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Public officials in Minneapolis did not violate the city's charter when they failed to keep police staffing levels above the minimum, an appeals court panel ruled in an opinion released Monday.

The charter — akin to a city's constitution — "clearly imposes a duty" on the City Council to fund a police force with a minimum number of sworn police officers, but it does not require the mayor to continuously employ them, according to the Minnesota Court of Appeals decision.

Rather, Mayor Jacob Frey's duty to maintain police staffing levels is "discretionary," meaning he has latitude to use his own judgment, according to the appeals court.

In a statement, Erik Nilsson, deputy Minneapolis city attorney, said the decision shows the Minneapolis City Council "consistently met its obligation" on police staffing.

"This ruling does not change the city's ongoing commitment to rebuild the police force to the 731 positions we are required by charter to fund and beyond," Nilsson said.

The appeals decision unravels last year's win for several north Minneapolis residents who accused the city of failing its duty to employ a robust police force.

"We're very disappointed with the decision. We think it's an error, and we will be appealing on behalf of our clients to the Minnesota Supreme Court on the matter," said lawyer Douglas Seaton, founder of the Upper Midwest Law Center, who is representing the group that filed the petition. "We don't see the distinction the court makes between funding and employing. It's, of course, absurd, in our view, to say that there is a requirement … to fund a set number of police officers but not to employ them."

As officers have left the department en masse over the past two years, the group of North Siders — including Don Samuels, who announced a congressional campaign — filed a petition alleging Frey had failed his obligation to employ at least 0.0017 employees of the police force per resident, amounting to 743 officers based on 2020 data.

There's no question that the city fell below that standard. In April 2021, the Minneapolis Police Department employed 651 active sworn officers, despite the City Council providing funding for 888, according to Court of Appeals Judge Jeanne M. Cochran, who authored Monday's decision.

Cochran attributes the low staffing to a pandemic that created a budget shortfall, resulting in the city canceling the 2020 police academy class and laying off community service officers working toward police licensure requirements. An "unprecedented number" of officers also quit or went on long-term leave after the killing of George Floyd and protests and riots that followed.

Frey, who has opposed measures to defund the Police Department, has since held three academies and recalled the community service officers in a push to replenish the department's staffing numbers.

"Since the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis Police Department has lost almost 300 peace officers. This is an unprecedented loss of manpower that is not easily corrected," Nilsson said. "The Court of Appeals confirmed that the jobs of recruiting, hiring and training new peace officers are those of the mayor and the police chief, and they are fundamentally discretionary."

In siding with Samuels and the others last year, Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson ordered the city to comply by June 2022.

The appeals panel found Anderson erred by imposing an obligation on Frey to maintain the staffing levels, rather than allowing the mayor discretion. The "application" of the charter raises questions about the practicality of employing the minimum staffing at all times, such as: "What should be done when a worldwide pandemic causes budget cuts that impact efforts to recruit and onboard new officers? What steps should be taken when an unprecedented number of officers separate from the department following a summer of civil unrest? How quickly and through what process should these new officers be hired?"

"These questions illustrate how the mayor's duty to use funding provided by the City Council to employ officers, and thereby maintain the Police Department at a certain staffing level, necessarily requires the exercise of discretion," Cochran wrote. "Therefore, we conclude that the mayor's duty to maintain the Police Department is a discretionary duty, and there is no clear duty to continuously employ a minimum number of officers."

Writing separately, Judge Francis J. Connolly agreed with the reversal of the lower court but remarked that "it is illogical that there is a clear duty to fund a certain number of sworn officers but no clear duty to employ them."

Connolly said the panel's read on the charter is accurate, and he suggested the charter may need to be amended.

"However, that decision is for a different branch of government to make," he said.

Samuels said Monday he was disappointed by the ruling and that he's concerned about the future of the city.

"People don't understand what's happening here, and I think the courts don't, either," he said.

Staff writer Susan Du contributed to this report.