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Frey says ‘real’ police reform means changing the culture of the Minneapolis Police Department

Less clear is whether he, or any mayoral candidate, can actually change that culture. 

Minneapolis City Council Member and mayoral candidate Jacob Frey discussing police reform in Uptown last Thursday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Jacob Frey’s timing couldn’t have been better. Or worse. Last Thursday, he was meeting in Uptown with a Minneapolis group interested in police reform, just hours after a proposal he’d initiated to direct city staff to explore ways of encouraging police officers to live in the city had passed the City Council — a move that came in response to another recitation of residency statistics showing that fewer than one in 10 Minneapolis police officers live within the city’s borders.

The problem: A trifecta of sporting events and the resulting traffic mess meant that the number of people in the audience was limited. In any case, he was ready when one of the attendees at the meeting, convened by South Minneapolis People Power, a project of the ACLU, asked what he would do to address that issue. “We want police officers to come from the community,” Frey said. “We want people to be invested in the neighborhoods in which they are serving. You’re more invested in the neighborhood in which you are living.”

Frey didn’t offer a lot of specifics on how the city might increase the numbers, saying he wanted to be open to ideas from city staff. But one idea mentioned earlier that day was subsidizing rents or living expenses for cops who choose to live in Minneapolis, even having landlords trade lower rents for the safety benefits of having police officers as tenants.

But the questions from those attending the meeting, the second in a series of sitdowns South Minneapolis People Power has held with mayoral candidates, also reflected a deep sense of skepticism that Frey — or  any mayor — can solve the deparment’s problems.

‘Just changing the police chief does not change the culture’

Frey was complimentary of recently appointed Chief Medaria Arradondo, saying he got to know him when he was the inspector at the First Precinct, which patrols a large part of Frey’s council ward, which covers parts of downtown and northeast Minneapolis. But he acknowledged that Arradondo doesn’t represent a clean break from the department. “Just a change in the police chief does not change the culture,” he acknowledged.

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Real change, he said, requires real training, recruitment from within the city and within communities of color and proper funding for community policing. He did not commit to retaining Arradondo when his term expires one year into the next mayor’s term.

“I feel strongly the next mayor, whoever that may be, should have the ability to appoint a chief they have a good relationship with,” he said. “That is, arguably, the most important relationship in city hall. To say the relationship was tenuous between the mayor and Chief (Janeé) Harteau would be understating it by a long shot.”

While citing some of the shifts that have already taken place — better police training, changes in use-of-force and body cameras policies and and hoped-for changes in approach by the Police Federation — he said that none of that will be effective if rank and file officers aren’t invested in changing the culture. “It’s a commitment to one another, it’s a commitment to the city, it’s a commitment to the community and the residents and the department and the job,” he said. “It’s a commitment that we are going to hold one another accountable to be the best possible public servants.”

Frey also said officers need to be trained not to take their guns out of their holsters “at a moment’s notice” and not put their finger on the trigger immediately “so it’s a two-step process. You know, first putting your finger in and then pull it back rather than having these knee-jerk reactions.”

He also said police policies should put the burden of proof on the officer when a body worn camera is not turned on in instances where policy says it should be. That is, they are presumed to be in violation subject to discipline unless they can show that they acted properly.

The shooting death of Justine Damond in July by Officer Mohamed Noor was not captured on video and there is some dispute over whether it should have been. The call to investigate noises in the alley behind Damond’s southwest Minneapolis home had been completed. And while officers are supposed to turn on cameras immediately after any use of deadly force, the retroactive 30 seconds of footage that are then captured do not include audio. The department has changed the policy to require activation at the point an officer is dispatched on a call or as soon as possible after an officer initiates contact with anyone involved if they were not dispatched.

Frey has also called for changing department procedures to require officers to use all reasonable alternatives before resorting to deadly force. It was something that was proposed months ago but not accepted by MPD leadership, though the department’s policies have been altered to include something similar that emerged from President Obama’s 21st Century Policing initiative.

‘I want you to know Jenny by name’

“I want to make community policing more than just a catchphrase,” he said. “I want to give police officers the time to engage in the community and the impetus to do so. Right now a lot of them are running from 911 call to 911 call; they don’t have time to engage. In some locations you need to narrow the beats of the individual officers, giving them the time to interact, the time to get out of the car and talk to people, build out that relationship. That’s absolutely essential.”

He called for consistent staffing of beats. “I want you to know who your officer is,” he said. “I want you to know that on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, your cop from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. is Jenny. I want you to know Jenny by name. I want you to build out a relationship with her.”

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But Frey received pushback from one attendee who said while such a proposal “sounds lovely,” the department still has a reputation for brutality that was reinforced by the death of Damond and the 2015 shooting death of Jamar Clark, both by police officers.

In response, Frey said the department needs to root out those with explicit biases against segments of the community and do more to discipline cops who violate policies and laws. But, he said, “It’s not just getting rid of the bad, it’s also promoting and championing the good.”

The city has been trying to diversify the force, using cadet and community service officer programs to reach out to communities of color. But Frey said those efforts are hampered by the police department’s reputation in those same communities. “If you are growing up in north Minneapolis — or any part of the city for that matter — and you are consistently hearing about the police are these horrible thugs and then you’re deciding which career path you’re going to go down, are you going to decide to be a police officer? No,” he said.

“A big part of it is changing both the internal and external perception of the force. If you have any entity … that is known for being a bunch of dorks, a bunch of nerds and then you go out and recruit, who do you think you’re going to get? If you have an entity that is known for being a bunch of thugs and then you go out and recruit, who do you think you’re going to get? So the external perception of the department is critical not just in furthering community policing but in furthering recruitment.”

He said recruitment in communities of color must be done by people who are part of those communities. He credited the city’s first Somali-American council member, Abdi Warsame, for both encouraging Somalis to become officers but also for improving relations between that community and the police. “I’m not saying there aren’t negative experiences,” he said. “I’m sure there are. But it’s a more positive relationship.”

The Police Federation, the union representing rank-and-file officers, is seen by some in the city as thwarting reform and thwarting attempts at getting troubled officers off the force. Frey, however, aimed his criticism at the union’s mission. “I think the police union looks at their job as too narrow,” he said “They’re looking at their job as often unions do: Let’s protect our officers from getting terminated. I believe that the role is broader than that. Officers as a whole in the MPD are not just served by not terminating a few bad apples. In fact, they could be best served if the union was helping to change the dynamic and the perception of the officers themselves, and the force itself.

“Rather than just protect the three or four, as just an example, let’s talk about all of the others who are doing a good job but are suffering the repercussions of the ones that aren’t. If I was an officer, that is what I’d want.”

“Keeping the community safe depends in large part on productive community-police relations.”