The future of policing has been at the forefront of several elections across the US, following international demands for urgent police reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and a failure among members of Congress to reach an agreement on a national police reform bill to be named in his honour.
Criminal justice and crime emerged as key issues in the race for the next mayor of New York, and reform efforts also were central in mayoral races in Atlanta, Cleveland, and Seattle.
Though voters in Minneapolis shot down a proposal to transform the city’s police department into a first-of-its-kind public safety agency, voters in several other cities overwhelmingly approved measures that will give civilians greater oversight of police misconduct cases.
While national narratives tend to drive the “all politics is presidential” lesson from 2021 elections, local candidates and down-ticket measures backed by progressive groups counted several victories, from the election of new mayors in Boston and Cleveland to progressive-led ballot initiatives like the decriminalisation of psychedelic mushrooms in Detroit and citywide rent control in St Paul, Minnesota.
Voters supported a $15 minimum wage in Tucson, Arizona – notably, the hometown of Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who gave a “thumbs down” vote on the floor of the US Senate to raising the federal minimum wage earlier this year.
Eighteen months after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, igniting widespread uprisings against police violence, voters in the city rejected a measure to replace the city’s police department with a newly formed Department of Public Safety.
The programme would add social workers, peace officers and crisis management tools into community policing plans, which advocates hoped would serve as a kind of pilot for sweeping reforms, mulled by progressive lawmakers and officials in other cities.
Voters in Austin, Texas, meanwhile overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to grow the city’s police force by setting a minimum of two police officers per 1,000 residents.
The measure was promoted by a group called Save Austin Now that called the ratio a “nationally recognised” standard under the US Department of Justice, which does not appear to have ever endorsed such a standard.
In Cleveland, Ohio, voters also overwhelmingly approved a plan to establish a civilian-led community policing commission to oversee discipline in police misconduct cases.
The city’s Office of Professional Standards would also report directly to the commission – not the police chief – in an effort towards more transparency and accountability within the agency.
Voters in Albany, New York approved a measure that gives a community police board greater oversight involving complaints against officers – as well as the ability to perform investigations against them.
Voters in Detroit voted to decriminalise psychedelic mushrooms and other so-called entheogenic plants like Ayahuasca and peyote “to the fullest extent” under Michigan law and make “personal possession and therapeutic use” among adults “the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority.”
The city now joins neighbouring Ann Arbor, where the city council voted unanimously in 2020 to decriminalise entheogenic plants for their potential effectiveness in treating mental health issues, as well as their centuries-old medicinal and cultural use.
Cities including Denver and Oakland, California have also moved to decriminalise mushrooms.
Economic justice and minimum wage hikes
Voters in Detroit also approved a proposal that allows the city council to establish a Reparations Task Force, which would make recommendations for housing and economic development programmes following decades of discrimination against Black residents.
Voters in Tucson, Arizona also voted to increase the city’s hourly minimum wage to $15 per hour by 1 January, 2025, with annual increases based on inflation thereafter.
Tucson also is the hometown of Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who voted with a “thumbs down” against raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 earlier this year. The city will implement a $13 hourly wage by 1 April, 2022, gradually increasing each year.
The proliferation of short-term rentals that have hollowed-out neighbourhoods or priced out renters across the US has prompted cities to take a closer look at an industry that officials once believed showed some promise for luring tourist revenue.
Towns and cities across Colorado turned to voters to help solve the housing crisis. Voters in several cities supported pauses and new fees on short-term rentals to support housing and to cap the number of licences to turn properties into short-term rentals.
Voters in Lincoln County, Oregon voted to phase out short-term rental homes in unincorporated residential areas and introduce other restrictions to curb the spread of Airbnb-style rentals in the area.
St Paul, Minnesota also adopted one of the strongest rent control measures in the nation. The measure prohibits landlords from raising rents by more than 3 per cent in a 12-month period, regardless of whether there is a change in occupancy.
Housing Equity Now St Paul hailed the vote as a “significant step toward addressing the affordable housing crisis in St Paul and puts our elected leaders on notice that renter protections and housing stability are essential priorities for voters.”
Food and climate justice
Voters in New York added a clause to the state’s constitution, guaranteeing residents a “right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”
Advocates argue that constitutionally protected environmental rights – with just 15 words in the measure – could provide a greater degree of legal protection in water contamination cases and other pollution issues, and can be used to push lawmakers to centre climate issues in future legislation.
“With the right to water codified in our state constitution, it’s time to get to work putting control of this most critical resource into the hands of the people, it’s time to clean up New York’s drinking water and it’s time to cancel water debt and make water service affordable for every person,” said Food & Water Watch Northeast Region director Alex Beauchamp.
In Maine, voters approved the first “right to food” amendment in the country. The constitutional amendment declares “that all individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being.”
Proponents have pitched the idea to ensure residents have the right to grow food and raise livestock in an area where local ownership and land use is threatened by larger retailers and industrial farming, potentially compromising sustainability in a growingly fragile part of the country.