Hodges: Racism, police union conflict at heart of #pointergate

Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges on KNOW.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges spoke with MPR News' Tom Weber about the #pointergate controversy at the MPR News studios in St. Paul, Minn., on Nov. 14, 2014.
Regina McCombs / MPR News

Updated 4:25 p.m.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said Friday that a KSTP report accusing her of flashing gang signs while standing next to a young black man is rooted in racism and in her conflicts with police union leadership.

In her first interview since the news report, mockingly dubbed "#pointergate" on social media, Hodges dismissed accusations in the story that her pointing gesture in the photo with a community organizer during a get-out-the-vote effort in the city was gang-related.

"It wasn't about the gesture. It was about who I was standing with while making a gesture," Hodges told MPR News' The Daily Circuit. "It was about judgments based on race."

Video: Watch the interview

Related: Hubbard says KSTP will not apologize for #pointergate story

She said she believed the report was racist because it implied her judgement was poor for standing next to a young black man and not assuming he was in a gang or had a criminal record. It had nothing to do with public safety, another question implied in the story, she added.

KSTP defended its work in an extended segment on its Thursday evening news broadcast. The station said it showed the picture of Hodges' gesturing to "eight active police officers with multiple agencies, as well as a retired Minneapolis officer who is often critical of police. All strongly agreed the picture was problematic."

It also said that the organizer posing with Hodges, Navell Gordon, is a felon who on social media sites curses police and is allegedly pictured with "what appears to be a gun."

The station, though, also acknowledged in its Thursday report that the moment between Hodges and Gordon captured in the picture was probably innocent.

"We admit, and we reported, that the poses struck by Hodges and Gordon appear to be playful, simple pointing. And it's hard to understand why such a seemingly simple photo could be potentially dangerous," KSTP said. "But police say the mere existence of it could put the public and possibly police in danger."

Police reportedly told KSTP that a Minneapolis gang called the Stick Up Boys have adopted the finger-point as their trademark. And seeing the mayor make that gesture could embolden the group or inflame tensions with rival gangs.

The photo was during an event sponsored by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the non-profit where Gordon works. He has a criminal record, and he's currently on probation for illegally possessing a gun.

Hodges says she had no way of knowing that at the time. She argued the implicit premise of KSTP's report is that she should have racially profiled Gordon.

The original KSTP story also featured Minneapolis police union leader John Delmonico scolding Hodges over the photo and saying she should have known better than to use a gesture that could be viewed as local gang sign.

In her MPR News interview Friday, Hodges said she agreed with speculation that the union leadership was using the story to attack her and called Delmonico complicit. She said she shared the view that the controversy was tied to her push for accountability against officers with patterns of misconduct.

Explaining #pointergate: The missing context

"There's a difference between an officer who has a bad day on the job and an officer who has a clear pattern of misconduct," she said.

The message delivered by the story and the union leadership, she added, is "Mayor Hodges, don't have those interactions, don't talk with young African-American men."

Hodges added that she has not talked to Delmonico since the controversy began but plans to reach out to him "once the waters have calmed."

The union on Friday declined to comment.

It might never have been an issue had Hodges simply shook the young man's hand instead of pointing, said retired Omaha police officer Bruce Ferrell, who chairs the Midwest Gang Investigators Association.

"I don't think anybody would have called shaking somebody's hand stereotypical, racist, inappropriate or anything of the such," said Ferrell, who was featured in two of the station's follow-up pieces.

Despite the controversies, Hodges said morale in the department is high and praised officers for doing their jobs and protecting the public.

The focus now, she said, needs to shift toward the future and "away from the mayor pointing."

MPR News reporter Curtis Gilbert contributed to this report.