lot of business owners are really looking forward to calling and getting a right-sized response, whatever the issue is.” says Senseman, the attorney in favor of the amendment. “Business owners are not looking for someone to get hurt.”