MINNEAPOLIS — After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd last year, protesters marched across the country demanding sweeping change to law enforcement. But given the opportunity Tuesday to dismantle their city’s troubled Police Department and replace it with something new, Minneapolis voters said no.
The results in Minneapolis, an overwhelmingly Democratic city, as well as returns in local races from Long Island to Seattle, suggested that voters saw an enduring need for policing even as they supported some incremental changes. In an election season that played out amid a national rise in homicides, Americans across racial and geographic lines rejected the most far-reaching calls for reinventing law enforcement and, in many cases, elected candidates who backed the current policing structure.
“I do want to see some changes,” said Deborah Diggins, 60, a social worker in Minneapolis who said she supported having mental health workers respond to more emergency calls. “But most certainly I do not want to see them defund the Police Department — in no form or fashion. We need policemen.”
In Seattle, where a majority of the City Council had endorsed cutting the police budget by half, Bruce Harrell, a candidate who favors adding police officers, was far ahead in the city’s mayoral race with counting still underway. In New York City, Eric Adams, a former police captain who won the Democratic primary this year after rejecting the defund-the-police movement and emphasizing the role of the police in public safety, sailed to election. And in Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey, who oversaw the city when Mr. Floyd was killed and was heckled by demonstrators after bucking calls to abolish the Police Department, decisively won a second term. Some of his opponents ran on replacing the Police Department.
“All of the work around safety and accountability is complex — none of it you can fix with a hashtag or a slogan,” said Mr. Frey, who pledged to improve the existing Police Department during his victory speech on Wednesday.
Republican candidates running on explicitly “Back the Blue” platforms won or were leading in some closely contested races, including for county executive and prosecutor posts on New York’s politically diverse Long Island. But the debate in many cities over how far to go in reimagining policing played out largely among different factions of Democrats.
In Atlanta, where homicides are up, policing defined much of this year’s mayoral election. Officials were still tallying the votes on Wednesday but named as the top vote-getter in a preliminary election Felicia Moore, who has promised to hire more police officers while also making the department more transparent and accountable. In Buffalo, Mayor Byron W. Brown, a moderate Democrat, appeared on track to win another term after waging a write-in campaign against a democratic socialist, India Walton, whom he accused of planning to cut police jobs.
Even as more moderate candidates prevailed, voters in many places expressed their continuing concerns about police conduct and the need for more accountability. In Cleveland, for instance, residents voted to expand civilian oversight of the police and elected a mayoral candidate, Justin Bibb, who positioned himself as a progressive committed to improving law enforcement. In Austin, Texas, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have required the city to hire hundreds more officers, despite a campaign by supporters that emphasized a sharp rise in homicides.
“I really thought people would buy into a lot of the fearmongering that came from the other side,” said Chas Moore, executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, which opposed the measure.
But the results in Minneapolis, where a proposed amendment would have replaced the Police Department with a new agency focused on public health, showed how the strongly held views that policing needs to change clashed with concerns about rising gun violence and homicides. The proposed safety agency in Minneapolis would have almost certainly still employed police officers, but the measure would have dismantled the existing system and eliminated minimum staffing requirements.
“The undeniable factor in that victory in Minneapolis — and I think it shows through in elections nationwide at every level — is a growing concern on the part of the electorate over the rising violent crime rate in the United States,” said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, a law enforcement union. “I believe, in terms of these draconian proposals to reduce or even eliminate police departments in this so-called defunding effort, that ship has sailed.”
F.B.I. statistics showed the steepest year-to-year homicide increase on record from 2019 to 2020, though killings remained below the levels seen in the 1990s and major crimes overall dropped about 5 percent last year.
Supporters of the Minneapolis amendment said that they were disappointed but that their campaign had succeeded in shifting the debate around policing, perhaps in a lasting way. That a large American city held an election on getting rid of its Police Department, and that more than 40 percent of voters supported it, they said, showed how much the discourse had broadened since only a few years ago, when far narrower changes, such as requiring body cameras or tightening use-of-force policies, were hotly debated.
“We’re doing the work and people are not ready yet,” said Rashad Robinson of the Color of Change PAC, which supported the Minneapolis amendment. “I fundamentally believe that we are on the right track. We would have not even been part of the conversation a couple of years ago.”
When protests spread following the murder of Mr. Floyd last year, “defund the police” became a progressive slogan. Across the country, many police department budgets were cut. A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council vowed to dismantle the police force, though some members soon backtracked.
The conversation has shifted again as homicides rose, with killings in Minneapolis reaching levels not seen since the 1990s. “Defund the police” has become a potent Republican attack line, and a slogan that all but the most liberal Democrats now avoid. Some of the cities that cut police budgets last year have now restored funding.
There have been some enduring changes to the current system, many with broad political support. Several cities, including Minneapolis, have invested more money in mental health services and in dispatching social workers to emergency calls. Officers in some places are no longer pulling people over for some minor offenses. And Minneapolis remains a place where liberal policies have found support: Even as voters chose not to get rid of their Police Department, they approved an amendment that would allow for rent control.
In Seattle, another liberal city that saw large, sometimes destructive protests in 2020, the Republican candidate for city attorney, Ann Davison, was leading in the vote over an opponent who had posted messages about her hatred of the police and sought to abolish the criminal justice system as it exists.
In the mayor’s race, Mr. Harrell, a Democrat who had criticized the defund effort and was leading, said on Wednesday that voters wanted improvements in policing but also wanted a police force that could respond to crimes quickly and conduct thorough investigations. His push for more officers, he said, had clearly resonated.
“I think it was a major issue, perhaps a determinative factor,” Mr. Harrell said.
Still, Mr. Harrell said he was committed to changes to policing. He said he would seek, for instance, to have every sworn officer watch video of Mr. Floyd’s murder and sign a letter stating that the inhumane treatment of people would not be tolerated in Seattle.
In Minneapolis, the city where the defund movement gained national prominence after Mr. Floyd’s murder and where many still speak with disgust about how their neighborhoods are patrolled, residents said they saw the election results as a reflection of their daily concerns. The ballot language contained few specifics about the proposed public safety agency, and residents said getting rid of the Police Department without a clearer alternative was a risk they could not take at a time when homicides have risen.
“For Black residents of Minneapolis, it’s not about politics,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer who has long protested police violence, but who opposed the amendment to replace the department. “It’s about our day-to-day realities of too often feeling unsafe with the things that are unfolding. Hearing the stories of children being shot and killed, and meeting the families of those children.”
Reporting was contributed by Jay Senter in Minneapolis, Jesse McKinley in Buffalo and Mike Baker in Seattle. Richard Fausset, Shaila Dewan and Luis Ferré-Sadurní also contributed reporting.