Council seeks control over Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson

The Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to amend the budget to eliminate the public spokesperson position from the Minneapolis Police Department.  

The move would bring the public information officer role under the city’s communications department, and effectively give the City Council control over the messaging and release of public information from the MPD.  

Councilman Jeremy Schroeder, a co-author of the amendment, read the initial press release that described the police killing of George Floyd as a “medical incident.” He described the errors of omission as “egregious.”

“We need to safeguard and rebuild public trust,” said Schroeder. “And right now shifting these operations to the city rather than the MPD is one thing we can do to restore trust, and save costs in the process.”

“People do ask how often this happens,” said Councilman Jeremiah Ellison.  

“If we are going to start anywhere when it comes to public safety, the bare minimum we can do is to start being honest about the information that comes out of our department,” said Ellison. 

The role of public information officer for the Minneapolis Police Department is currently held by John Elder, who is a frequent presence at crime scenes and on television news reports.  

Council member Steve Fletcher questioned whether the city needs a spokesperson responding to crime scenes, 24-7.   

“I think there’s a legitimate question about whether the 3 a.m. standup is a useful function,” said Fletcher. “At some level, it’s where most of the misinformation has come from.”

“Transparency is not just immediate access, it’s also about accuracy,” said Fletcher.  

City Council President Lisa Bender expressed a broader concern that council members have been blindsided by crime statistics and other information.  

“I think I have seen over the years a pattern that makes it feel very separate from the rest of the city,” said Bender. “In the past I have felt the communications coming from the department don’t reflect the direction policy makers have given.”

City Hall insiders see the move as a way for the council to control the communications and messaging of a police department that is largely under the control of the Mayor.  A majority of the council currently support defunding or dismantling the department through a charter amendment.  

Traditionally, the public information officer is a position separate from other communications staff.  It is a frequent point of contact for journalists and other community members.  

There is a precedent for attempting to eliminate the position, however.  

In 2003, then Mayor R.T. Rybak ordered all media contacts with police to be approved by the city’s communications director. 

It was an effort aimed at centralizing control of police communications Rybak said at the time, and assuring the city speaks with one voice. The arguments then were very similar to those made at Wednesday’s council meeting.

The Society of Professional Journalism condemned Rybak’s move in a statement at the time, writing “… the simple fact remains that the city’s voice is comprised of diverse interests and viewpoints that cannot simply be willed into line by mayoral diktat.”

The City’s Communications Department, led by director Greta Bergstrom, has recently had its own difficulties with the media.  

On two occasions recently the city’s communications department failed to intervene when members of an Upper Harbor Terminal Advisory Committee tried to remove the press from a public meeting.  

The amendment to eliminate the Minneapolis Police Department’s public information officer still needs a full City Council vote on Friday.