Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey thought he was facing the greatest challenge of his career: a global pandemic that threatened businesses and families as the city’s coffers dried up.
Then, on Memorial Day, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. Large areas of the city went up in flames, a police precinct fell to rioters and people had to protect themselves as law and order vanished from the streets.
Gone were the days when there was time to craft each policy proposal and each message. Now, still in his first term, Frey was forced to make split-second decisions as he faced a series of challenges unlike any other mayor in generations.
Frey’s handling of one of the worst weeks in Minneapolis history earned him criticism seemingly from all levels: from President Donald Trump to Gov. Tim Walz, the City Council, local businesses and police accountability activists.
“I do have to take responsibility here,” Frey told protesters last weekend, as he teed up a message on police reform that he knew would not satisfy them. “I’ve been coming to grips with my own brokenness in this situation, my own failures.”
Leaders in other cities can sympathize, as mayors from Seattle to Louisville to New York City have faced angry demonstrations threatening to overtake their cities as crowds demand sweeping reforms to policing.
The worldwide unrest places even more attention on Frey, mayor of the city where it all began. Not only must he chart a plan for reform, but he must also account for the sins of the city’s past. Battered by twin disasters, the city today bears little resemblance to the one Frey first presided over in early 2018, and he faces the task of rebuilding both neighborhoods and public confidence in city leadership.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said he wasn’t prepared to “back-seat drive” Frey’s decisionmaking. But he did say: “I know a whole lot of mayors around the country, and I think Mayor Frey has faced a series of events that no one I know has ever faced.”
A rapid condemnation
On May 26, as many were still waking up to the horror of Floyd’s death, Frey appeared alongside Chief Medaria Arradondo and quickly condemned the officers’ actions. Later that day Arradondo, with Frey’s blessing, fired the four officers involved.
Reflecting on those moments in an interview this month, Frey said he decided that “I needed to come out right away and voice to our city and our nation that what happened was horrific. It was wrong and justice needed to be done.”
Those actions earned the mayor widespread praise. But he was unprepared for the scope of what happened next.
The city planned for peaceful protests at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, where Floyd was fatally pinned. Protesters marched to the Third Precinct police station, where they clashed with officers, but it would be nothing like the days to come.
On Wednesday, Frey called for the officers to be charged. Without an arrest, protests intensified. Around 5 or 6 p.m. Frey said he received a call from Arradondo, who told him that the Target store across from the Third Precinct was being looted. He asked for the National Guard. Frey called Walz.
“The governor understood my request, but I did not at that point have a specific time frame as to when we would receive the support,” Frey said.
The next day, the mayor kept talking with state officials about getting help from the Guard. Without large-scale assistance, the city reduced the number of officers in the Third Precinct, knowing it was a target. When angry crowds surrounded it and began breaking windows and lighting objects on fire, Frey ordered officers to evacuate.
Looking disheveled and exhausted in a news conference about 1:30 a.m., Frey took responsibility for the decision: “The symbolism of a building cannot outweigh the importance of life, of our officers or the public.”
Trump, in a tweet, called for what he called the “very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey [to] get his act together and bring the City under control.”
But it was another rebuke that dominated the news of the day. On Friday morning, Walz, a fellow DFLer, called the city’s response to the riots an “abject failure” and promised to restore order heading into the weekend.
Frey’s responses to that criticism have been measured.
“I continue to not fully understand how long it takes to mobilize the National Guard,” Frey said. “I’m not passing judgment. I’m saying we needed them earlier.”
That night, many suspect, will define Frey’s legacy.
“The question is, which is going to always be unanswered … was the burning of the precinct raw meat that gave people a taste of the catharsis of destruction?” said former City Council Member Don Samuels, who chaired the public safety committee. “Or would a defense of the Third Precinct — which would have resulted in people being hurt — created such resentment that people would have been even more destructive?”
Hours after the precinct burned, fired officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with murder and manslaughter. Many people hoped the destructive riots would subside. They did not.
Council members raised concerns about the mayor’s response after constituents reported they couldn’t get firefighters or police to respond, while officers were firing tear gas and projectiles at protesters.
The imposition of curfews, coupled with the arrival of the National Guard in large numbers on Saturday, appeared to quell the rioting.
With the riots over, the focus turned to remembering Floyd and hashing out the future of policing.
Along the way, Frey’s public appearances didn’t help his image. He was roasted on social media for sobbing in front of Floyd’s casket during the local memorial. Frey has since described it as a “raw moment.”
On a Saturday afternoon, Frey emerged to meet the crowd who had marched to his apartment building with a demand to defund the police. He told them he did not favor abolishing the Police Department. The group yelled for him to go home, and the mayor walked alone through the crowd, trailed by shouts of “Shame. Shame. Shame.”
The next day, nine City Council members in Powderhorn Park announced a vague plan to “begin the work of ending” the Police Department.
“I think the mayor’s position is wrong. That’s my personal opinion,” Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said in an online event last week. “I think, on some level, you do have to admire his willingness to at least stand firm in his position, even under an immense amount of pressure from the crowd.”
Action on police
Together, Frey and the City Council approved a deal with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights that bans officers from using chokeholds, strengthens the requirements for them to intervene in inappropriate use-of-force cases and, in some instances, increases transparency around officers’ disciplinary actions.
Days after a judge approved the deal, Frey and Arradondo announced that they were withdrawing from negotiations with the police union — stunning some council members who said they learned about it when the news conference began.
Council Member Steve Fletcher called the move an overstep of the city’s authority and said it felt like an effort by Frey to “grab some positive press.”
In the days since then, some have supported the mayor. Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said he has faith in the mayor and hopes that the council will quickly adopt a more concrete plan for overhauling public safety.
The city is still tallying the toll of the riots, but city workers identified more than 1,000 buildings that had some degree of damage.
At least one manufacturer, 7-Sigma Inc., has decided to leave Minneapolis, saying the city failed to protect its business from being destroyed by arson. Cramer said other businesses are thinking of ending their leases if they don’t get clarity soon on the city’s plans for the police force.
Pastor Brian Herron, a former City Council member, joined other faith leaders at a news conference last week supporting the chief, but he also commends Frey’s actions over the past several weeks.
“In this situation he has been saying and doing all the right things,” Herron said. “And doing all that he is able to do.”
Staff writers Emma Nelson and Andy Mannix contributed to this report.