Politics and Government

Minneapolis council shifts police media duties to city staff

Minneapolis police spokesperson John Elder
Minneapolis police spokesperson John Elder briefs reporters on Feb. 6 in Minneapolis. The Minneapolis City Council voted Friday to shift police media duties away from the Police Department to city communications staff.
Jeff Wheeler | Star Tribune via AP file

Updated: 5:19 p.m.

The Minneapolis City Council voted Friday to shift police media duties away from the Police Department to city communications staff, in what one of the proposal's authors called a small move designed to improve trust following the May 25 killing of George Floyd.

The move was approved 9-3, over objections of some council members who wanted to table it for further discussion. Local journalists also sought more discussion on the issue, raising concerns it would decrease access to timely information.

“This is hardly transformational change,” said Council member Lisa Goodman, who voted no. “It almost feels like it’s retaliatory toward the public information [officer] who gave out information at the time of the horrible murder of Mr. Floyd that he thought to be true and correct. ... I’m disgusted.”

The initial police news release about Floyd's killing, released by spokesperson John Elder, said Floyd “appeared to be suffering medical distress” after he resisted arrest and was handcuffed. Cellphone video recorded by a bystander showed Floyd pleading for air as a white officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into the Black man's neck for nearly eight minutes and people nearby urged the police to help him.

To explain the misinformation, Elder previously told The Associated Press that he missed initial notifications about Floyd and did not visit the scene, as he usually does after major events. He said he knew the arrest was on body camera video but that he would not be able to review it for several hours. Instead, he released the initial description after being briefed by supervisors.

Floyd's death sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, and renewed calls for reforms in policing.

The communications change comes as most Minneapolis City Council members are supporting a proposal to dismantle the Police Department altogether and create a new agency focused on community public safety.

Council member Steve Fletcher, one of the authors of the communications proposal, conceded that the change was a small one. But he said this is not a time to be cautious.

“People are asking us to do change. People are asking us to do this work, and I think it’s very important that we move forward,” he said.

The board for the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sent City Council members a letter discouraging the move. The board said it was concerned that the city’s communications department wasn’t equipped to handle police media duties and wouldn’t be accessible at all hours, and on holidays. The board also was concerned that putting the media role within the city would make it vulnerable to “manipulation based on city politics and sentiments.”

“We fully recognize and understand the communication issues that exist within the current PIO model, but do not believe that eliminating that channel of communication will solve the problem,” the letter said. “At a time when there is a renewed call for police transparency, any action to remove the PIO and undermine the position by placing it under city direction would further erode public trust.”

Fletcher, who said there was a “pattern of inaccuracy” in information coming from the Police Department, said he was committed to ensuring access to reporters and was “convinced this is a move that can move us forward, rather than backward.”

Elder did not immediately return a text message seeking comment on Friday’s vote and a voice message could not be left.

He previously has said that the Police Department realized its initial statement about Floyd's death was inaccurate hours later when the bystander video surfaced, and immediately requested an FBI investigation. By then, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension had taken over the investigation, and Elder has said he didn't have the authority to send out a corrected statement.

“I will never lie to cover up the actions of somebody else,” Elder told the AP.

Also on Friday, the Minneapolis City Council adopted a new 2020 budget, which includes cuts to balance a $156 million revenue shortfall — caused by the pandemic and the unrest which followed Floyd’s killing.

The revised budget includes savings through employee furloughs, funding cuts to programs, use of cash reserves and some spending freezes. While praising city staff and council members for working on a compressed schedule, Council President Lisa Bender said that the city will need to find more sustainable solutions in the future.

MPR News reporter Brandt Williams contributed to this story.