Minneapolis council divided over issues of officer liability, preventing threats

Minneapolis City Hall
A pedestrian walks past Minneapolis City Hall on Feb. 8.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Minneapolis City Council members sharply split over issues of public safety and policing in discussions about their state legislative priorities Tuesday.

The city’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee met to consider a proposal asking legislators to allow cities to require police officers to carry their own liability insurance. That proposal failed after concerns that it would hurt recruitment. Other amendments that passed ask the Legislature to give the city more tools to keep order at public meetings and to increase criminal penalties against those threatening public officials or employees.

Council Member Robin Wonsley said she introduced the proposal about police officer insurance due to the tens of millions of dollars that Minneapolis has paid out for police officers’ actions in recent years. Data from the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office shows the city paid out more than $60 million in police misconduct cases between 2019 and 2022. State law doesn’t allow cities to require police officers to carry professional liability insurance.

“The impacts of an unaccountable police force has been incredibly expensive to taxpayers,” Wonsley said. “Since the city is self-insured, all of these police settlements come out of the city’s funds and significantly impact the city’s budget.”

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Council Member Lisa Goodman said “berating” officers was one reason the city is facing a shortage.

“I quite frankly am sick and tired of hearing in this council that all cops are terrible, racist, misogynist horrible people,” Goodman said. “The public that I represent, many of them, are sick and tired of hearing that as well.”

Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said he’s not sure making this a legislative priority would be the correct route, but that the council has to start somewhere to address the costs of police misconduct.

“We’re seeing conduct from officers that we don’t approve of, that the community doesn’t approve of,” Ellison said. “How do community members not only protect themselves physically but protect their tax dollars from having to pay for misconduct they don’t approve of?”

Council President Andrea Jenkins supported Wonsley’s amendment, but said police officers should be paid more to offset the costs.

“I believe that ultimately liability insurance would curb some of the unnecessary violence we see playing out, not only in our city but across the country,” Jenkins said.

The vote to ask the Legislature to allow cities to require officers to get professional liability insurance failed 7-6. Council Members Elliott Payne, Robin Wonsley, Jeremiah Ellison, Andrea Jenkins, Jason Chavez and Aisha Chughtai voted yes on the amendment. It was opposed by Council Members Linea Palmisano, Andrew Johnson, Michael Rainville, LaTrisha Vetaw, Jamal Osman, Lisa Goodman and Emily Koski.

Council members did approve two changes to the city’s legislative priorities proposed by Council Vice President Linea Palmisano, although the Legislature’s deadline for action on new bills is Friday.

Palmisano’s first amendment asks the Legislature to clarify “lawful conduct” during open meetings, while also safeguarding people’s First Amendment rights. The second amendment asked the Legislature “to create enhanced criminal penalties for assaults and threats of violence against public officials, public employees, or their families.”

“Both of these are about clarifying our ability to do our work and keep everyone safe, while also allowing protesters to exercise first amendment rights,” Palmisano said. “We are not criminalizing protest. We are stopping people from stopping us from doing our work.”

Minneapolis City Attorney Kristyn Anderson said there aren’t many tools at the local level to address people disrupting meetings, but that there are similar laws in places around the country that have passed constitutional muster.

“They have to be crafted so they’re not targeted at speech, they’re targeted at intentional conduct done for the purposes of disrupting a meeting,” Anderson said.

Palmisano’s amendments stem partly from recent protests in the council chambers that disrupted the meetings, including one at the last full council meeting where protesters that opposed an expansion of the city’s public works facilities on the former Roof Depot site in south Minneapolis allegedly threatened council members and their families. Three council members filed police reports about the threats.

Jenkins said threats have amped up during her time in office, and that they’re impeding the council’s ability to do their work.

“We are making decisions each and every day that make some people upset and some people happy,” Jenkins said. “In our society, for whatever reasons, people have decided when their opinions are not supported, they turn violent.”

The next full City Council meeting is scheduled for Thursday morning.