A little over a year into his first term, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced a new milestone in his promise to remake the Minneapolis Police Department: The city would become the nation’s first to ban the controversial “warrior-style” police training for officers.
Standing in front of a crowd at his second State of the City address, Frey proclaimed the training, which teaches officers to see everyone as a threat until found otherwise, contradicts the “values at the very heart of community policing” and would no longer be tolerated, even off duty.
The following week, Lt. Bob Kroll, the brash president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, responded with his own news: The union would start offering warrior training to members for free. “While it seems that the lives of our officers are not important to politicians,” Kroll said in a news release, this training would ensure officers survive the dangers of the job.
Kroll’s brand of open rebellion against city leaders has become a hallmark tactic for the union during his tenure, and one of many ways the federation exerts power over the city. The union has fewer than 900 members, but it has wielded enormous clout and influence, both at City Hall and the State Capitol.
Critics say the union has for decades served as a shadow command of the Minneapolis Police Department. Now that power is in jeopardy. Last week, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced that the city would step away from bargaining negotiations with the federation, saying the union has historically stood “in the way of progress.” A majority of City Council members have openly committed to dismantling the police force, declaring reform efforts an utter failure. And on Thursday, two dozen officers, including former union president John Delmonico, signed on to a letter condemning the actions of the officer who pinned Floyd to the ground by his neck.
“I think the union has to take a critical, authentic look at the role that they play,” Arradondo said in an interview last week. “If we do not change, there are no good outcomes.”
Federation Attorney Jim Michels said he was surprised by the chief’s announcement, and the union is committed to working with the city to make the department better. “Notwithstanding the public perception, and not withstanding some mistakes that have been made, the federation has been an agent of change. We know we need to continue to work to change the police department.”
Kroll and Delmonico did not respond to messages seeking comment.
In the early 2000s, the union flexed its clout through political donations and endorsements.
When R.T. Rybak first ran for mayor, the federation endorsed him, which Rybak says gave his campaign a boost among voters who worried he didn’t have the political résumé for the office. But the union turned on Rybak when he cut the police budget and refused to appoint the federation’s choice for chief. In the 2005 election, the union spent $44,000 on anti-Rybak ads, and another $27,000 to support his challenger, according to campaign finance records.
The union found another enemy in the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority, an appointed board that investigated allegations of police misconduct. It served as an alternative to the police department’s internal affairs unit, in which cops investigate other cops, and its members clashed frequently with police.
In 2007, an attorney for the federation, Anne Walther, sent a letter to Assistant Minneapolis Attorney Lisa Needham asking the city to reinterpret data practices laws and make the review authority’s findings more private. Needham obliged, and sent a memo to the citizen board instructing its members they could no longer tell the public when they’d “sustained” a complaint against an officer. They also had to stop informing the victims of police misconduct which parts of their allegations were found to have merit.
The decision took away the last piece of the review authority’s power. A few years later, at the behest of the police union and in defiance of pleas from Rybak and community activists, legislators sounded the death knell with a law that prohibits civilian review boards from making “a finding of fact or determination regarding a complaint against an officer.” The law marked the end of an all-civilian oversight board for the Minneapolis Police Department.
In 2014, Delmonico appeared in a KSTP report accusing Mayor Betsy Hodges of “flashing gang signs” with a felon in a photograph. “For as critical as she can be with the cops — is she going to support gangs in this city or cops?” said Delmonico.
The stunt backfired. The report, dubbed “Pointergate,” became an international embarrassment when footage emerged showing Hodges and the man were only pointing at each other during a voter drive.
A union like no other
In past generations, the Police Federation operated more like a standard labor union, joining with the teachers union to lobby at the Capitol. The federation also negotiated a stronger contract that gave officers with seniority the power to pick where and when they work.
“The contract is where their power comes from,” said former Police Chief Tim Dolan. “And the fact that they have plenty of money. And with the money they have some of the finest attorneys in labor law.”
The federation today is unlike any union in Minnesota, far removed from the workers’ rights movements central to organized labor, said Javier Morillo, a former labor leader. As American police departments have become more militarized, Morillo said police federations have come to resemble something more akin to a union within the U.S. Army — an unthinkable premise that would confuse the command structure.
“So long as police departments operate in that same kind of structure, to me it begs the question: Is this really a labor-management situation?” said Morillo.
In a 2018 paper in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, researchers argue that police unions have been given too much power in grievance appeals for officer discipline. The “significant authority” granted in selecting arbitrators in appeals has left elected officials powerless to discipline officers, according to the report.
Unions have traditionally played a key role in ensuring safe and healthy working environments for police, said former Canadian police chief Matt Torigian. But they have also resisted change.
“The difficulty is that very often the unions will be the last line of defense to reforms and changes,” he said.
Unions are also predominantly run by white men, he said, and the lack of diverse voices may contribute to the “us against them” mentality within the federation.
The Kroll era
As more candidates in Minneapolis ran on platforms of police reform, the federation’s endorsement has lost value. The city reappointed Dolan to a second term as chief, and Dolan said he believes Delmonico and the union did him a favor by recommending against it.
Kroll found power in a different manner: using the union’s protections to publicly defy the city, and to defend officer misconduct by casting the reform-minded elected officials as “lunatic left” radicals who bully police for political points.
“Kroll instigates behind the scenes all the time, and if anybody thinks he doesn’t, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” said former Assistant Minneapolis Police Chief Kris Arneson. “I’ve seen him agree to reform efforts and then hack away at them behind the scenes.”
In a statement posted to Facebook last week, the union denied hindering efforts at reform. “Despite the Federation’s efforts to assist in bringing about meaningful changes, it recognizes that rarely have these efforts been successful. However, this is not because of the Federation or the terms of the labor agreement, but rather because management has failed to implement the changes the parties agreed to make.”
Kroll has gathered many critics over his nearly five years as union president. Many have questioned his racial attitudes — “KKKroll” has become a mainstay protest slogan.
“He’s their bulldog when they have to go in to anything in the disciplinary process,” said Sean Broom, a former City Council aide. “Bob Kroll has shown himself to be an extraordinary advocate on their behalf. That’s why he was elected, that’s why he was re-elected.”
‘No middle ground’
In 2018, in a move to make Minneapolis a safer city for immigrants, Frey announced all police squad vehicles would be fitted with placards in Spanish listing people’s rights when encountering ICE agents.
Kroll responded with a statement calling the mayor’s decision “simply insane,” accusing Frey of prioritizing “people who are here ILLEGALLY” over victims of shootings.
Michels denied that Kroll is purposely undermining reforms when he publicly defies Frey.
“I think it’s more of a personal thing between the mayor and Bob. And it’s almost like action and then a reaction and then a reaction to the reaction and on it goes.”
Kroll and other union members appeared in a mailer endorsing Tim Pawlenty, a Republican who ran for governor on a tough-on-immigration platform, alongside the message: “Our state is wasting millions on benefits for those here illegally.” After Jeff Johnson beat Pawlenty in the Republican primary, the union endorsed Johnson in the general election.
When protesters called for police reforms after an officer fatally shot Thurman Blevins, a black man, in 2018, Kroll said that Blevins was “fair game” because he was carrying a gun. Kroll called on anyone with “ice flowing through your veins” to join the department.
“He is reminding the rank and file of the police department who they should listen to,” said City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison.
As Frey battled with President Donald Trump on Twitter over the costs to the city of a campaign event in Minneapolis, Kroll appeared on “Fox and Friends” to bash the mayor for not allowing police to wear uniforms at the rally. The interview found Kroll a powerful new ally: Trump. At the rally last October, Trump brought Kroll on stage, boosting Kroll as a folk hero “pouring out his guts” to stand up to the city’s liberal establishment.
After the killing of George Floyd, Kroll wrote a letter to the force defending the police officers involved and accusing the city of making its police scapegoats.” Friday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the boarded-up union offices in Minneapolis demanding Kroll’s resignation.
Rybak, now CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation, is working with the city to review police contracts across the country and find precedents for reform. For true change to take root, said Rybak, more officers must defy the union and come out publicly to condemn the bad actors that make possible the brutality displayed in the Floyd video.
“There’s no middle ground anymore,” Rybak said.