Former Minneapolis Mayor Discusses Police Reform Problems

R.T. Rybak, former Mayor of Minneapolis (2002-2013) believes that police unions and their leaders are major reasons why past efforts at reforming policing in Minneapolis and elsewhere in this country have had problems and why current reform efforts are facing difficulties.[1]

He says this as he struggles with competing police images. On the one hand, Rybak has seen “police officers perform extraordinary acts of courage at explosive crime scenes, protect women from domestic abuse, build trusted relationships with immigrants who are terrified the government will take their children, and so much more.” On the other hand, he also has seen “toxic us-versus-them police cultures—in which an officer who might individually make the right call becomes silently complicit when a fellow officer goes rogue.This culture enabled three officers in my city to stand by while [George] Floyd was killed.” [2]

The latter culture is understandable when “officers see the worst things happening in their city on any given shift. After being in danger every night, officers gradually stop seeing the humanity in the people and neighborhoods they patrol. Instead, they go back to the precinct with the only people who can really understand what they are going through. People with exceptionally tough jobs serving complex humans naturally vent when they are together.”

“But the tribalism that can build up within police departments is far more consequential. Us versus them—meaning police versus criminals—slowly curdles into police versus the people: Who would live in these crime-infested neighborhoods where we risk our lives? Waiting to stoke that resentment are police-union leaders such as [Bob] Kroll [the President of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis], who defend even the more aggressive acts of officers and, even in a case as extreme as [George] Floyd’s death, prevent any self-examination by blaming the victim.”

“As matters stand, the public—through its elected representatives—has also ceded far too much power to the police unions that enable bad behavior. Floyd’s death underscores that police work should be subject to oversight, and officers who violate policy and misuse their power should be subject to discipline. But the unions’ power is most notable in contracts that limit the accountability that, as the community can now see, is so desperately needed. The lack of accountability seems incongruous because the mayors and city councils that negotiate with police unions include some of the country’s most progressive elected officials and represent some of the country’s most progressive constituencies.”

“Yet when duly elected officials propose reforms, police unions do not merely oppose them; they actively work to thwart them. Last year, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey banned so-called warrior-style training, which emphasizes physical threats to police officers rather than the benefits of de-escalating confrontations. . . . Kroll and the police federation defied Frey’s move by offering warrior-style training of their own.”[3]

“Some local officials have also hesitated to demand tougher reforms in contracts because police unions often spend heavily in local elections to oppose any politician who challenges them. I know what that’s like. The union supported me near the end of my first race for mayor. But after I took office, we disagreed over the police budget and my choice of police chief. When I ran for reelection, the police union went all out to defeat me: It helped pay for polling to identify the strongest candidate to run against me and pounded voters relentlessly with literature and broadcast ads that portrayed me as soft on crime. [Nevertheless,] I got more than 60 percent of the vote. The police federation also made a massive investment to defeat an incoming council member, Betsy Hodges, who still won overwhelmingly. Eight years later, again, despite massive police opposition, she was elected mayor.”

“Electing mayors and city-council members who support such reforms is not enough. Police-union leaders use back channels to go around local officials and get more conservative state legislators to block meaningful changes. That dynamic holds true in Minnesota, where a Republican state representative, who was also a Minneapolis [police] officer, helped overturn a residency requirement for police. Today more than 90 percent of Minneapolis officers live outside the city. The legislature also has stonewalled attempts by the city to get supervisory positions removed from police-federation ranks. As a result, some of the people directing and disciplining officers, and developing the union contract, are actually negotiating with the union of which they are a member.”

“In return, police unions have helped their enablers on the state and national levels. Police-federation leaders endorse Republicans in most gubernatorial races. Last fall, Kroll appeared with President Donald Trump at a rally in Minneapolis and was interviewed wearing a ‘cops for trump’ T-shirt on Fox News.”

“If progressive local officials want wholesale reform of police tactics and culture, they will have to do something that runs counter to their own culture: take on union leaders. [After all,] Minnesota’s chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations—an umbrella group that does not include the police federation—recognizes that Kroll isn’t merely taking his members’ side in a labor-management dispute. In a recent statement calling for Kroll’s resignation, the Minnesota AFL-CIO president, Bill McCarthy, faulted him for trying to justify Floyd’s killing rather than participate in a dialogue about reform. McCarthy also accused Kroll of failing the labor movement. ‘Unions exist to protect workers who have been wronged,” McCarthy declared, “not to keep violent people in police ranks.’”

“I used to say that the majority of officers are good but silently let a minority set the dominant culture. But now I believe that no one can be called a ‘good officer’ if they are not working actively and openly to change the culture and unseat their toxic union leaders. The silence of the ‘good officers’ so far is deafening, but a glimmer of hope came recently when more than a dozen brave Minneapolis officers bucked their union, condemned the officer who murdered George Floyd, and vowed to regain the community’s trust.”[4]

“In general, intimidated local officials overestimate the political muscle of police unions. Their credibility with the public is even more diminished in the aftermath of [George] Floyd’s death. So now is the time to push for reforms that hold police departments more accountable to the public.”

“I am not suggesting that cities should try to bust police unions. Far from it. Working people need and deserve the protections that collective bargaining provides. In a better world, a police-union leader could help the public understand how hard the job can be—but could also set the moral and professional standards for officers, rather than defend them no matter what they do.”

“While the breakdown between the police union and the public’s elected representatives has been especially acute in Minneapolis, I know from my discussions with other mayors that many other communities experience similar tensions. These relationships must be fundamentally reshaped. When cities lack the power to provide basic oversight of their officers and cannot break down an us-versus-them culture, they cannot prevent future deaths like that of George Floyd.”

================================

[1] Rybak, I Was Mayor of Minneapolis. I Know Why Police Reforms Fail, Atlantic (June 10, 2020). See also Mannix, Killing of George Floyd shows that years of police reform fall far short, StarTribune (June 20, 2020).

[2]  It must not be forgotten that the Minneapolis Chief of Police immediately fired the four officers involved in the killing of George Floyd, that soon thereafter serious criminal charges were filed against all four and the City banned chokeholds and neck restraints under an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights that was incorporated in a court injunction. See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: GEORGE FLOYD CASE.

[3] Jany, Minneapolis police union offers free ‘warrior’ training, in defiance of mayor’s ban, StarTribune (April 24, 2019).

[4] Olson, Minneapolis police officers issue open letter condemning colleague in George Floyd’s death, pledging to work toward trust, StarTribune (June 12, 2020); The Criminal Complaints Against the Other Three Policemen Involved in George Floyd’s Death, dwkcommentaries.com (June 14, 2020).

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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