Critics say proposed Mpls. police contract lacks accountability; Mayor pushes back

The Minneapolis City Council will vote Tuesday on what is arguably one of the most important and controversial matters it will consider this year: whether to ratify a proposed agreement between the city and its police union, the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. 

The $9 million agreement, which would be the first police union contract considered by the city since the murder of George Floyd, includes pay raises and 7,000 incentive payments for both new officers and veterans who remain on the force through the end of the year. 

However, criticism hasn't focused on its finances, but instead on the lack of changes to the discipline process and the addition of a clause requiring the city to inform officers of the identity of anyone making public records request about them.

Pushing for a delay 

Councilmember Robin Wonsley Worlobah, one of the mayor’s more vocal critics on the council, is pushing for the vote to be delayed until April to allow for more time for public input to inform further negotiations with the union.

"I really am disappointed with many of the things in this contract. And it's sad that the mayor's office and MPD leadership didn't really see this as an opportunity to make the bold reforms that are necessary within that department in order to earn the public trust that they claim to want to re-earn."

On the clause of the contract informing officers of the identity of anyone requesting public records about them, she pointed to a recent investigative report by the MIT Technology Review on the increase in police surveillance in Minnesota following the murder of George Floyd, and the protests and unrest that followed.

"The fact that we're talking about disclosing the identities of residents, of journalists, of anyone in a democracy who wants to receive information about their public service workers, and we're disclosing their identity, for the purpose of what? So I really am disappointed in that," she said.

Mayor Frey responds 

The Minneapolis Police Federation could not be reached for comment. In a statement to the Star Tribune on March 4, union president Sgt. Sherral Schmidt urged the council to approve the agreement, saying it was key to keeping officers on the force and attracting new recruits at a time when department staffing is low and violent crime – including homicides and carjackings – is up. 

"Our hope is the City Council will see how this agreement will help the city of Minneapolis become a competitive employer, in a difficult hiring environment. This contract would be the beginnings of being able to recruit and retain the best candidates in a limited job pool and recognizing the employees that have remained with the city," Schmidt said.

At the beginning of this month, MPD had 627 sworn officers, with 26 on extended leave, according to data provided by the city. That’s a decline of 281 officers from March 14 of 2020, before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unrest following the murder of George Floyd, when the headcount was 908 officers, with 19 on extended leave.

The mayor’s office released a statement defending the lack of additions to the discipline process, arguing that would give managers more leeway. "By limiting discipline requirements in the labor agreement, the City reserves more managerial authority to create and enforce discipline policy," the statement read.  

The statement also pointed to the Mayor’s effort to increase accountability through other mechanisms: "The Mayor has also added layers of accountability through numerous policy reforms since taking office. Since January 1, 2020, disciplinary actions have been taken against 72 officers – which is more than the previous 5 years (2015-2019) combined."

Arbitration and State Law

In June of 2020, Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo held a press conference to call for changes to state law to give police chiefs the authority to fire or discipline officers without having to go through an arbitration process.

"Until we have the ability to shift the people, to get and retain good officers into the department, and to get officers that do not subscribe to our chief's mentality of integrity and compassion out of the department, we will forever be hamstrung," Frey said at the time.

However, critics of the proposed agreement have argued that the city, instead of waiting for the legislature to act, could have pushed for changes in the contract that would have made it less likely for arbitrators to overturn decisions to discipline or fire officers.

Javier Morillo, former President of SEI Local 26, has deep experience in union contract negotiations and has been one of the most vocal critics of the proposed deal. He argues that the tendency of arbitrators to rely on past precedent is often why they overturn city decisions to discipline officers. However, if the city had changed the discipline process, previous cases would not weigh as heavily, since a new standard would be in place, he says.  

"They have to reset and discipline because as long as arbitrators are going on past practice because past practice has been to let bad cops go, they keep letting bad cops get their jobs back," he told FOX 9.

On this issue, the city’s statement defending the contract points both to the limits of state law: "With limited exceptions not applicable here, state law mandates that all public employees in Minnesota have the right to a grievance process for written disciplinary action. State law grants a chief law enforcement officer authority to issue discipline for misconduct."

And the statement points to the city’s ability to make changes to the discipline process outside the contract. "The City has the ability to create and update policies articulating when it has ‘just cause’ based on changing needs. However, state law authorizes arbitrators to alter discipline imposed by that chief law enforcement officer.'"

For Morillo, the role of arbitrators is exactly why the city should have pushed for changes in the discipline section of the contract.

"If you're out there loudly proclaiming that arbitrators are the reason you can't discipline anyone, then why on earth would you not make any changes to the procedures that would actually then be taken into arbitration?  That's what you do to make arbitration better for you: You change the contract language," he said.

The council’s vote is scheduled for 1:30 pm Tuesday and will be broadcast on the city’s YouTube channel.