As Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's first chief of staff, I have to disagree with U.S. Sen. Tina Smith's recently announced stance against the city's public safety amendment.
We began our first term in January 2002, shortly after 9/11, in the midst of an economic recession and an accompanying spike in violent crime. In some ways it was a time not so different from today.
Tensions were at an all-time high between BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities and the Minneapolis police. Concerns about persistent racial profiling, lack of diversity on the force and the failure of prior attempts at police reform were as hotly debated as they are today.
In response, our administration devoted a huge amount of time and effort to police reform, as have other mayors and staffs both before and after us. So why do we find ourselves in the same situation now, nearly 20 years later?
Our efforts to bring about real, structural change in the Minneapolis Police Department failed because of powerful barriers that are built-in to the Minneapolis city charter. Some of these barriers were conceived and promoted by the Minneapolis Police Federation, including the 1961 charter amendment that requires a minimum number of licensed officers.
This staffing formula and the funding it guarantees directly undermine the ability of the city to negotiate with the Police Federation to advance meaningful reform. Changing police culture requires clear consequences for unacceptable behavior. But without the essential bargaining chips of staffing and budget in play, the city simply has no real leverage; no ability to deliver real consequences.
The proposed public safety amendment would remove these barriers to meaningful reform and allow the city to negotiate more effectively with the Police Federation. This would level the playing field and allow the community's vision for a more holistic approach to public safety — including but not limited to licensed peace officers — to move forward.
Another charter provision the Police Federation fought for and won created a unique relationship between the Police Department and the office of the mayor. Unlike any other department head, the police chief reports exclusively and directly to the mayor. I experienced firsthand how confusing and problematic this relationship can be.
It's confusing because it differs from every other city department. City residents and council members expect open, public discussion and transparent decisionmaking around all important policy matters, but this doesn't happen where the police are concerned. Instead, this quirk of the charter forces important discussions of public safety behind closed doors, out of the public view, and even out of the view of the City Council.
It also creates an unrealistic expectation of the mayor. Even for an energetic and outgoing mayor like Rybak, it was impossible to fully understand and balance the varied interests of constituents from all across our city. This is why we elect a council member from each ward: to represent the different interests of all of our neighbors.
To expect full understanding and balance from one elected official is just not good government. The current charter language cuts the City Council — and the diverse constituents its members represent — out of critical decision making about one of the most important aspects of our quality of life: public safety.
The proposed public safety amendment removes the barriers to reform in the charter. It allows the planning process for the new department to proceed.
Sen. Smith ended her comments saying that "the status quo is unacceptable." I couldn't agree more. Amending this section of the city charter is the essential next step toward ending this shameful status quo. While the memory of George Floyd's murder is still painful enough to remind us why this all matters, let's seize this historic opportunity to create real, structural change by voting yes on City Question 2.
David Fey served as chief of staff/deputy mayor to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak from 2002 to 2006.