A debate over pay parity among a small cadre of top Minneapolis police leaders is raising new tensions inside City Hall about racial differences within the department.

The brouhaha started after salary figures recently came to light showing that Kelvin Pulphus, the department’s only black precinct inspector, earns less than two less experienced white colleagues.

While police administrators say the discrepancy has nothing to do with race, the pay issue has surfaced at a time when the department has sought to recruit and promote minority officers and strengthen community relations in the face of several high-profile police shootings.

Pulphus, a 27-year department veteran who was promoted to inspector of the North Side Fourth Precinct in April, is making an annual salary of $130,249 — less than inspectors Bill Peterson and Sean McGinty, who were appointed in August to run the First and Third precincts, respectively. Peterson makes $142,646 per year before benefits, while McGinty is paid $139,838, according to salary data obtained by the Star Tribune.

The longest-tenured inspector, Todd Loining of the Second Precinct, earns $148,408. Like Pulphus, Fifth Precinct inspector Amelia Huffman was promoted in April and makes $142,646 — the same as Peterson — in part because she previously served in the rank of captain.

The disparity, while confined to the leadership of the city’s five police precincts, has prompted new questions inside and out of City Hall about potential inequities across a department with an authorized strength of 888 officers, about 9% of them black.

Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, whose ward includes the North Side precinct, said he wasn’t aware of the pay discrepancy among inspectors but that he wasn’t surprised, either.

“This kind of pay discrepancy is something that sort of transcends even this field or this situation, whether it’s women or people of color,” said Ellison, a member of the public safety committee who has sometimes criticized MPD practices during his tenure on the council. “I would certainly be supportive of closing any equity gaps that might be occurring, whether among the inspectors or throughout the department.”

Department officials point to other factors to explain why Pulphus is the lowest paid of the city’s five inspectors. Officer Garrett Parten, a police spokesman, said that recently promoted employees are “actively involved” in negotiating their new salaries.

Under department rules, employees who are promoted are allowed to negotiate a salary that starts at least 4% higher than their previous pay.

“Each individual negotiates a contract and a salary with the chief, and it’s individually based and then based on that negotiation. They either accept or reject the contract,” Parten said. Like other police employees, inspectors get periodic pay-step increases based on longevity but not necessarily performance.

Pulphus was not made available for comment.

Suwana Kirkland, the newly elected president of the state chapter of the National Black Police Association, said that despite the pay controversy in Minneapolis, she has seen progress in the growing number of black law enforcement leaders statewide.

“I’m proud to say that we are moving in the right direction,” said Kirkland, whose day job is as a commander with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. “I’m always going to say that there’s more work to do — I’m always going to say that we as law enforcement can do better, as far as promotionwise.”

Al Berryman, a former president of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation, said he couldn’t recall a similar circumstance during his tenure as a union leader. Any inspector making less than his colleagues, he said, “doesn’t make sense.”

“You don’t want any discrepancy,” he added.

‘Slipping backwards’

Civil rights activist Ron Edwards said that not only are the optics of the situation terrible, it’s also a reminder that for all the advances of black officers, they still face obstacles breaking into the department’s upper echelons.

“In many regards, the department is slipping backwards,” said Edwards, who raised the issue on his internet radio program over the weekend. “You can look at all the information, starting with recruitment and the initial hiring and et cetera — there is clearly something wrong in regards to embracing meaningful diversity.”

As inspector, Pulphus is responsible for day-to-day operations for the precinct that covers racially diverse neighborhoods north of downtown and west of I-94, widely considered one of the toughest jobs in the department. Crime is a constant concern in the district, and relations between law enforcement and the community have historically been strained, particularly after a string of recent high-profile police shootings of civilians.

At the same time, Pulphus, like his popular predecessors Mike Kjos, Aaron Biard and Michael Friestleben, faces the challenge of motivating street cops who in the past felt abandoned by the department’s leaders.

Before taking over the precinct, he headed the procedural justice unit, the latest stop in a nearly three-decade career that also included stints in the robbery, child abuse and homicide units. His appointment came after a monthslong search during which Chief Medaria Arradondo, the department’s first black chief, interviewed all 60-plus lieutenants, commanders and inspectors. He also held a listening session to gather public input to fill a position that has become a revolving door in recent years.

McGinty and Peterson also have had distinguished department careers.

McGinty, who joined the department in 1996 and made lieutenant in 2013, has spent time in such specialized units as the honor guard and robbery. He ran the Strategic Information Center, the department’s intelligence arm, before being tapped as inspector.

Peterson has held a variety of assignments over his 24-year career, from robbery detective to supervisor in the Special Operations Division. He had been a lieutenant for about four years. He ran the police academy and was put in charge of the day watch in the politically important First Precinct downtown before taking over the precinct’s top job.