Seven reforms needed now to loosen the grip of the Minneapolis Police Federation on the city it is holding hostage

Or, how to quash a rebellion (no, not that one.)

Minneapolis Police guard the third precinct on May 27, before it was taken over by rioters. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

With one of his members charged with the murder of George Floyd while three others are investigated for callously watching, president of the Minneapolis Police union Bob Kroll finally broke his silence — without breaking character. In a letter to members, Kroll justifies the killing, vows to fight for the jobs of the man indicted of murder and his three as yet unindicted colleagues. He openly claims to have plotted with the Republican Senate majority leader to subvert the constitutional power of the governor. His letter is Exhibit A for an assertion I made early last week that some found hyperbolic at the time: We were witnessing in Minneapolis was a rebellion of the police department against the city they work for, a rebellion against the very concept of civilian leadership of the police, and a rebellion against their first Black police chief.  

To Minnesotans following the accumulated history of police malfeasance in Minneapolis, none of this is surprising or new. Once again residents are exclaiming “Kroll should be fired!” Once again petitions are circulating calling on the rank-and-file membership of the union to oust their president. As well-intentioned as that request is, it assumes everything would be better if the “good cops” just spoke up. But that keeps our analysis at an individual level, in the realm of the personal. The problem of the Minneapolis Police Federation — and the department the union seems to run — is a systemic one. 

Our solutions must not be solely about individuals but about structures. Of course bad cops must be rooted out, but until we see big, fundamental and structural change in the department and the union, Black and brown residents of Minneapolis cannot feel safe. With the smell of smoke and ash still in the air, more residents are starting to understand that small moves may satisfy white comfort, but only big change will make Black and Brown people safe, and only then will we be all safe. Now is the time to seize that opportunity. 

What is to be done about the Police Union?

As someone who for 14 years led a labor union of low-wage workers — janitors, security officers, airport and other service workers who are overwhelmingly people of color and immigrants — this is a question I have thought about a lot. It is from this perspective that I offer the following proposals.

  1. Radically transform collective bargaining, bringing community to the negotiations table.

Collective bargaining traditionally engages two parties: management and labor. That is also how it is legally defined. At SEIU Local 26 we contributed to a movement-wide rethinking of that model. Although community concerns like the crisis of affordable housing or global climate change are not a legally defined part of the formal bargaining process, we made it so, because when our workers do better, communities do better. In the union’s recent contract negotiations, youth climate strikers were in the negotiations room as allies of the formal bargaining community to support demands around energy efficiency and green cleaning. Nationally, we have come to call this “bargaining for the common good.”

The case for community engagement with the public sector — and police unions in particular — is even greater. The public must not only be engaged in contract negotiations, they should have a literal seat at the table — and we needn’t wait for the law to be changed to give it to them. Community groups can organize themselves and elect a bargaining committee and spokespeople. City officials can recognize them via resolution as interested parties in the contract, refusing to settle until all three teams agree on the terms. Austin, Texas, did something like this, and it worked.

Many folks in Minneapolis probably do not know that the police union’s contract with the city expired in 2019 and is still unsettled. A Minneapolis elected official speculated to me that the Federation was holding out to settle after a more pro-police council was elected. The contract is still open. Community: Demand a seat at the table. 

2. Get management out of the union.

For years, Minneapolis has tried and failed to win legislation at the Capitol so the city could remove lieutenants from the bargaining unit of the Minneapolis Police Federation. As I said above, it is a bedrock principle of labor law that negotiations involve two parties — management and union. Under the current set-up, lieutenants like Bob Kroll are management pretending to have the same interests of the rank-and-file they supervise. This is deeply dysfunctional and might help explain the upside-down world that allows a union president to think it is his role to, for example, to write up a National Guard plan and submit it to the Republican Senate majority leader. As the president of a union of janitors, I never submitted a business plan to a cleaning company. A true union leader does not write up plans for management. Take the lieutenants out of the bargaining unit, and Bob Kroll is out of the union. 

Bonus: With the loss of his membership so goes the union due process protections that keep a rotten apple like him from being fired. 

3. Discipline and due process must conform to what the rest of labor lives with.

Talking to SEIU Local 26 members about our contracts, I often stressed that a union contract doesn’t protect you if you don’t do your job well. Rather, the contract guarantees due process so your employer cannot terminate you without just cause. Given the impossibility of firing cops who engage in misconduct, I assumed that the Minneapolis Police Federation’s contract with the city contained extraordinary job protection language unlike found in most contracts. I was shocked to find that I was wrong: I found pretty generic, boilerplate disciplinary due-process contract language.

The lesson I took from that is that when arbitrators consistently overturn discipline against police officers — a problem not unique to Minneapolis — it is not necessarily about the black-and-white letter of the contract but the culture of the department and policing. For decades, arbitrators have relied on bad precedent and past practice to justify overturning discipline against officers. I am not a public sector union expert, and I do not know what the answer is here, but somehow we must hit reset on arbitration precedent and practices.   

4. We must figure out an in-state receivership.

As I write this, news is emerging that the state of Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights is conducting an investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department alleging a pattern of racial discrimination. This is a good start. But we’ll need a long term receivership so that outside authorities have a constant presence in the department. Many community members have expressed concern, and rightfully so, about what will happen to them once things settle down and MPD is once again left alone. Even with the world’s eyes upon them, MPD officers shot paint canisters at residents sitting on their front porches, rolled their cars through peaceful crowds while spraying mace willy-nilly out an open window and detained clearly identified journalists. So imagine what they will do when the world starts to look away.  

Why in-state? The Trump administration has not only made the Department of Justice an apparatus of partisan warfare, they dismantled all internal structures that pushed for an implemented police reform. They ended receiverships, and the president proudly encouraged police officers to get more violent. We must keep this in Minnesota. 

Again, I am not an expert in this area, and I do not know the exact mechanism, but we must find one. The community has lost trust in its police department and needs reassurance that they will be safe both from crime and from police misbehavior.

  1. Politicians must come out of shadows. 

As I write this, Minneapolis City Council member Steve Fletcher has revealed some of the ways in which the Police Federation and MPD keep a stranglehold on the city. I’ve heard about this many times from many elected officials. When they’re angry, the police have two tools at their disposal: under-policing and over-policing.  A council member will begin to get calls from businesses or residents with reports that police are not responding to calls. Or police will tell residents: “Ask your council member for help.” Some might call it extortion or, perhaps, looting. 

The same principle applies in the opposite direction. Decent people wonder, how can police lash out at the peaceful public even when every journalist in the city is out and many more citizens are recording everything with their phones? Because they can act with virtual impunity when they over-police, and the only people who might be held accountable are elected officials.

  1. Private businesses should join forces and cease hiring off duty officers for security.

Just as police are able to hold a vise around the necks of public officials, they have a near monopoly on security for small and large private businesses. Off-duty police officers are hired by businesses like night clubs and liquor stores at about $50 an hour. It is a significant source of supplementary income for many members of the force. Indeed, we learned this past week that both George Floyd and Derek Chauvin worked security at a Lake Street establishment, Floyd as a private security guard and Chauvin as an off duty cop.

I have heard that businesses fear hiring private security because police make it clear that if they do not get the jobs, the business might not get prompt policing when needed. The answer? Strength in numbers. Entire blocks or business districts could agree to stop using MPD overtime officers and start contracting with private security when necessary. The University of Minnesota has led the way. Now is the time to stand up. 

  1. The labor movement must answer, Whose side are you on?

On June 2, I was thrilled to read this statement from the Minnesota AFL-CIO: “The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis is not, nor has it ever been a member of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. Bob Kroll and those who have enabled violence and brutality to grow within police ranks do not speak for us.” Individual unions are also speaking up

This is a good start, but we must do more. We must stand for bold changes and make them happen. Some of the above proposals and others coming from community leaders will require political and legislative change. Labor must flex its muscle in St. Paul, in city halls and nationally to ensure this change happens. Some have reasonable concerns that any move against police unions will be used to attack all public sector unions. In fact, however, non-police public sector unions have increasingly embraced the idea of bringing community to the bargaining table. We needn’t think of this as a threat to trade unionism; it is an opportunity for renewal. 

This moment is fueling the political will for bold change. Let’s not let it pass again. Last week should not become known as the week our cities burned — but as the week that changed everything, this time for the better.