Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced Wednesday that the city aims to withdraw from negotiations over the police union’s contract, but labor law experts say it’s not within the city’s authority, and would likely trigger a court battle.
Community activists have long pointed to the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis as an obstacle to reform within the department. The union’s contract, which governs wages, benefits and work rules, has provisions that make it difficult for many firings of police officers to stick, Arradondo said.
“There is nothing more debilitating to a chief from an employment matter perspective than when you have grounds to terminate an officer for misconduct and you're dealing with a third-party mechanism that allows for that employee not only to be back in your department, but to be patrolling your communities," Arradondo said.
The union’s contract expired at the end of 2019 but remains in force. The police federation requested and was granted private contract negotiations before the protests erupted, Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender said in a conference call Monday organized by The Justice Collaborative, a nonprofit that focuses on criminal justice issues.
“The police federation is a clear barrier to change, and that is the crux of any short-term changes within the department that they have opposed for years,” Bender said.
But Bender said Wednesday she was surprised by the mayor and chief’s announcement that they planned to withdraw from the negotiations.
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“Let's be clear,” Bender wrote on Twitter, “the path forward for our city requires transparent leadership and meaningful, effective change.”
Mayor Jacob Frey, who controls the Police Department, is also not on solid legal footing, according to labor law experts.
“The city can’t unilaterally refuse to bargain or pull out of negotiations,” said Gregg Corwin, an attorney who specializes in labor and employment law. “Either they are choosing to ignore the statute or they don’t understand it, but they’re constrained by state law.”
The action could be challenged in district court, which Corwin said could be a lengthy process, although the federation could also ask for an immediate injunction against the city.
“They basically admitted they took unilateral action without bargaining, so they’ve admitted to an unfair labor practice, which may be good for PR and politics, but they still have to follow the law,” Corwin said.
Council member Steve Fletcher said he understands the temptation for leaders to want to make it seem like they’re doing something, but that real leadership means being honest with the public about what officials can and can’t do.
”I have heard from so many constituents that this is exactly what they want to hear, and I so wish that it was within our power to do, but it's not,” Fletcher said, referring to the idea of pulling out of the negotiations. “And it's irresponsible of the mayor to subject us to lawsuits from the federation for not meeting our legal duty to bargain."
Attorney Andrew Muller said it might be a smart move by the chief, because discussions about police reforms have stalled in the past when they came up in negotiations.
“I think it’s a smart idea to pull back from the negotiations. Having said that, I think it could end up in court, with the union arguing that they violated their duty of good-faith negotiations,” Muller said. “I think that’s a small price to pay to revisit a process that simply hasn’t worked.”
In most cases, union negotiations are about pay, and not work rules like disciplinary procedures, said Daniel DiSalvo, a professor of political science at the City College of New York who has studied the influence of police unions. In a lot of cases, he said, work rules are usually rolled over from the previous contract.
Although the mayor may not have authority to withdraw unilaterally from union negotiations, DiSalvo said the mayor and chief could also press other levels of government to change laws that they think protect police officers who abuse their authority, DiSalvo said.
“The mayor and others could reach out to the legislature and say, ‘We need to revisit our collective bargaining statute and perhaps change it with regard to what kinds of work rules can be negotiated for police officers,’” DiSalvo said “Or do we want a statewide statute that preempts negotiations over these matters and sets up its own disciplinary procedures for police officers?”
A state statute gives police officers the right to go before an arbitrator, among other protections. Other provisions, including one that requires a minimum number of police employees, are enshrined in the city’s charter, which can be amended by the City Council.
Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis President Bob Kroll did not respond to requests for comment.