Brooklyn Center voters last month chose a new mayor in April Graves, a city council member, to replace incumbent Mike Elliott less than two years after Black motorist Daunte Wright was shot and killed by ex-Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter during a traffic stop.
Wright’s killing threw the city of less than 35,000 residents into chaos and suddenly put Elliott, the city’s first Black mayor, at the helm of a reckoning of racial justice and police violence in the Minneapolis suburb. While Elliott’s progressive and decisive approach got the city through the aftermath, it didn’t appear to resonate with voters.
Aftermath of Daunte Wright
Wright’s killing, which happened as the trial of ex-Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd was taking place just 10 miles away, immediately prompted protests outside of the Brooklyn Center police station that lasted more than a week. Demonstrators clashed with law enforcement, who used suppression tactics like less-lethal rounds and tear gas against the protesters, which drew criticism from activists and some elected officials, among others.
Days after Wright was killed, Potter and Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon resigned and City Manager Curt Boganey was fired via a vote by Elliott and the council following pressure from the community. Gannon is now suing the city, claiming he was forced out by the council.
“The energy and the emotions of the moment were very heightened,” Graves said in an interview. “And I do think that some of the things that (Elliott) did helped to sort of push us forward on important issues.”
Elliott was praised by many for taking swift action and proposing a sweeping public safety resolution that included unarmed community response and civilian traffic departments, changes to the police department’s use of force policy, and a citation-only policy allowing officers to ticket offenders for misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors – the latter of which was enacted by the city last year.
But opponents of Elliott said his methods left out voices at City Hall.
Graves said Elliott would bring proposals to the council and city staff on short notice and attempt to expedite the passage of those proposals by calling press conferences to exert pressure.
One example included the initial public safety resolution in the days after Wright’s death, which Graves said Elliott sent via email to council members and city staff on a Friday before calling for a vote the next day during a news conference. Another was when Elliott suggested directing money budgeted for 15 empty police officer positions to instead fund the public safety resolution late last year towards the end of the budget process, frustrating city staff.
“It doesn’t just take one person with one good idea convincing everybody else to do it,” Graves said. “It means you come up and craft solutions that include as many stakeholders as possible, consider the unintended consequences, if it’s feasible within the scope of our city to do, while also conducting other city business that needs to be taken care of to provide good services to our residents.”
A similar dynamic next door
While Brooklyn Center voters rejected Elliott‘s bid for a second term, a similar situation just 15 minutes away in Minneapolis played out differently a year earlier.
Mayor Jacob Frey – who held the office when Floyd was killed by Chauvin in 2020, sparking global outrage and leading to days or uprisings and unrest – was re-elected after defeating a slew of challengers in a race that was largely colored by the candidates’ stance on the future of the Minneapolis Police Department.
Alongside the candidates on the ballot was an initiative asking voters whether to dismantle the police department, which Frey opposed and the challengers supported. The initiative failed, garnering nearly 44% of the vote.
Rachel Moran, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas, who focuses on police accountability and policing reform, said many voters chose Frey due to his opposition to the ballot initiative. Fear and uncertainty about what would replace the police department if the initiative passed ultimately outweighed what they thought of Frey and his performance during his first term.
“There were also a lot of people who I think ended up voting for him who may or may not strongly support him, but were more just concerned about the alternative or nervous about the unknown,” Moran said. “So I think (Frey) capitalized on a lot of the unclear messaging around what would replace the police department, and a lot of the concern about crime and safety.”
Though Minneapolis has a long history of activism and community organizing, Moran said a large demographic within the city was comfortable with the status quo before Floyd was killed. They are willing to acknowledge problems with the police department but view them more as isolated incidents than systemic issues, which influenced their vote for mayor, she said.
“Those people definitely don’t want to get rid of the police department and they don’t want a mayor who’s advocating for massive change,” she said. “They want someone who will tweak around the edges more.”
That same dynamic may have played out in the Brooklyn Center mayoral race, which saw Graves as the candidate pledging to be more deliberate in how reforms are implemented.
Graves defeated Elliott by nearly 700 votes, garnering 54% of the 8,000 ballots cast by voters in November’s mayoral race.
A public health specialist for the City of Minneapolis and the first woman of color elected to the Brooklyn Center City Council, Graves said that as mayor she plans to continue much of the public safety reform work started by Elliott.
The city’s Community Safety and Violence Prevention Implementation Committee is expected to release recommendations on a community response model to the city council, which Graves said the council will then vote on. But not before they hold town halls to get as much community input as possible, which she said will help build lasting changes.
“I just think you can’t sustain things without getting the buy-in from the community,” she said. “So even if you can be effective at changing a policy while you’re mayor, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the community feels the same, and that the next person that is mayor won’t just try to come along and switch it back to how it was.”