Rift between Mayor Frey and Council President Bender widens at key moment for police reform

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Liz Navratil, Star Tribune
·6 min read
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Mayor Jacob Frey and a small group of city staffers gathered inside a conference room in his City Hall office, waiting for a judge to read the verdict in Derek Chauvin's trial.

They had spent months brainstorming various security plans and would soon need to decide which scenario would unfold on city streets.

Outside, in a grassy area near the Hennepin County Government Center, a handful of City Council members joined protesters anxiously waiting to hear whether their fears of an acquittal would be fulfilled or whether they might see the justice they sought handed down in George Floyd's death. Among them was City Council President Lisa Bender, whose working relationship with Frey has frayed in recent months.

The political divisions that have complicated efforts to overhaul policing in Minneapolis were on full display last week. As they attempt to chart a path forward, communications between the city's two highest-ranking elected leaders have largely ceased.

It's a division some hope they can overcome, or at least work past.

"I think this moment should bring all of us together, all the council members, all the legislators, and find a solution," Council Member Jamal Osman said hours after the verdict, which brought tears to his eyes.

He added: "We 100% know that [the] Minneapolis Police Department is broken and needs to be fixed. ... There's no savior, there's no one else coming."

In the 11 months since Floyd's death, some American cities have adopted changes that go further than the ones enacted in Minneapolis, strengthening their civilian review processes or banning the use of tear gas for crowd control.

Some cities, such as Seattle and Denver, have joined Minneapolis in trimming their police budgets amid calls to "defund" the police. Others, such as Atlanta and Houston, have gone the opposite direction, increasing funding for their police forces.

City leaders acknowledge the pressure to make substantive changes to policing but note that the fresh momentum behind those efforts does not guarantee success.

"These moments, they can be catalysts for change, but they're not inherently catalysts for change," Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said. "If we allow complacency to sort of fill this place that we are right now, then what we're going to see is we're going to be back here in two years."

Minneapolis has made some changes to policing and public safety in the wake of Floyd's death. Elected leaders approved funding for mobile mental health units, which are expected to start their work later this year. They are also researching which nonviolent 911 calls could be handled by other agencies.

Frey's office provided a list of 15 police policy changes implemented in the wake of Floyd's death. That includes banning chokeholds, further limiting the use of "no-knock" warrants and updating their recruiting in hopes of finding would-be officers who live in the city or have experience in social services.

Five of the changes were implemented as part of an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which is investigating whether city police engaged in racial discrimination over the past decade. Some note that a similar probe by the U.S. Department of Justice could force the city to make major changes.

Many activists want elected leaders to do more. Black Visions, which led many of the largest protests in the days following Floyd's death, says council members have not done enough to fulfill a pledge that nine of them made to work toward "ending" the Minneapolis Police Department.

"The Minneapolis City Council is no more progressive or radical than any other elected body, and the reason they even said they were going to do that is because they felt the pressure of community members and organizers," said Miski Noor of Black Visions.

That group supports a ballot initiative that would replace the Police Department with a new public safety department, eliminate the requirement to keep a minimum number of police and transfer more oversight of officers to the City Council. Meanwhile, the city is defending itself in a lawsuit brought by a group of North Side residents who allege the city is not fulfilling its obligation to keep a minimum number of officers.

On Tuesday, city leaders universally welcomed the guilty verdicts in the first trial over Floyd's killing. Yet in a post-trial news conference, only three City Council members appeared with Frey.

Frey is running for re-election in November, while Bender is not. Privately, some in City Hall worry that politics and personal allegiances will determine whether any new proposal at overhauling policing in Minneapolis has a chance at success.

The City Council asked for a legal opinion on whether it can ban the use of less-lethal weapons for crowd control following backlash over the forceful response to protests in Brooklyn Center after Daunte Wright's killing this month. Frey said he's researching whether they can further restrict the use of some projectiles while leaving Chief Medaria Arradondo with the ability to use other less-lethal weapons in limited circumstances.

Frey said he'll renew his push to purchase a system that flags problematic behavior among officers. A sharply divided City Council voted last fall to cut funding for that program out of the mayor's budget proposal. Some elected leaders say they're hoping to add new accountability measures to the next police union contract, improve the field officer training program, or examine whether it might make sense to change the length of officers' shifts.

If recent months serve as an indicator, Frey and Bender — and their respective allies — will likely hash out their disagreements in public meetings, where discussions about policing quickly become impassioned. The factions, at times, accuse each other of failing to cooperate and surprising each other with new policies just hours before they're set to be publicly discussed.

The mayor said Bender regularly fails to show up for their private meetings, and he accuses her of using Twitter to make many of her stances known. The dynamic, he said, has blocked funding for a system to flag troubling patterns in officers' behavior and impeded a long-term plan for the intersection of 38th and Chicago.

Bender, meanwhile, accuses the mayor of slowing some of their efforts to make meaningful change. She noted that he threatened to veto the budget over a provision related to police staffing levels. (Frey ultimately signed the budget after the council narrowly voted to accept his preferred staffing target as a starting point for discussion.)

The council president said she continues to participate in some city meetings about the response to the coronavirus pandemic but acknowledged she has significantly reduced the number of meetings with Frey.

"I have shifted to having fewer private conversations with the mayor, just because it doesn't seem like a great use of time to keep hashing things out behind closed quarters," she said. "There are substantive differences and, for me, that's part of our democratic process. I have never shied away from having respectful, open debate."

Frey views the dynamic differently: "I don't think it's good for our ability to govern or to get difficult, complex things done when you don't have the necessary engagement."

Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994