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Illustration by The Appeal. Photos courtesy of YES 4 Minneapolis, Cooper Baumgar, Josh Hild, and Munshots at Unsplash.

These November Elections Could Dramatically Change Local Police Departments

by Anna Simonton, The Appeal

On Oct. 16 in Minneapolis, advocates for reforming police and public safety were on a roll. Volunteers gathered in Longfellow Park—just a couple of miles from the spot where police killed George Floyd—and fanned out to knock on hundreds of doors, talking with residents about Question 2, a measure on the November ballot that could bring sweeping change to the city’s police department. Even though 2021 is considered an “off year” for electoral politics, many local elections like this one in the coming weeks may still shift the status quo for criminal justice around the country.

If it passes, Question 2 will create a Department of Public Safety, which would employ a “comprehensive public health approach to safety,” according to the ballot language. It would lift a requirement that the city maintain a certain number of armed officers depending on the population, opening the door for officials to create a model where professionals other than police prevent or respond to emergencies.

“What we have currently in the city of Minneapolis is an armed police response only,” JaNaé Bates told a crowd at a public forum held at Mayflower Church, across town from where volunteers were canvassing. Bates is the communications director for the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition, which represents more than 50 organizations that support the ballot measure. Voting yes on Question 2, she said, would ensure that people in crisis get help that’s appropriate for their specific situation. “Sometimes it will be a police officer. Sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it will be a mental health professional.”

This election is one of a handful of local races across the country that may be a barometer of how efforts to transform the criminal legal system have fared since George Floyd’s murder last year sparked massive protests calling for change.

  • New Orleans voters will choose whether to re-elect Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who since 2004 has overseen a jail rife with human rights abuses. Four challengers are running against him in a nonpartisan Nov. 13 primary. Among them is a former police watchdog, Susan Hutson, who opposes jail expansion, wants to make fewer arrests, and plans to end the exorbitant fees incarcerated people have to pay for phone calls.
  • In Seattle, a self-described “abolitionist” candidate for city attorney, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, is competing against a tough-on-crime opponent after incumbent Pete Holmes, who steered the office in a more progressive direction over the last decade, lost in the August primary. Kennedy, a former public defender, says she will stop prosecuting most misdemeanors and seek alternatives to prosecution where available. But a recent poll shows her falling behind Ann Davison, an attorney who flipped from Democrat to Republican in 2020, has advocated for homeless encampment sweeps, and wants to ramp up misdemeanor prosecutions.
  • Mayoral elections nationwide are a battleground over the future of criminal justice. When community organizer India Walton won the Democratic mayoral primary in June in Buffalo, New York, her vision for reducing the scope of policing seemed likely to become policy. But the defeated incumbent, Byron Brown, has staged an aggressive write-in campaign that could prevail on Nov. 2. And in Boston and Cincinnati, left-leaning candidates want civilian-led teams to respond to some low-level offenses or emergency calls, but their challengers want to maintain, or even expand, the size of each city’s police department. Elsewhere, candidates have fallen prey to reactionary rhetoric about the rise in violent crime; most of the candidates for Atlanta mayor are touting policies, like creating a gang task force, that hearken back to the 1990s tough-on-crime era.
  • Last year, Austin cut its police budget by about a third by moving civilian functions like dispatch and forensics outside the department, and redirected $70 million to programs like supportive housing and substance use treatment. But that could come undone if voters approve Proposition A on Nov. 2. The measure would expand the city’s spending on cops and potentially force cuts in other areas, like firefighters, medics, and librarians. A long list of labor and social justice groups, elected officials, and local residents are fighting Prop A.
  • Gubernatorial elections are taking place in New Jersey and Virginia this year, and the latter is a tight race with high stakes for the criminal legal system. Virginia abolished parole in 1995; now Democratic lawmakers are aiming to reinstate it. The effort would likely have support from former governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is seeking another term. But Republican contender Gary Youngkin instead wants to take parole options away from those convicted before 1995.

In Minneapolis, activists are cautiously hopeful. Question 2 needs a simple majority to pass, and a September poll suggested that 49 percent of voters supported the measure.

“Coming together across race, across region, across income to say that Black Lives Matter and that we’re ready to put that proclamation into policy was a necessity” after police killed George Floyd, Bates told The Appeal.


IN THE NEWS

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People with disabilities at New York’s Five Points Correctional Facility say they’re denied working wheelchairs, unable to attend meals, and at risk of being disciplined because of their disability. One plaintiff was kept in solitary when he couldn’t push another person in a wheelchair. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg / New York Focus and The Nation]

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined JPay $6 million for “engaging in unlawful conduct that targeted people released from the corrections system, siphoning off taxpayer-funded benefits and people’s own hard-earned money in the process,” CFPB director Rohit Chopra said in a statement. [CFPB]

Since 2015, the agency responsible for parking and traffic enforcement has cost the city of Los Angeles $192 million more than it generated in fines. [Cari Spencer / Crosstown]

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy Gregory Van Hoesen killed two people in 18 months: 16-year-old AJ Weber and 21-year-old Jamaal Simpson. Van Hoesen was not disciplined for either shooting, faced no criminal charges, and is still working. [Cerise Castle / Knock LA]

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan wants to “re-fund the police” with his $150 million plan to give police across the state even more money. Budgets for state police departments and grants to local police departments have already increased during Hogan’s tenure. [Bryn Stole / Baltimore Sun]

A Black person in New Jersey is more than 12 times more likely than a white person to be incarcerated—the highest Black-white disparity rate in the country, according to a new report by The Sentencing Project. [Ashley Nellis / The Sentencing Project]

A new article in Science, the peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, details how public and private actors have turned America’s criminal legal system into a “vast network of revenue-generating operations.” [Joshua Page and Joe Soss / Science]


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