The city of Minneapolis is withdrawing from labor negotiations with the powerful police union, the latest step by officials to restore faith in the beleaguered department as demands for law enforcement accountability and reform sweep the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Police Chief Medaria Arradondo revealed the move before talks were scheduled to resume after a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s among the first steps he pledged to take to restore community trust, along with renewing an initiative to identify potentially problem officers in time to intervene.

“I need to, as chief, step away from the table with the Minneapolis Police Federation and really take a deep dive in terms of how we can do something that has historically been something that is in the way of progress, that I’ve been hearing from many in our city,” Arradondo said. “It’s time that we have to evolve.”

In a news conference Wednesday morning, Arradondo also made his most forceful comments yet about the role of race and the criminal justice system, saying leaders can no longer afford to shy away from difficult conversations.

“Race is inextricably a part of the American policing system,” he said, reminding reporters that he and several other black officers once sued the department for what they saw as unfair treatment. “We will never evolve in this profession if we don’t address it head on. Communities of color have paid the heaviest of costs, and that’s with their lives. And our children must be safeguarded from ever having to be treated to the horrific and shameful chapter in this country’s history.”

Lt. Bob Kroll, the normally outspoken president of the union that represents more than 800 Minneapolis and park police officers, has kept quiet publicly since Floyd’s May 25 death, which sparked widespread unrest and new calls for racial justice and police reform. Officer Derek Chauvin has since been charged with manslaughter and murder, and three other officers present charged with aiding and abetting.

But Kroll criticized the city’s handling of the rioting that engulfed parts of the city for several days in a letter to his membership last week, telling officers they were being made “scapegoats” for the continued violence. He did not respond to messages seeking comment.

While Arradondo announced his intention to step away from the negotiating table, the exact mechanics of what that entails weren’t immediately clear on Wednesday.

Gov. Tim Walz said last week that he sees the federation as “where a major problem in this issue lies.” The governor announced that he supports a large slate of criminal justice reform ideas that the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus has developed. They include changes to everything from law enforcement oversight to training to investigation of officer-involved deaths. Walz said addressing police use of force will be his top priority when legislators meet for a special session starting Friday.

“I think we have to tackle what scares people the most,” Walz said. He also said the state needs to look at ending binding arbitration, which allows an officer who is disciplined to appeal that decision to an arbitrator. Some legislators have said it protects “bad apples” and prevents them from being fired.

Expired contract

For months, rank-and-file officers for the city and park police departments have been working under a contract that expired Jan 1. Negotiations were postponed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with the idea of resuming talks sometime in late spring or early summer.

Local reform groups such as Communities United Against Police Brutality have long maintained that hurdles to reform are baked into the union contract and argued that community members should have a seat at the negotiating table. Arradondo’s comments signaled the city would consider that route, but he didn’t offer further details on how such an arrangement would work.

Arradondo said he is not concerned about salaries and benefits but “significant” aspects of the contract like use of force, the role supervisors play, and the discipline process, including grievances and arbitration.

One of the more contentious clauses in the current contract is the provision that allows officers who are accused of on-the-job misconduct to go on paid administrative leave. The amount of time an officer is on leave varies, but some spend several weeks, and even months, at home, still collecting their paychecks, which critics say sends the message that officers accused of crossing the line won’t face serious consequences. In one notable case, an officer who was initially suspended for improper behavior spent nearly 10 months on leave and was paid $54,450.53, before being fired, city records show.

Arradondo on Wednesday declined to say whether Kroll’s removal from union representation would affect his efforts toward reform, but he reiterated his frustration with the difficulty in firing problem officers.

He also promised a new internal “real time” data-based accountability system “so that department leaders can identify early warning signs of misconduct and provide proven strategies to intervene.” He said similar efforts haven’t worked in the past because studies found that supervisory action regarding problematic officers “is very rare and significantly absent” in large departments. His predecessor, Janeé Harteau, tried to implement a similar Early Intervention System in 2015, at the urging of federal authorities, but the effort appeared to never take off.

Sweeping changes

Arradondo’s announcement, which was followed by support and a similar pledge by Mayor Jacob Frey, inspired a fresh round of finger-pointing over who is to blame for the department’s problems.

Council Member Steve Fletcher quickly criticized the two leaders’ proposal, calling it an overstep of the city’s authority and an effort by Frey to “grab some positive press.”

“Announcing they’re withdrawing from negotiations is what everyone wants to hear — but it’s actually not within our legal right to do,” said Fletcher, a longtime department critic. “As a public employer, we have a duty to negotiate. This subjects us to an unfair labor practices lawsuit.”

In a statement, Frey responded,“There are valid reasons for a party to step away from bargaining.” He added, “I’m not going to engage in mudslinging and finger-pointing while I’m focused on helping our city move forward and deliver meaningful, structural reforms.” Over the past week, nine council members have called for the dismantling of the beleaguered police force, starting with scaling back its $194 million budget.

Wednesday’s announcement was the latest in a series of proposed internal changes since the launch of a state civil rights investigation of the Police Department’s policies and practices. Last week, Minneapolis banned chokeholds and neck restraints and strengthened requirements for officers to intervene if they see a colleague use improper force, under a deal negotiated between the city and the state. The agreement has since been signed off on by a judge.

 

Staff writers Liz Navratil, Andy Mannix and Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.