Fallout from a controversial television news story suggesting that Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges posed for a photo flashing a gang symbol is the freshest sign of a deep conflict between the new mayor and the union that represents the city's rank-and-file police officers.
"In this recent blowup, I think the union is definitely making it clear that they're not happy with some of the things that the mayor has said about the police department," former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said, adding that the union "has not always been viewed as having the best interests of the city in mind."
The aftermath of the widely criticized KSTP television story last week has brought into the open an intense disagreement between the police union and the mayor that some say stretches back to her tenure on the Minneapolis City Council.
The flare-up comes less than a year into Hodges' first mayoral term, and after she sent an open letter to residents in October saying that the police department had some officers who "abuse the trust" of the public, which could lead to a "downward spiral."
Hodges, police union leader John Delmonico and Police Chief Janeé Harteau all declined requests for interviews on Monday.
Disagreements between mayors and union leaders are not unusual, but Dolan and other former leaders of City Hall say this latest episode is more heated than they have seen in recent years.
In an on-air interview, Delmonico questioned whether Hodges supports gangs or the police after a photo surfaced of her and a Neighborhoods Organizing for Change canvasser pointing at each other with their thumbs extended upward.
The KSTP-TV report quoted other unnamed law-enforcement sources who expressed concern that the mayor was flashing a gang sign. The story became an instant social-media sensation around the country, with thousands of critics saying the report had racist overtones. It spawned dozens of memes using the hashtag "#pointergate."
A spokesman for Hodges said she and the man in the photo were merely pointing at each other during the get-out-the-vote effort. The canvasser, Navell Gordon, who said he is trying to turn his life around after drug and firearm charges, told the Star Tribune it was an honor to be in a photo with the mayor.
KSTP and reporter Jay Kolls have continued to defend the story.
Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak posted on Facebook that people need to be more critical of Delmonico and the reporter who "trump up these issues they have been selling for too long."
Rybak said Monday he was surprised by Delmonico's comments, since the police union has been "less bombastic" in recent years.
"In this first year of Mayor Hodges' term, the union seems to be testing her much as they did me," said Rybak, who did not win the police union endorsement in 2005 and 2009.
Rybak said that the head of the police union is not unlike an elected political official.
"And sometimes politicians play to their base," he said. "I think over the years John Delmonico has done less of that and been a more constructive partner in public safety. This seemed to be, frankly, a little bit of a return to a not-so-great strategy that didn't work."
Before his comments to KSTP, Delmonico, in a Star Tribune opinion piece, criticized the mayor for her open letter declaring her intention to root out bad cops.
"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,' " he wrote.
Dolan said that some of the rift may be traced to Hodges' time on the council, when she clashed with union leaders during contentious pension negotiations.
Lt. Mike Sauro, a 40-year veteran of the department who was at the negotiations, said the process did not endear cops to Hodges.
"Promises that were made, she said those were made by past administrations, those don't apply now," Sauro said Monday. "I don't think she likes cops, regardless of what her actions suggest."
Some council members said heated public spats between the mayor and police union are not uncommon.
"It's been worse," said Council President Barb Johnson, recalling incidents that occurred under Chief Tony Bouza in the 1980s.
"There are times that the emotions run high and I think we're seeing that a little bit now," Johnson said. "We have a new mayor, and the police chief and the relationship of the police department to citizens is always a topic that people are interested in."
Council Member Blong Yang, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, downplayed the seriousness of the apparent animosity.
"Could it be more civilized and thoughtful? Probably, but people are just doing what they are needing to do," he said.