In the wake of the death of Thurman Blevins, Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon has proposed a city charter amendment concerning the mayor’s and council’s authority over the Police Department (“Proposal seeks shared Mpls. police oversight,” June 30). Before we have even seen proposed language, the debate about this proposal has become highly politicized. I think that is a shame.
Charter amendments should never be about the current council and mayor. These are choices that will affect governance 10 mayors from now. Who knows whether you’ll feel the same way about the mayor or your council member then? Who knows what the political dynamic of the day will be?
Opponents of the amendment claim that shifting authority over the Police Department to the council would cause complete chaos and that the responsible thing is to maintain the status quo. Complete chaos sounds really bad. The status quo is really bad. I would not vote to put a choice between chaos and the status quo on the ballot, if that were actually the question. I don’t think it is.
What if, instead, we focused on responding to the clear community demand for increased public oversight and transparency for the Police Department? What if the question we asked was: “How do we maximize Minneapolis residents’ access and voice in decisions about MPD?”
I like that question a lot better.
The mayor and the City Council serve different functions, and giving either one “complete control” over the Police Department, as our charter currently gives the mayor, misses the opportunity to take advantage of each institution’s strengths.
The council is, by design, a deliberative legislative body. We do our business in public, hold public hearings, conduct our meetings at set times, televise our proceedings and publish public agendas in advance. The cost of our transparent, predictable processes is a lack of speed. Nothing moves very quickly through the Minneapolis City Council.
The mayor, by contrast, is an executive, much less encumbered by process. The mayor can be decisive and can fulfill duties largely behind closed doors.
I am inclined to believe that shifting legislative authority to the City Council would increase transparency and public access to decisionmaking. Right now, policy decisions can be made between the mayor and the police chief in a backroom. The council can hold public discussion on police-related issues, but the chief has no formal obligation to attend our discussions in person or to enact policies recommended by the City Council.
Many of the people who have contacted me about this issue have incorrectly asserted that the council already has legislative authority over the Police Department. The current charter clearly states that we do not. We can make recommendations, and use the budget for leverage, but cannot enact policy.
Most of the constituents who call my office about police policy are asking me to change it — not asking me to politely ask the mayor to change it. Shifting policymaking authority to the council would bring public safety discussions out of the backroom and into the daylight and align the charter better with what, in my experience, many residents already assume it says.
I am also inclined to believe that the mayor should retain executive authority — that the chain of command should end with the mayor. The Police Department is different from other departments. High-stakes decisions regularly have to be made very quickly, and the consequences of inaction are sometimes high. Situations where lives are at risk or that have huge, immediate public consequences can’t wait for a committee cycle. Keeping the mayor in a strong executive role overseeing the police ensures that an elected civilian is involved in police oversight.
Taking the mayor out of the executive oversight role would decrease police oversight by elected civilians. I have heard many people repeat the line that the Police Department should report to one boss rather than 13. I understand why people are concerned about that, but I think it misdiagnoses the problem. In urgent situations, instead of 13 bosses, the chief would, in practice, report to no boss at all. The council would not be able to respond under our rules in a timely way to urgent situations, and quick tactical decisions would end up being made by the chief alone.
My instinct is to seek to improve public oversight and transparency by working with my colleagues to craft language that preserves the mayor’s executive power, while shifting legislative power to the council. I think we owe it to our constituents to present a better choice than either chaos or the status quo, and I’ll vote in favor of the introduction on Friday to see if we can get that done.
I think we can, though I am much less convinced that we can or should do it on the aggressive timeline necessary to put the plan on this year’s ballot.
Changing the charter is a big deal. I think it makes sense to give voters the choice to increase their access to our democracy by affirming the mayor’s executive role while moving Police Department policy into the daylight of council chambers.
Steve Fletcher is a member of the Minneapolis City Council.