City Hall-a-rama: Minneapolis tweaks policing practices, approves first black fire chief

The agenda for the regular meeting of the full Minneapolis City Council Friday morning had two items that stood out: One steeped in symbolism, the other ladled with controversy.

The latter related to policing practices during public assemblies, which for six weeks has gone through the grinder as city leaders prepare for the Republican National Convention. But first the council dealt with the approval of Alex Jackson as the chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department.

Though Mayor R.T. Rybak’s appointment of Jackson and the subsequent approval process has focused on Jackson’s qualifications, today one truth came to the fore: Jackson is the city’s first African American fire chief.

Jackson’s calm demeanor and 27 years in the department will be a stabilizing force after the controversy surrounding Rybak’s last long-term appointment, Bonnie Bleskacheck, who was reassigned after a cascade of misconduct allegations and suits.

But there’s more symbolism here with regard to Jackson’s race: More than 35 years ago, the department was placed under a federal order to integrate its ranks. For a generation, the battle to comply was fought by many at City Hall, to the point now where, according to some city leaders, the MFD is viewed as an equal-opportunity paragon for all other fire departments around the country to emulate.

Jackson’s appointment could be seen as either icing on the cake, or a long time comin’, depending on your view.

At any rate, the humble Jackson withstood a heaping amount of praise and congratulations from council members and hizzoner the mayor, but perhaps none spoke more incisively than Ralph Remington (10th Ward), the council’s lone African-American.

“This is an historic day,” Remington said just before the vote. “It took us 150 years to get to this day, the first African-American fire chief in the city’s history.”

Remington singled out Rybak, whose relations with African-Americans has been rocky, to put it charitably. “Mayor Rybak, many in the heavens and ether are [grateful], not just for the promotion of a man, but for the promotion of a people,” Remington continued.

Remington talked about the “federal oversight” the department faced for all those years: “Hopefully, we’ve learned from that dark day.” Remington then pined for a day when the city attorney, or the city coordinator, or even the police chief, is black. The notion that the city is about to approve a settlement from a lawsuit involving five black police officers certainly hung in the air.

Rybak, praised Jackson for his especially good rapport with firefighters in the department, saying that more than any other city department, the MFD relies on teamwork, and that Jackson is a “team player.”

“He’s a humble person, and this is probably making him uncomfortable,” Rybak concluded.

A standing ovation came, and Jackson took a deep breath before he rose and took the podium.

“This part of me is uncomfortable, and I’ll explain why,” the new chief said. “The historical aspect I’ve downplayed because I’m well aware of the history … I stand on the shoulders of many other people.”

Claiming a rare moment of speechlessness, he thanked the council three times, then the ward leaders unanimously voted him in.

The new policing practices

The item about policing practices was hardly greeted as warmly; some protestors shouted down council members as they arrived to work this morning. Tensions have been increasing as the RNC date draws near.

Last month, the council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee drafted a resolution that, at first blush, seemed to restrict what the MPD could do with regards to protestors and that pesky thing called the First Amendment. By the time the list of policing practices made it in front of the full council on June 20, council President Barb Johnson tacked on an item saying that “this Resolution shall supersede the action of the City Council on November 22, 2000, adopting a Policy Regarding Police Conduct at Political Demonstrations.”

The 2000 policy came about after demonstrations and arrests during the 2000 International Society for Animal Genetics conference.

That November 2000 action called for: “No use of plastic bullets. Use of projectiles other than plastic bullets allowed only in situations justifying the use of force….No confiscation of videotapes, film, and other recording materials.” As reported last week, the new provision passed on June 20th did not call for such restrictions.

The resolution adopted June 20 was supposed to clarify and clean up some things from the 2000 policy, but instead it appeared to weaken it, and grant greater, and perhaps legally dicey, authority to the MPD.

Since then Cam Gordon (Second Ward) has been trying to come up with further policies that walk a fine line between appeasing protestors and not riling cops. Last week, he sought to restore some of the 2000 restrictions, particularly regarding the use of rubber bullets and the confiscation of cameras. Today, he brought four amendments to the 2008 policing practices resolution that clarified a number of things:

• No plastic or rubber bullets fired from “traditional firearms” shall be used.

• Any camera confiscation must be in line with “First and Fourth Amendment Constitutional protections.”

• Cops can’t arrest “law abiding persons not engaged in demonstrating, including journalists, camera people, and legal observers, for enforcement actions.”

(Whew! At least the journalists are safe!)

All of this seems like common sense, and most MPD supporters say these points are already outlined in the department’s policies. But the fact is, these issues surfaced during ISAG in 2000, and again late last summer during a Critical Mass bicycle ride. By Gordon’s own language, city leadership needed to “enunciate police policies for such assemblies.”

Paul Ostrow (First Ward), who is practically donning MPD blues these days, offered a series of tweaks, most notably making sure “in concurrence with MPD polices” came at the start of each Gordon amendment, lest anyone think someone was actually trying to have oversight over a city department.

But generally, council members welcomed the Gordon amendments, passing them and praising him.

Lisa Goodman (Seventh Ward), who is hardly known for lavishing praise on fellow council members, concluded thusly: “Council member Gordon, you’ve been a peaceful and gentle soul in a turbulent time.”

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Paul Schatz on 07/30/2008 - 03:22 pm.

    It’s more than a little sad that, in 2008, the appointment of a black fire chief still merits a standing ovation and self-congratulations. The day should have long passed when we noticed, more than in passing, the color of a persons skin or their gender.

    As for protesters, well, I’m all for the first amendement and a department that gives medals to officers who take shots at innocent homeowners certainly needs guidelines (like, reasonable force and, oh yeah, what was the address again) but I’ll say it again:

    I don’t think free speech includes trashing someone else’s party.

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