Public safety at the center of Minneapolis City Council races

Council members who support public safety ballot proposal face challenges from candidates who oppose it.

A man holds a microphone as others gather around to listen.
City Council member Jeremiah Ellison speaks at a public event in May after the shootings of three children in Minneapolis. Many incumbents who served through the period following George Floyd’s killing face challengers who are critical of the council’s actions last term and who want to pursue reform within the existing Police Department. 
Tim Nelson | MPR News file

Minneapolis City Council seats that will be filled Tuesday could dictate how the city where George Floyd was murdered by a police officer restructures its approach to public safety. 

Many incumbents who served through the period following Floyd’s killing face challengers who are critical of the council’s actions last term, and who want to pursue reform within the existing police department. 

Emily Koski is running against Jeremy Schroeder in Minneapolis’ 11th Ward, which covers the far south-central end of Minneapolis. Koski, who works at a marketing and consulting firm, said this council has seemed to reject finding common ground with residents who disagree with them.

“When people say, ‘Gosh, I don't feel like I'm proud of Minneapolis’ or ‘I want to move,’ they've lost that sense of belonging,” Koski said. “We need to bring that back.”

It was in June 2020 when the majority of the Minneapolis City Council took the stage at a rally in Powderhorn Park organized by activists. In front of the stage were huge letters spelling out “defund police.” Although some council members later distanced themselves from the rally and now deny that they support the “defunding” of the Minneapolis police, the image has stuck in the public’s mind and the phrase has cropped up in election campaigns across the country. 

Minneapolis City Council members discuss defunding police department
In June 2020, nine Minneapolis City Council members declared their commitment to defunding and dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News 2020

“That was a moment in time our city needed to feel united and instead it divided us more and I think it really confused people,” Koski said. “It definitely felt like we had leaders that were leading within their own vacuum and had their own thoughts and ideas, and weren't necessarily thinking about the actual communities they were serving.” 

Schroeder views the Powderhorn Park rally as a commitment to moving toward a public safety system that serves all people, supports officers’ health and has clear supervisory and disciplinary structures. 

“People were literally on the streets about our Minneapolis Police Department and wanting to see some type of change — and all that time has gone by, and we really haven't seen it,” Schroeder said. “My record is that I have continued to fund police; I've also continued to be very critical of the department as it is, and I think that’s where people in my ward are.”

The current city charter gives the mayor “complete power over the establishment, maintenance and command of the police department.” But ballot question two, which was put forward by citizen petition, would give the council more oversight over a new Department of Public Safety. 

Some of the rhetoric from opponents of the ballot question has misled voters into thinking candidates are either for or against the police, Schroeder said. But the truth, said Schroeder, is that every candidate wants city residents to be safe. And he said the back-and-forth has obscured a lot of other important parts of serving on the council.  

“This job is a service job. Plus, most of my time is making sure that the city works for residents; that streets are plowed; that the leaves are picked up; that we're doing everything we can to fight climate change, and keep our water clean,” Schroeder said. “ But all of the outside money and all of the rhetoric that we're hearing really tries to push it to that binary [that] we’re either on the right path or the wrong path.” 

Schroeder is also facing challenges from Dillon Gherna, Albert T. Ross and Kurt Michael Anderson. 

The divide between the incumbents and their challengers seems to come down to differing philosophies on public safety, said Jane Sumner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. 

The challengers may see crime as the result of individual behaviors, which Sumner said “logically leads to this idea that we need to fortify the police, give them more resources, so that they can remove these people.” 

Sumner said others may believe that more structural factors, like the existence of a social safety net, can affect crime rates, and therefore believe “that we need to restructure the way the city runs entirely, and that includes public safety.” 

In Ward 5 on the city’s northside, council member Jeremiah Ellison is facing a handful of challengers. Kristel Porter, who runs an environmental nonprofit, said her earlier experiences of homelessness and poverty were what motivated her to run for office. 

“You’ve got these council members that come in, and they don't do their job, they don't connect with the community, and in three and a half years, people are done with them and they're ready to vote them out,” Porter said. “That's how we can't get anything done in north Minneapolis.”

Porter said she doesn’t oppose reforming the police department, for example, hiring more officers who live in the communities they serve. But said she doesn’t think a new Department of Public Safety will reduce the number of shootings in north Minneapolis.  

“We've already lost so much, so many people in the last year and a half. I can count on my fingers and toes how many people I know that have been hit with a bullet in the last year and a half,” Porter said. “My thing is, what are we going to do in the meantime?” 

Ellison said people he’s talked to don’t want to have a conversation about more or less police — they want to talk about how to create a safer community.

“In north Minneapolis, even when the rest of the city has ignored gun violence, we've had to shoulder it, even in those quieter years where crime is trending down, north Minneapolis is still going to vigils, and we're still the ones going to funerals,” Ellison said. “People have no delusions that the current system works.” 

This election offers some opportunities to reimagine public safety, including ballot question No. 2, Ellison said. But he doesn’t see Tuesday as the end of the fight for police accountability. 

“It is it is inevitable that at some point we're going to have another flashpoint like the murder of George Floyd,” Ellison said. “That's going to call the question, is this the best way to keep people safe in cities? Is this police-only model working for neighborhoods like north Minneapolis? Is it working in Chicago?” 

In addition to Porter, Ellison is also fielding challenges from Cathy Spann, James Seymour, Elijah Norris-Holliday, Suleiman Isse and Victor Martinez. 

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