BY CAM GORDON
Hopes are high that when city leaders and the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis begin contract negotiations this fall, the process will be more open to scrutiny and input than it has been in the past.
In November, the City Council approved a settlement agreement related to the lawsuit the Minneapolis for a Better Police Contract coalition brought against the city after meetings for the last round of negotiations were closed to the public.
“We filed a lawsuit when denied access and information and achieved a landmark settlement that includes a firm commitment by the city to provide dates, times, and location of public negotiations,” said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, coalition member and attorney. “Although contract negotiations are between the city as a public employer and the police federation as the union representing officers and sergeants, it is us as the residents of Minneapolis who are the beneficiaries.”
Gregory Reinhardt, a retired Minneapolis police officer and former federation member for over 29 years, including as patrol officer, sergeant and lieutenant, said, “The settlement is a good thing. It pulls back the curtain and lets the public see what compromises need to be made.” He also noted that public scrutiny and pressure for specific terms and conditions could make compromise challenging. With the settlement in effect until 2028, “it pretty much guarantees that contracts are going to go to mediation,” Reinhardt said. This means that negotiations could end up being held in private again, but it is less likely they will start there, as was done with the last contract.
In mediation both parties agree on a mediator to help them reach agreement over a disputed issue or issues. It can be requested by either side and can also be challenged and not agreed to. Generally, it is not entered into unless both sides feel there is a genuine impasse.
“Unlike the last negotiations,” said Gurian-Sherman, “we expect the city will not capitulate with the police federation to keep the public out, including agreeing to move to nonpublic mediation to avoid public scrutiny.”
On Nov. 15, the city released a report on three community listening sessions held this past summer at Martin Luther King, Folwell and Whittier parks to gather public comments about the contract. The meetings consisted of presentations from city human resources staff, with police and federation representatives present, followed by small group discussions.
The “Key Findings” report meeting was held online at 9 a.m. on a weekday morning with five days’ notice. No notice was sent to participants in the listening sessions. The meeting ended in less than 15 minutes.
“This effort was compromised from the get-go,” said Gurian-Sherman. She shared concerns that the listening sessions were too short, too few, restricted to select topics, and only the city and the police federation were allowed to present. No community groups or even individuals were allowed to present to the large group.
Gurian-Sherman was also disappointed in the report itself. “No doubt all the comments provided should be made public, but that is certainly not sufficient without a serious attempt to gather those comments into cohesive and comprehensive points that can be the basis for the city presenting actual proposals,” she said.
One issue highlighted in the report that has the support of Mayor Jacob Frey is dividing the rank and file (patrol officers and investigators) into a separate labor bargaining unit from their supervisors, lieutenants and some sergeants. This is not necessarily a matter of contract negotiations and needs approval from the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services which establishes employee groups for the purpose of collective bargaining. On Oct. 31, according to the Star Tribune, the city formally asked the Bureau of Mediation Services to break up the union. A response could come early next year.
One reason given for this division is to improve accountability. A comment from the listening sessions put it this way: “Take management (sergeants, lieutenants) out of the rank-and-file union. This is the major barrier to accountability in MPD, it prevents effective oversight, training, and administration of discipline.”
Reinhardt isn’t so sure. “It’s a clear advantage to the city but to the rank and file it is not.” He remembers a number of ongoing discussions about this issue, including the 2012 decision to eliminate the captain position in order to take it out of the union. Now the captains are at the commander rank and are unrepresented by any labor group.
“It’s basically a divide and conquer tactic and a tool to weaken the union’s ability to negotiate,” Reinhardt said. “Dividing or separating officers for discipline purposes isn’t needed. Supervisors don’t discipline, only the chief can do that.”
Another issue raised in many of the comments is how officers engage in off-duty work as police officers in the city working for private entities.
This issue has received widespread attention in and outside of City Hall in recent years. In 2019, a city audit of the practice recommended eliminating cash payments and having the city take over the scheduling, billing, and paying of wages for off-duty work. In 2020 the Main Street Alliance, a coalition of local small businesses, called for overhauling the system, and two of its members, Kevin Brown and KB Brown, published a scathing commentary on Oct. 5 in the Minnesota Reformer.
Comments from the listening session report included “end buyback policies” and “limit number of overtime hours officers can work, including on duty and off-duty.”
“The off-duty provision needs to be reviewed and improved,” said Reinhardt, who did off-duty work while employed by the city for the Minnesota Vikings and Whole Foods. “I basically had to curry favor to get those jobs,” he said, noting that he got them approved by someone below his rank and that the city administration “doesn’t manage it at all.” The department would approve the businesses where they could work but “someone in the rank and file would make the assignments and would collect a management fee.” He points to Bloomington’s process where the city itself managed the off-duty assignments and collected a fee to cover the expenses involved. “I believe that if you are going to allow your officers to do off-duty police work, if it is not through another jurisdiction’s police department, it should be with the city,” Reinhardt said.
As things move forward, many people will be hoping for other significant improvements to the contract this time around. Five council members voted against the latest contract when it was approved in March. They, and even some who voted in favor of the contract, stressed the need to do better this time.
After voting for the contract, Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13) wrote, “With this now settled we can begin negotiations for a forward-facing contract that will cover a broader range of negotiations and cover years 2023-25.”
“The City Council must make clear its expectations of what must be in the contract to get their approval,” said Gurian-Sherman. “This is also a significant opportunity for the new police chief, O’Hara, to show he means business when it comes to changes in culture and accountability that he has been talking about.”
The coalition is planning to share its latest recommendations in December.
Whatever the outcome of negotiations in the months ahead, Reinhardt warns that “the consent decree could change things dramatically,” and Gurian-Sherman calls on the council to “take seriously its authority to review the contract and withhold approval until the contract meets its expectation.”
“We’re counting on this council,” Gurian-Sherman said, “not to rubber stamp the process or the results, and to hold the mayor accountable if the city once again withers to the police federation running roughshod over contract negotiations.”