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Packed crowd at North High listens to debate about public safety ballot question

Three weeks before Election Day, voters in north Minneapolis heard both sides of the debate about whether or not MPD should be replaced.

MINNEAPOLIS — Minneapolis residents packed the North High School auditorium on Tuesday night for a 90-minute debate about whether the Minneapolis Police Department should be replaced, exactly three weeks ahead of Election Day in the city's municipal races. 

The community forum, sponsored by the NAACP Minneapolis and The League of Women Voters Minneapolis, featured speakers on both sides of the issue. JaNaé Bates, the communications director for the group Yes 4 Minneapolis that petitioned to put the item on the ballot, argued in favor of the proposal, while peace activist Rev. Jerry McAfee voiced concerns against the measure. 

If passed, City Question 2 would eliminate the minimum funding requirement for police staffing, give oversight of the new public safety department to the mayor and city council, and could include police officers "if necessary." 

In his opening response, McAfee called the idea to replace MPD "a joke," slamming the ballot question as "vague" and out-of-touch with reality. As a faith leader who organized the 21 Days of Peace campaign this summer, McAfee also cited rising homicide rates as a reason not to dismantle the current system of policing.

Credit: KARE 11
Rev. Jerry McAfee is a peace activist who organized "21 Days of Peace" this summer.

"We don't know what it will do. We can't even really answer the questions, because I don't know where it's ever been done. And I don't want to be another test case," McAfee said. "I did three funerals a week or so ago — not one person was 30 years old, alright? That's what I see."

Bates, meanwhile, countered by saying that "the current armed-police only response in Minneapolis has not worked." She also insisted that the new Department of Public Safety would still include police officers, as required by a state mandate. 

However, Bates said that freeing the department from the restrictions of the city charter would offer more flexibility and give elected council members more of a voice on public safety. 

Credit: KARE 11
JaNaé Bates is the communications director at Yes 4 Minneapolis, which petitioned to put this question on the ballot.

"The city council has no power, currently, with the police department, which means your direct representation has no power and no ability to say what should and shouldn't keep you safe," Bates said.

The debate offered voters in north Minneapolis a chance to learn more about the ballot question, described in the introduction by North High principal Mauri Friestleben as "a life-and-death issue." 

During interviews with KARE 11 before the forum, members of the audience expressed a wide range of views about the proposal to replace MPD. 

Michael Pugh, who has owned a home in North Minneapolis for about 15 years, said he plans to vote "no" on City Question 2.

"My biggest concern is the way the amendment is written. It seems that it takes away from the police," Pugh said. "And I think that's the way a lot of people are going to see it."

Al Flowers, a longtime peace activist in Minneapolis, also said he plans to vote no, because he's "nervous that we're putting something in place that has not been thought out" and worries about where Chief Medaria Arradondo would fit under the new plan (the ballot question proposes to remove a "chief" from the city charter). 

Flowers criticized the rhetoric used by some supporters. 

"'Abolish, dismantle, defund' police, it opens up the door, to me, to criminal activity," Flowers said. "And we get the brunt of it."

Near North homeowner Robert Huggar, however, said the proposal "got worded wrong in the beginning." He supports the charter amendment and plans to vote "yes." 

"It's to create a Department of Public Safety, where the chief of police would report not only to the mayor but also to the board," Huggar said. "People are just frustrated. If you look at how the area is maintained by the police department, it vastly needs some improvement. I'm in full support."

Kitty Stratton, who has lived on the North Side for about six years, agreed that the public safety model in Minneapolis needs a fresh look after the murder of George Floyd.

"Minneapolis," she said, "has an incredible opportunity to make real change for everybody in the world."

Despite the sometimes-heated debate, supporters and proponents still found some common ground. Michael Pugh, one of the opponents of the measure, prefers a so-called "both/and" approach that would enact police reforms within the existing structure of MPD.

"It seems divisive, the way we're approaching it, but I think in the end we both want the same thing," Pugh said. "That's kind of the way I see it."

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