Minneapolis didn't change charter, but pressure on police remains

The mayor's first challenge will be to persuade his popular police chief, Medaria Arradondo, to stay on


By Liz Navratil and Libor Jany
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Only hours after voters rejected a ballot question to replace the city's embattled police department, civil rights activists and faith leaders gathered inside a south Minneapolis church to discuss reviving a 2003 federal mediation agreement on police use of force, diversity and race relations.

The Rev. Ian Bethel said he hoped the summit last week would be a first step forward "for transformation, for reform, for accountability, for transparency" of the department — and he urged activists of all stripes to come together to find a solution.

A protestor holds a sign reading 'Defund the Police,' outside Hennepin County Government Plaza during a demonstration on Aug. 24, 2020, in Minneapolis.
A protestor holds a sign reading 'Defund the Police,' outside Hennepin County Government Plaza during a demonstration on Aug. 24, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

"We are also concerned about the 44% who voted yes" on question 2, Bethel said. "Truth be told, we all want the same thing."

That is just one of many signs of the intense pressure still building on Minneapolis leaders to improve the city's police department, which has been engulfed by criticism and a crisis of public confidence since the killing of George Floyd, even after voters said last week they do not want to replace it with a new public safety agency, possibly with fewer officers.

Newly reelected Mayor Jacob Frey emerged from the fall campaign victorious but bruised by criticism that chronic problems inside the department are festering on his watch.

Frey said the city has instituted policy changes that should not be underestimated, but he acknowledged there's more work to be done.

"Will any of those policy changes taken in and of themselves, or even on the collective, shift the culture? The answer is no, it won't. To those that have frustrations on that front, I agree with them," Frey said in an interview Friday. "Let's unite to actually get these specific reforms done so that we can make the necessary changes that the vast majority of our system is demanding."

[READ: A letter to the American public: Here’s what real police reform looks like]

But challengers have not let up in their criticism that the mayor should have done more to rid the department of problematic officers, to rein in the use of force and to improve transparency.

"Going forward, our next steps are to hold Mayor Frey, the City Council and the Minneapolis Police Department accountable for the policy changes they promised residents," said Corenia Smith, campaign manager for Yes 4 Minneapolis, which wrote the proposal to replace the MPD.

When he enters his second term, the mayor will face a different political landscape inside City Hall. The council that frequently sparred with him over police funding will be gone. The new one includes six incumbents and seven newcomers, who will quickly face pressure to further cement their stances on policing and public safety. Some of them want to increase police staffing, while others have backed the movement to move police dollars to other services.

Frey's first challenge will be to persuade his popular police chief, Medaria Arradondo, to stay for a new term or to find a new chief who can navigate the department's many challenges.

Michael Friedman, former executive director of the Legal Rights Center, said that even with Question 2's defeat, the department finds itself at "a very critical juncture." He worries that MPD leaders "due to the lack of imagination or vision of their profession ... are missing an opportunity to say we need to reimagine what it means to be an employee of this department."

To build trust, he said, MPD will have to start holding bad cops accountable and become more transparent — a challenge for an agency that has long been opaque, believing that sharing too much information with the public could compromise its crime-fighting mission. Officers must recognize the public outrage over Floyd's killing is a signal that change is urgent, Friedman said.

"If there's a strong sentiment in the Police Department that this is something to get past, then this will represent a great failure of the moment," he said.

The mayor and the chief face intense pressure to form a plan to rein in crime. The Fourth Precinct, covering the North Side, has borne the brunt, accounting for about 30% of all reported violent crimes.

The threat of a consent decree looms as the U.S. Department of Justice investigates whether the police agency engaged in a "pattern and practice" of misconduct, including whether officers used excessive force on protesters. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights is conducting its own probe into whether the department perpetrates racial discrimination.

Roughly 300 officers have left since 2020. Overtime has skyrocketed, and some precincts are understaffed.

A recent daytime shift in the Fourth Precinct had four officers available for duty after at least three officers called in sick. The staffing concerns extend to investigative units, which has left some detectives with crushing caseloads. Given the volume of shootings, some with no obvious suspect or promising leads now go uninvestigated.

Morale remains low, department insiders say privately. Officers have decried not only what they saw as the stress of working under a hostile council and having their actions constantly scrutinized, but what they see as a lack of a plan and no clear direction coming from the front office, leading to uncertainty around policies like the new rules governing use of force.

The city faces a court order to increase staffing to 730 officers (up about 140) by next summer to comply with minimum staffing provisions in the charter. But the city is appealing that decision.

The police union — frequently pegged by both activists and officials as an obstacle to reform — remains in contract negotiations.

In a news conference last week, Police Federation President Sgt. Sherral Schmidt sought to present the union as a potential partner.

"There's been a false narrative out there that the federation is against reform," she said, adding that the existing council was unwilling to give the union "a seat at the table."

She said she didn't know what changes the department administration and the incoming council have in mind, but that officers would continue to do their jobs with professionalism.

In coming weeks, Frey said, he plans to unveil commissions to provide recommendations on policing and public safety.

In December, he will negotiate a budget with the current council, with seven members who either lost their re-election bids or opted not to run again. Frey's $1.6 billion budget proposes nearly $192 million for the MPD, nearly the level before Floyd's killing. He wants to build the force back up to 888 officers by 2024.

Council members will pitch their budget changes in the coming weeks. Any plan they settle on could be changed by the new council, which takes office in January. Eight of the incoming council members supported the proposal to replace the MPD, though some did so with the caveat that they believed police would be a crucial part of the new agency.

"We have a real opportunity here to build this department back in a way that reflects that level of accountability, and I'm eager to work with this new configuration of colleagues on what that is," said Council Member Linea Palmisano, who chairs the budget committee and is returning next year.

One of her goals is to expand the co-responders program that pairs officers with mental health professionals for some calls.

Every person who will be on the council next year expressed a desire to increase mental health initiatives, and many support boosting other violence prevention or social services as well. Some want to shift police funding to do it.

Incoming Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah said she'd like to revisit "The People's Budget," a document drawn up by activists last year. It called for investing millions more in mental health, violence prevention, addiction services, housing and other efforts. It also asked officials not to fund "growth of the police force through any means," or involve MPD in public health initiatives.

What precisely the path forward looks like, "That is the question mark right now," she said. "I think the movement around that ... is still verifying what next steps look like."

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