Minneapolis chief to withdraw from negotiations with police union

©Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Acting police chief Medaria Arradondo listens to comments from the community during a 2017 public hearing at City Hall in Minneapolis. - Anthony Souffle/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

MINNEAPOLIS — Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said Wednesday that he will step away from contract negotiations with Minneapolis’ powerful police union, the latest in a series of reforms meant to restore faith in the beleaguered department following the death of George Floyd.

“I need to as chief step away from the table with the Minneapolis Police Federation and really take a deep dive in terms of how we can do something that is historically been something that is in the way of progress, that I’ve been hearing from many in our city,” Arradondo said. “It’s time that we have to evolve.”

Arradondo’s announcement, which was followed by a similar pledge by Mayor Jacob Frey, inspired a fresh round of finger-pointing over who is to blame for the department’s problems.

Council Member Steve Fletcher quickly criticized the two leaders’ proposal, calling it an overreach of the city’s authority and an effort by Frey to “grab some positive press by telling people what they want to hear right now.”

“Announcing they’re withdrawing from negotiations is what everyone wants to hear — but it’s actually not within our legal right to do,” said Fletcher, a longtime department critic. “As a public employer, we have a duty to negotiate. This subjects us to an unfair labor practices lawsuit.”

In a statement, Frey responded that there are valid reasons to walk away from the bargaining table.

“There are valid reasons for a party to step away from bargaining,” he said. “I’m not going to engage in mudslinging and finger-pointing while I’m focused on helping our city move forward and deliver meaningful, structural reforms.”

In a closed news conference, Arradondo also made his most forceful comments yet about the role of race and the criminal justice system, saying that leaders can no longer afford to shy away from difficult conversations.

“Race is inextricably a part of the American policing system,” he said, reminding reporters that he and several other black officers once sued the department for what they saw as unfair treatment. “We will never evolve in this profession if we don’t address it head on. Communities of color have paid the heaviest of costs, and that’s with their lives. And our children must be safeguarded from ever having to be treated to the horrific and shameful chapter in this country’s history.”

Floyd was black and Derek Chauvin, the officer charged with his murder, is white. Arradondo refused to name Chauvin at the news conference, instead referring to him as “that former officer.”

Chauvin has been charged with manslaughter and murder, and three other officers present charged with aiding and abetting.

The union represents more than 800 Minneapolis and park police officers. Lt. Bob Kroll, the normally outspoken union president, has kept quiet publicly since Floyd’s May 25 death, which sparked widespread unrest and mass demonstrations across the world.

Kroll, in a letter to his membership last week, blasted the city’s handling of the rioting and looting that engulfed parts of the city two weeks ago, telling officers that they were being made “scapegoats” for the continued violence.

For months, rank-and-file officers for the city and Park police departments have been working under an expired contract. Negotiations were halted when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with the idea of resuming talks sometime in late spring, early summer.

Local reform groups such as Communities United Against Police Brutality have long maintained that hurdles to police reform are baked into the union contract, and argued that community members should have a seat at the negotiating table. Arradondo’s comments signaled that the city would consider that route, but he didn’t offer further details on how such an arrangement requirement would work.

One of the more contentious clauses in the current contract is the provision that allows officers who are accused of on-the-job misconduct or involved in a critical incident to go on paid administrative leave.

An involved officer will be placed on leave for a minimum of three days, but sometimes that time off can stretch for several weeks, and even months, depending on where an internal investigation leads. In one notable case, a since-fired officer was paid $54,450.53 while sitting at home for nearly 10 months after being suspended for improper behavior, city records show.

Arradondo on Wednesday declined to say whether Kroll’s removal from union representation would affect his efforts toward reform, but reiterated his frustration with the difficulty in firing problem officers.

He also promised a new internal, “real time” data-based accountability system “so that department leaders can identify early warning signs of misconduct and provide proven strategies to intervene.”

His predecessor, Janeé Harteau, tried to implement a similar so-called Early Intervention System in 2015, at the urging of federal authorities, but the effort appeared to never take off. Arradondo said such reform hasn’t worked in the past because studies found that supervisory action regarding problematic officers “is very rare and significantly absent” in large departments.”

Wednesday’s announcement was the latest in a series of proposed internal changes since the launch of a state civil rights investigation of the MPD’s policies and practices. Last week, Minneapolis banned chokeholds and neck restraints and strengthened requirements for officers to intervene if they see a colleague use improper force, under a deal negotiated between the city and the state. The agreement has since been signed off on by a judge.

Mayor Jacob Frey applauded Arradondo’s efforts, saying the chief has his full support. True reform, he said, “can’t be lip service” and “can’t be the status quo.”

“We don’t just need a new contract with the police. We need a new compact with the police. One that centers around compassion and accountability, one that recognizes that the way things have been done for decades and decades is unacceptable,” he said.

Asked about the outside groups who will review the contract, Frey said he expects they will “review the existing contract” and suggest amendments. And, “if there are road blockages that are extra contractual, like state law,” they can help identify those as well. The city’s agreement with the state Department of Human Rights gives the city until July to provide a list of state laws or other factors that are impeding the city’s ability to discipline officers.

Over the past week, nine councilmembers have called for the dismantling of the beleaguered police force, starting with scaling back its $194 million budget. He said the mayor’s announcement only strengthens his belief that reforming the department is not possible — “because structurally we cannot step away from this negotiation.”

In an email to officers over the weekend, Arradondo commended his officers, saying they had “experienced more in the past two weeks than probably at any other time in the history of the MPD or arguably policing in our nation.” He also sought to soothe concerns about growing calls for “defunding” the police department, while adding that more changes were on the way.

“Over the next several days I will be announcing structural and policy changes that are intentional on continuing to make sure we evolve as an organization and one in which those we serve see that we have their best interests at heart,” Arradondo wrote. “Make no mistake some of these changes will be difficult for some of you. Resisting or feeling uncomfortable about change is human nature but rest assured these changes are necessary to make us better not worse.”

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(Star Tribune staff writers Liz Navratil and Andy Mannix contributed to this report.)

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©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)