And the Star Tribune Editorial Board's 2014 award for public service in broadcast news goes to … KSTP-TV and reporter Jay Kolls, for a Nov. 6 story on Betsy Hodges, the gang-sign-flashing mayor of Minneapolis. Congratulations!
We jest, of course. There was nothing remotely award-worthy about the "journalism" that produced the story now referred to as "Pointergate." And the public service role played by Kolls and KSTP, while undeniable, was clearly unintentional.
Still, thanks to the viral life of a story that lasted just over three minutes, the growing frustration over police-community relations in Minneapolis has been a statewide topic of discussion for a week. And the worthy reform push by Hodges and Police Chief Janeé Harteau is receiving more attention than ever.
That's the positive result of a ridiculous story in which law enforcement sources alleged Hodges might have been flashing a gang sign in a photo with Navell Gordon, an African-American employee of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC). The story reported that Gordon — whose identity was not revealed by KSTP — has a criminal record, and it hinted that he might have gang ties. It failed to report that Gordon was door-knocking with Hodges and Harteau to get out the vote in north Minneapolis when the photo was taken and that his job with NOC is part of his effort to get his life back on track.
Incredibly — or maybe not for those familiar with the context — police union leader John Delmonico went on camera with Kolls to put his own spin on the pointing-mayor photo. Referring to Hodges, Delmonico weighed in with this gem: "Is she going to support gangs in this city or cops?"
And there you have it. With that quote, Delmonico provided video evidence of the lengths the union will go to discredit anyone who tries to shake the status quo in the Minneapolis Police Department, including the mayor. The union chief also managed to throw the black community under the bus in the process.
Our main purpose is not to put Kolls or his station on trial here — the reporter and KSTP already have faced plenty of ridicule in post-Pointergate news coverage and on social media. (We also acknowledge that this newspaper has suffered its share of self-inflicted wounds over the years — including on these pages. Mistakes happen.)
Instead, let's take this unique opportunity to focus on efforts to improve police-community relations in the Hodges-Harteau era.
Hodges won the Editorial Board's endorsement for mayor in October 2013, in part because of her work reining in fiscally irresponsible city pension funds while serving on the City Council. Those efforts no doubt labeled Hodges as an enemy at police union headquarters, and she failed to win the union's backing for mayor. Delmonico's comments on Pointergate confirm why that's a badge of honor.
Amid growing community concern about multimillion-dollar settlements for police misconduct, Hodges campaigned on greater accountability in hiring, training and disciplining cops. She and Harteau also have advocated for the body camera program that was launched this month, arguing that cameras can deter police misbehavior and also protect cops from bogus allegations of misconduct.
Both Hodges and Harteau have said they want officers to do more relationship-building and preventive policing by getting out of their squad cars before crimes occur. That's especially important in light of an independent federal Office of Justice Programs assessment of the department's officer oversight and discipline process. Researchers found that the most commonly reported types of officer misconduct were lack of respect, unprofessional language or tone, and lack of cultural competence and sensitivity.
In an open letter to the community in October, Hodges wrote that a small number of bad officers "abuse the trust" of the public, and she outlined steps she and Harteau were taking to improve the department.
The letter prompted a defensive Star Tribune commentary from Delmonico, who wrote: "When you speak of the 'culture of the department' that is 'on a downward spiral and must be changed,' you paint all officers with the same brush, since all of us are members of 'that culture.' "
In reality, Hodges has repeatedly emphasized that the large majority of officers serve Minneapolis with skill and courage. Her efforts are intended to prevent the types of misconduct cases that "paint all officers with the same brush."
The KSTP controversy gives Hodges and Harteau a perfect opportunity to highlight their reform efforts and gain broader community support.
The two city leaders may have been relatively quiet in the days after the story broke, knowing it would be quickly discredited and not wanting to be seen as taking it seriously. But in its aftermath, with the community debate about race and police relations heating up, they should feel even more empowered to speak up about the need for change.