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Voters Embrace Police Accountability, Reject Sweeping Changes in a Mid-Year Election

Contrasting measures to replace or entrench departments fell at the ballot while civilian oversight won approval

Voters arrive at Bryn Mawr Community School on Election Day on November 2, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Voters there opposed an effort to disband the local police department and instead create a new Department of Public Safety. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Criminal justice reform was yet again on the ballot this Election Day, and the result was neither a tidal wave for change nor an aggressive rollback in the face of an ongoing increase in violence. Instead, voters supported measured calls for police accountability.

Major battles over mandatory policing staffing in Austin and a plan to repeal and replace the Minneapolis police department resulted in a clear rejection by voters. Meanwhile, Cleveland and Albany both passed initiatives to bolster civilian oversight of police.

“Even as partisan barriers block popular policing reforms in Congress, voters stepped up and said they want basic reforms that will hold police officers accountable to the public,” said Caitlyn Morrison, Arnold Ventures advocacy manager. “Extreme efforts to unilaterally expand or cut police simply weren’t popular. But initiatives aimed at specific, targeted ideas won at the ballot box.”

The Austin referendum, Proposition A, would have set a mandatory police staffing minimum of two officers per 1,000 residents. Austin’s chief financial officer estimated the proposition would have cost taxpayers between $271.5 million and $598.8 million over the next five years. It failed by a more than 2-1 margin.

The Minneapolis initiative, City Question 2, would have disbanded the local police department and instead created a new Department of Public Safety. More than 55% of voters opposed the effort. This was the second attempt to disband the Minneapolis Police Department since the murder of George Floyd.

In Cleveland, residents approved Issue 24, which created a new Community Policing Commission to provide civilian oversight of local law enforcement. The commission will have the power to investigate complaints against the Cleveland Division of Police and will have the final say in discipline for officer misconduct. And in Albany, voters passed Proposal 7, which granted the city’s Community Police Review Board greater oversight of police misconduct. This authority includes subpoena power and the ability to lead its own investigations.

“These results show that people want to feel safe but also don’t want unaccountable law enforcement,” said Walter Katz, Arnold Ventures vice president of Criminal Justice. “They are not opposed to the police, but do want just conduct. They want democratic control over how cities decide to spend on public safety, as we saw in Austin, and they want meaningful oversight, as we saw in Cleveland and Albany.”

This message was echoed by activists on the ground. Even as voters overwhelmingly rejected Austin’s Prop A, some members of the “No Way On Prop A” coalition emphasized their support for law enforcement and concern that the millions in new spending would have undermined other city services without improving public safety.

“We opposed Prop A because we believe the citizens of Austin deserve well-funded, safe, effective, and accountable services from all city departments,” Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie said on election night. “Prop A’s supporters worked unilaterally to put a proposal in front of voters that would have created an unsustainable imbalance in the city budget, favoring just one city function over all others.”

Some Minneapolis groups that opposed City Question 2 issued similarly nuanced statements on election night. The All of Mpls campaign, for example, called for systemic reforms to the city police department, which is currently under federal investigation.

“Tonight Minneapolis voters have made clear that we want a planful approach to transforming policing and public safety in our city that needs to include meaningful consultation with the communities that are most impacted by both violent crime and by over-policing,” said Leili Fatehi, manager of the All of Mpls campaign.

Mixed Messages Among Local Elections

Voters extended this trend of rejecting sweeping reforms to races for local offices, as well. In Seattle, prison abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy lost her race for city attorney. The role is responsible for prosecuting misdemeanors and defending the city and municipal employees, including police, in lawsuits. Thomas-Kennedy had defeated three-term incumbent Pete Holmes in the Democratic primary, and at the time her victory was viewed as a sign of momentum for reform advocates. She had campaigned on a platform of reducing and, eventually, eliminating most misdemeanor prosecutions and expanding mental health, addiction and restorative-justice programs. But she lost to Ann Davison, a Republican, who ran on a “tough-on-crime” platform in the general election. Seattle voters followed a similar pattern in the mayoral race and rejected Lorena González, who had supported a 50% cut in the city’s police budget last year. The winner, Bruce Harrell, campaigned on a call for more officers.

On the other side of the country, Todd Kaminsky, a Democratic state senator, lost his election for Nassau County District Attorney after being attacked for supporting the state’s pretrial reforms. His Republican opponent, Anne Donnelly, ran a series of ads that inaccurately centered Kaminsky as a leader in the bail reform movement and deemed the senator “‘Turn ‘Em Loose’ Todd.”

In Philadelphia, however, voters delivered a resounding win to District Attorney Larry Krasner, who spent his first term promoting systemic reforms within the criminal justice system while also calling for greater focus on violent gun crimes. Political reporters noted that Krasner’s easy victory — both in the primary and the general election — deflated concerns about a nationwide stall of the criminal justice reform movement.

“The DA race was over when Krasner won the primary, but man, the ‘criminal justice reformers in trouble’ storyline really got written out quickly,” Washington Post reporter David Weigel said.

In New York City, Alvin Bragg, a former federal prosecutor, won his race for District Attorney of Manhattan on a message of reform. And Pittsburgh voters elected Ed Gainey as mayor after he ran a campaign calling for public health responses to crime. Both will be the first Black candidates to hold those positions. Pittsburgh voters also elected a slate of pro-reform judges who have promised to narrow the footprint of the criminal justice system and promote alternatives to incarceration.

Winding Down the Drug War

While no states formally legalized marijuana in the 2021 election, several cities took steps to move drug enforcement out of the hands of police. Detroit became the latest jurisdiction to essentially decriminalize hallucinogenic mushrooms, following a similar step by the state of Oregon in 2020. Voters in the Motor City approved Proposal E, which made “the personal possession and therapeutic use of entheogenic plants by adults the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority.” And in Ohio, seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana, adding to the 22 jurisdictions in the Buckeye State that had already adopted similar local statutes.

Voting from Jail

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez was not on the ballot, but his jail made election headlines nonetheless. For the first time, people held behind bars at the Texas facility were allowed to cast their ballots on Election Day. It was a short ballot — covering school board elections and a smattering of state constitutional amendments, such as a question about legalizing raffles at rodeos — but access to vote remains an important part of guaranteeing people’s rights while they’re detained.

“Many individuals come here for a number of different reasons,” Gonzalez said. “We have veterans here, we have individuals that have degrees, we have individuals that unfortunately have been in the throes of addiction and mental illness and other things. But it doesn’t remove the right to vote.”

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