The myth of the “14 bosses”: Police ballot initiative would restore balance — Opinion

September 10, 2021 6:00 am

A Minneapolis Police Department squad car at the scene of a fatal car crash at the intersection of 36th Avenue North and Aldrich Avenue North in Minneapolis on May 1, 2019. Photo by Tony Webster.

Let’s address a common misrepresentation floating around about the Minneapolis police ballot  initiative voters will decide on in November: That its passage would lead to the City Council running the new public safety agency — the myth of the 14 bosses. 

The myth appears to be a public relations strategy to create a vision of too many cooks in the police kitchen, with all of the implied problems of clear accountability. As if the new commissioner of public safety would report equally to each council member along with the mayor. The repetition of this falsehood is designed to give it credibility. You keep hearing it so perhaps it’s true. But it would not pass a fact check.

The reality is that ending the mayor’s “complete control” of the police department presents one of the most compelling arguments to vote in favor of the charter amendment if honestly explained. 

An easy way to understand what’s at stake in the proposal is to think of the council as legislators, similar to members of the state House or Congress, and the mayor as the executive, similar to the governor or president. Legislators normally are allowed to set policy that guide the executive, even though executive departments fill in all of the gaps through rulemaking and the provision of all day-to-day supervision of government employees.

(Yes, sometimes a person who should only legislate will meddle with an employee who should only be supervised by an executive. Such as Sen. Paul Gazelka, who called Laura Bishop — at the time, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency — to discuss the Enbridge Line 3 oil permit under consideration, throwing his weight and implied power into the process. But no one would credibly use this isolated incident to claim that 67 Senators “share” supervisory authority over the MPCA with the governor, or that the MPCA leader has 68 bosses.)

But under the current Minneapolis charter, the City Council acts as legislators unless the issue relates to police operation. For police, the council can take a snooze; the mayor has “complete control” not only of the supervision but all policy guidance as well.

City attorneys have allowed police chiefs to ignore investigations conducted by independent oversight bodies tasked for such purposes by council legislation (and to substitute their own slanted judgments) because council legislation cannot be binding upon police. Under this rationale, they have also prevented the City Council from conditioning the purchase of Taser stun guns on MPD policies which might better limit their use. 

Just recently, we learned the city attorney denied the City Council’s right to legislate limits on “less lethal” munitions on this very same basis: a mayor’s “complete authority.” This, in spite of a run of lawsuits against the city over misuse of this weaponry against journalists and others, and the council’s own presumed authority to be guardian of the city’s finances — which are especially impacted by lawsuits given that the city is self-insured.

Removing “complete control” means the expansion of democracy in Minneapolis, enabling the City Council — a branch of government more broadly accessible than a mayor — to carry the same legislative authority it does with all other city departments. 

Ironically, earlier  ballot language which overcame a mayoral veto, spelled this out clearly in referencing that a new public safety department would have: administrative authority to be consistent with other city departments. In the process of amending the ballot language in response to Judge Jamie Anderson’s injunction, this statement has been removed. But it remains true that the City Council would not have any greater role in a new public safety department than they do for any city department. 

Not to be ignored, another bizarre inclusion for a constitutional document would also be removed: The provision requiring a formulaic minimum number of licensed police officers. It has been well documented how inclusion of this language in the charter was a political giveaway to the influential police union half a century ago. There’s no equivalent binding of legislators relating to the size of a government workforce in any other constitutional document in Minnesota.

For those worried that there will be insufficient numbers of Minneapolis police officers or no police at all if the amendment passes, one can ask: Has the lack of mention of the FBI in the U.S. Constitution prevented the creation and adequate staffing of federal police?

On these two key issues — the mayor’s “complete authority” and the minimum police staffing levels — the Minneapolis status quo is an outlier. 

Doing away with both would merely restore to the people what is rightfully theirs: The ability, through their elected representatives, to set important public safety policies and determine the resources needed to fund them. 

Voters in Minneapolis should understand that the public safety amendment is a design correction that makes the city charter more consistent with how America defines the roles of its government branches.

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Michael Friedman
Michael Friedman

Michael Friedman is the former executive director of the Legal Rights Center. He previously served as chair of the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority, serving in that capacity for three years.