Mayor Jacob Frey in his office in City Hall. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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After Derek Chauvin was found guilty of George Floyd’s murder, people in Minneapolis and around the world exhaled and celebrated a step toward justice. Elected officials praised the verdict and called for deeper, systemic change.

“The decision marks an important step in our pursuit of racial justice in Minneapolis—one important step on a much longer journey,” wrote Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on Facebook.

Frey, who as mayor oversees the Minneapolis Police Department, has received plenty of criticism over the past year. After Chauvin, then a Minneapolis police officer, murdered Floyd, his fellow officers responded to protests with extraordinary force. 

Even as much of the city burned, 911 calls went unanswered. Neighbors banded together to defend their own blocks from troublemakers who flooded in to take advantage of the chaos. Activists publicly shouted at Frey to go home when he said he would not defund the police.

In the intervening months, council members have accused him of stonewalling their attempts at progress and dodging accountability for his decisions. Opponents have said his plan for policing amounts to the status quo.

City council members and citizen petitions are advancing proposals to restructure the Minneapolis Police Department and reduce the primary role of armed officers in a newly constituted Department of Public Safety. Under these proposals, the city council and mayor would share oversight of public safety, a power now held solely by the mayor.

But Mayor Frey makes the case that major changes within the Minneapolis Police Department are already well underway. And he agreed to a detailed interview with Sahan Journal to review his record and discuss the future of policing—in the run-up to a Minneapolis mayoral election this fall. 

Some changes he can’t discuss, some are works in progress, and some can’t move forward without a change in state law. Some don’t go as far as council members would like. But he provided a lengthy list of policy changes, and pledged to enact more. “At no point in our city’s history have so many been made,” he told Sahan Journal. 

We spoke with Frey on April 27 about policing in Minneapolis. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Changes since Floyd’s murder—and what’s next

Frey pointed to a list of policy changes already implemented in Minneapolis since George Floyd’s murder: 

  • prohibiting officers in “critical incidents” from reviewing or disabling body camera footage, or speaking with union officials on the scene 
  • requiring clearer documentation of use-of-force and deescalation efforts
  • prohibiting officers from shooting at moving vehicles, or escalating conflicts with civilians and then using the situation to justify deadly force 
  • banning no-knock raids with limited exceptions; embedding the city attorney’s office in the complaint and disciplinary process 
  • focusing recruitment on city residency and social service experience 
  • limiting SWAT usage of 40 millimeter projectiles—foam rounds that can cause serious injury—in civil disturbances.

Some of these pieces have come under particular scrutiny. Council members and activists have criticized the use of “less lethal” force–weapons like tear gas and projectiles, which can cause serious harm. While the council passed a nonbinding resolution to stop the use of less lethal force, the power to curtail the use of these weapons lies with the mayor.

Meanwhile, in an investigation published April 29, KARE 11 reported that despite the change in policy, MPD requested a no-knock raid which an Anoka County SWAT team executed—at the wrong address. 

We asked Frey about his plans for future changes.

Sahan Journal: You’ve said that Minneapolis now has a mandate to change policing. Can you be specific about some of the initiatives you plan to implement and outcomes you see coming from them?

Jacob Frey: You bet. First, there are a litany of changes that we have already instituted following the murder of George Floyd. And then as far as reforms that are still in the pipeline right now: Yes, there are several. 

First, we’re going to continue refining our policies around less lethal force. We’ve already substantially restricted the use of less lethal. But we will continue to do that work going forward. I’m particularly concerned about the use of 40 millimeter projectile launchers. Just to be blunt, I have deep reservations around their accuracy and efficacy, that being the 40 millimeters. 

I’m weighing whether they should be an option on the table at all when it comes to crowd control. We’re going to do the due diligence and we’re looking into it right now. And we said this before and I’ll continue saying it, de-escalation needs to be a guiding principle and I’m not just seeing these tactics aligning with many of these values.

Additionally, I’m a strong believer in having a data-driven analysis and using that data to make decisions. So I believe strongly in the early intervention system. This is a proposal that we’ve already brought forward. The EIS proposal would allow us to better track officer conduct to allow for both improvement processes, discipline, and the ability to weed out problematic behavior. Oh, and by the way, George Floyd’s family has been absolutely adamant that this is a must for increasing accountability within our police departments. If we’re going to ensure accountability, we need to make sure that the analytics are fully tracked, that officer behavior is fully tracked regardless of whether they’re switching from one supervisor to another.

We tried to get it passed through our budget for this year. And I cannot think of an earthly reason why, but the council voted against maintaining reliable data last budget when they turned down the EIS proposal.

And the final piece—there’s more to come that we haven’t quite announced yet—is taking a closer look at our field training officer program: taking steps to ensure that the officers, their values and approach are reflective of community values. And making sure that it’s those officers that are training newish recruits, or newer recruits.  

You go through the recruitment process, you go through the academy, then you enter the department. And when you’re a new officer, you’re often trained by an FTO. It’s making sure that the FTO officers have the values and approach that are reflective of compassion and a procedural justice-oriented approach that our chief has pushed forward. 

We’re going to be requiring additional training for officers who accept this responsibility of being an FTO. So those are a few pieces.

Who’s in charge?

Who actually has power to change the Minneapolis Police Department? It depends on what you’re trying to change. 

Under the city charter, the mayor and police chief are responsible for oversight of the department. But the union contract, which outlines strong protections for officers accused of wrongdoing, plays a big role. So does the arbitration process. Fired police officers often appeal their terminations to an arbitration board, an unelected body that can and often does overturn police discipline. Other proposed changes to the department run up against state and federal law.

Sahan Journal: How do you learn about problems with policing? How do you exercise oversight over the chief, and do you feel like the oversight you’re exercising is successful, given the track record?

Frey: We have weekly meetings right now regarding the disciplinary process, making sure that we are holding officers accountable as possible. That’s not just weekly meetings with the chief: It’s also weekly meetings with others that are involved in the disciplinary process via [Office of Police Conduct Review] OPCR, or our city attorney’s office to make sure that these disciplinary practices or disciplinary decisions are moving on both a fair and a timely basis. 

You know that there’s significant bureaucracy, as well as legal requirements that are set into these processes, whether it’s the Data Practices Act or it’s the union contract itself. That often does slow down the process, and it also makes it so I can’t talk about it a lot to you, which is beyond frustrating. Because there’s nothing more that I’d like to do than to give you a rundown of every single one of the cases that is presently being worked through the disciplinary process—and there are numerous. 

I’m kind of legally barred from talking about a lot of it. But we are working through that. In fact I just had a meeting on it this morning.

Sahan Journal: Okay, so to go off of that a little bit. Right now the police union is working off an expired contract. And you’ve mentioned before that that contract and the arbitration process make it so the city can’t easily fire abusive police officers or otherwise exert disciplinary measures. Can you tell us about the progress you’ve made to install a new contract with better oversight?

Frey: You’re right: There’s two parts to it. There’s the contract itself. And just, if not more important, is this arbitration process. We’ll talk about both. 

So I am legally very limited with what I can tell you around the police contract and where we are at in it. I wish I could talk to you about the clauses that we’re trying to get in there but we can’t. 

So I can’t publicly disclose them, but that’s going to be a really important piece. Because I think we don’t just need a new contract with the police department; we need a new compact between our police and community. And right now we’re doing everything possible to make sure that that comes to fruition. But you’re right: Right now it’s still functioning off of the previous contract. 

Next, with regard to arbitration. This is huge. I mean, I cannot emphasize this enough, and it’s something that is consistently overlooked. But mayors and chiefs around the country are screaming from the rooftops about this, and people need to start listening. It is right to hold police chiefs and mayors accountable. And to hold us accountable, you also need to give us the tools to shift the culture by terminating officers and having those terminations stick. 

“There’s nothing more debilitating than terminating somebody or disciplining an officer and having that discipline action overturned, and it’s happened repeatedly.”

Minneapolis mayor jacob frey

Right now, as many as 50 percent of the officers that we discipline and terminate get sent right back to the department to continue violating trust with community. Fifty percent of the time. And those are the cases where we do discipline and terminate. Consider the other instances where our attorney says very clearly to us that I know you’d love to terminate this individual, but if you do, it will immediately get overturned. You know? 

And the chief has been clear, there’s nothing more debilitating than terminating somebody or disciplining an officer and having that discipline action overturned, and it’s happened repeatedly. 

Again, give us the tools to ensure accountability and part of that is meaningful arbitration reform. Specifically, what we need to see is reform where instances of egregious use of force or lying on a formal document. Those should not be questioned by the arbitration board, so the termination or disciplinary action sticks. 

I do call on our legislature to take clear action around meaningful arbitration reform. If we’re serious about change and culture shift, it is a critical element that is constantly being missed. In every state. 

I was just noting the mayor of Seattle was furious because their legislature refused to pick it up as well.

Sahan Journal: So if the police can keep working on an expired contract, and they don’t like the contract provisions you want to add or change, why should they negotiate? Do you have any leverage, or can they just wait this out as long as they want?

Frey: I mean, it’s a collective bargaining agreement and it does require negotiation.

Under pressure

The mayor isn’t able to change everything unilaterally. But critics have pointed to some areas where he can make change: for example, traffic stops that aren’t related to safety; and also police use of less lethal weapons. The city council passed a non-binding resolution opposing the use of less lethal weapons, but it’s the mayor who makes the decision. 

Council members have also criticized the mayor for not banning pretext stops. While these dropped in the second half of 2020, the majority of those stopped were still Black. And it’s not clear why stops dropped overall: Should we look to the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the department’s short staffing, or a deliberate policy change?

Sahan Journal: Some council members have pointed out that you and the chief have the power to ban pretextual traffic stops for minor issues like expired tabs or a broken taillight.  And we’ve all seen the data: More than half of all traffic stops in the city result in Black and East African drivers being pulled over, although they’re less than 20 percent of the city’s population. Have you and the chief considered banning these traffic stops?

Frey: First of all, we’ve already dramatically reduced the number of traffic stops, which you may have seen from prior years. I’m actually having some conversations here with Office of Violence Prevention Director Sasha Cotton, while providing the necessary restrictions around these kinds of stops. 

Look, I’m open to it, and we need to figure out next steps.

Sahan Journal: I’ve seen how some of those numbers have dropped, but it doesn’t seem like the disparity has changed at all. And it just seems like a really clear racial disparity.

Frey: Well, yeah. I can give you some information off the record, but I can’t go on the record right now.

Sahan Journal: Okay, I think in the interest of time, let’s stay on the record. So for issues like that, policy directives, do you leave those to the chief or are those places where you’re exerting oversight? Who’s making those calls?

Frey: We work together. The chief and I are talking every single day about the next steps on reform and I can assure you our administration, the chief’s administration, is working extremely hard on a litany of proposals of policy changes. While being very short-staffed. 

We’re trucking on a number of police changes. At no point in our city’s history have so many been made. But the time is right for it, and we need to recognize the magnitude of the moment and get them done.

Sahan Journal: Okay, so about that short staffing. What are you doing about the 155 police officers who are on indefinite leave, and just literally haven’t shown up for work in nearly a year? Do they keep receiving city pay to stay home? What are you doing to solve that?

Frey: Well, it’s more than that. The numbers in total for attrition—including both on leave as well as those who have resigned or retired—I mean, it’s over 200. We have an HR process and laws in place that dictate when and who should get paid and how long their leaves are. That’s not something that I determine.

Reining in policing tactics

After the murder of George Floyd, protesters turned out in marches, rallies, and vigils to demand an end to police brutality. And the world watched as police in Minneapolis and around the country met those protesters with a dramatic show of force. 

University of Minnesota doctors found that 89 people sought medical treatment as a result of “less lethal” weapons deployed in protests after Floyd’s murder. The majority were injured by projectiles. Ten suffered sustained eye trauma; 16 suffered traumatic brain injuries.

Six months later, Minneapolis police officers killed 23-year-old Dolal Idd in an apparent botched sting operation at a busy Holiday gas station. The sting attempted to capture a gun sale in progress, as arranged by a confidential informant. The fatal shooting remains under investigation.

Sahan Journal: Last summer, we saw an extraordinary amount of police force directed at protesters and journalists. There was at least one journalist who was blinded in one eye as a result. Can you talk about how that happened? Did that aggression have the support of you and Chief Arradondo or was there a break in the chain of command?

Frey: Last summer, we were encountering unprecedented circumstances. We had people coming into our city: white supremacists and other organizations that were seeking to use peaceful protesters as cover to cause chaos and destruction. I mean, that’s not an opinion, that happened. 

And, you know, one of the most difficult segments of this is that peaceful protesters—when there are large numbers, and the kind of chaos and destruction we saw last summer—peaceful protesters get lumped in with those that are not. And let me say very clearly, the instances where journalists were involved is absolutely unacceptable. These cases are being investigated right now. I wish I could tell you more about them. But it’s unacceptable. It should have absolutely no place in our police department. And those instances will be dealt with seriously.

Sahan Journal: Let’s talk about Dolal Idd, the Somali young man who was fatally shot in December. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) is still reviewing the case. But the policing on display raised questions for a lot of people about the use of sting operations–in this case, a deadly one at a busy gas station—and informants who have been criticized as unreliable. I’m wondering if there are any plans to address these practices coming out of Dolal’s killing.

Frey: We have instituted a shift of the pursuit policy itself. That was done earlier. But the shift in the pursuit policy was to ensure safety of innocent bystanders that are in the vicinity. 

Beyond that, I’m legally barred from talking about the Dolal Idd matter, simply because it’s with the BCA right now, under the investigation.

Sahan Journal: Sure, but are there any policy changes you’re looking at as a result of that situation? 

Frey: Well, the problem is if I were to tell you the policy changes that are coming as a result of the investigation, it would imply that certain things did or did not happen in the investigation. So the attorney has been pretty clear with me on this one as to what I’m able to talk about. We have instituted the pursuit policy, we do have a number of policies that are broadly applicable—I can say that—to a number of different officer-involved incidents. 

Look, this is one of the most frustrating things for me, because I’m constantly—there are things that I want to tell you and I can’t because I’m barred by both the Data Practices Act in some cases, the union contract in others, and then state law, through the BCA. 

It’s frustrating, but it’s true. And it would literally compromise the investigation.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.