I Was Mayor of Minneapolis. I Know Why Police Reforms Fail.

An us-versus-them culture has deadly consequences.

An illustration of police officers.
The Atlantic

When I attended police swearing-in ceremonies as the mayor of Minneapolis, I spent a lot of time shaking hands with our city’s new recruits. I wanted to understand the people who had stepped up to do a job I was too scared to do. I tried to spend even more time with their families; I wanted to thank the parents who raised a child to do a job I would never let my own kid do. I wanted to know who ate dinner alone because their partner was patrolling streets; who looked out at an empty seat from the school play or basketball game because their parent was at a murder scene.

For a few years, long before I ran for office, I worked as a police reporter. During that time, and in my 12 years as a mayor, I have seen police officers perform extraordinary acts of courage at explosive crime scenes, protect women from domestic abuse, build trusted relationships with immigrants who are terrified the government will take their children, and so much more.

I struggle to make sense of those images as I mentally replay the repugnant scene of a Minneapolis police officer holding his knee on a man’s neck until the man cried out for his mother and died. How do the human beings whom communities hire, train, and supervise end up killing people they are supposed to protect and serve?

Amid the outcry over George Floyd’s death and now hundreds of inhumane, overtly racist acts by police around the country, a number of cities are contemplating dramatic reforms to policing. No action is more important than changing toxic us-versus-them police cultures—in which an officer who might individually make the right call becomes silently complicit when a fellow officer goes rogue. This culture enabled three officers in my city to stand by while Floyd was killed. It allows the bombastic union chief Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, to disparage Floyd and refuse to condemn his death. To this day, this culture enables almost all those officers I met at their swearing-in ceremonies to choose Kroll—by overwhelming margins—as their public voice.

Many commentators on police culture have noted this dynamic: Almost by definition, officers see the worst things happening in their city on any given shift. After being in danger every night, officers gradually stop seeing the humanity in the people and neighborhoods they patrol. Instead, they go back to the precinct with the only people who can really understand what they are going through. People with exceptionally tough jobs serving complex humans naturally vent when they are together. What teacher hasn’t complained about a student in the privacy of the teachers’ lounge?

But the tribalism that can build up within police departments is far more consequential. Us versus them—meaning police versus criminals—slowly curdles into police versus the people: Who would live in these crime-infested neighborhoods where we risk our lives? Waiting to stoke that resentment are police-union leaders such as Kroll, who defend even the more aggressive acts of officers and, even in a case as extreme as Floyd’s death, prevent any self-examination by blaming the victim.

I used to say that the majority of officers are good but silently let a minority set the dominant culture. But now I believe that no one can be called a “good officer” if they are not working actively and openly to change the culture and unseat their toxic union leaders. The silence of the “good officers” so far is deafening, but a glimmer of hope came recently when more than a dozen brave Minneapolis officers bucked their union, condemned the officer who murdered George Floyd, and vowed to regain the community’s trust.

As matters stand, the public—through its elected representatives—has also ceded far too much power to the police unions that enable bad behavior. Floyd’s death underscores that police work should be subject to oversight, and officers who violate policy and misuse their power should be subject to discipline. But the unions’ power is most notable in contracts that limit the accountability that, as the community can now see, is so desperately needed. The lack of accountability seems incongruous because the mayors and city councils that negotiate with police unions include some of the country’s most progressive elected officials and represent some of the country’s most progressive constituencies.

Yet when duly elected officials propose reforms, police unions do not merely oppose them; they actively work to thwart them. Last year, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey banned so-called warrior-style training, which emphasizes physical threats to police officers rather than the benefits of de-escalating confrontations. Critics have implicated a variant of this training—a course titled “The Bulletproof Warrior”—in the shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis–St. Paul suburb in 2016. Kroll and the police federation defied Frey’s move by offering warrior-style training of their own.

If progressive local officials want wholesale reform of police tactics and culture, they will have to do something that runs counter to their own culture: take on union leaders. Minnesota’s chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations—an umbrella group that does not include the police federation—recognizes that Kroll isn’t merely taking his members’ side in a labor-management dispute. In a recent statement calling for Kroll’s resignation, the Minnesota AFL-CIO president, Bill McCarthy, faulted him for trying to justify Floyd’s killing rather than participate in a dialogue about reform. McCarthy also accused Kroll of failing the labor movement. “Unions exist to protect workers who have been wronged,” McCarthy declared, “not to keep violent people in police ranks.”

Some local officials have also hesitated to demand tougher reforms in contracts because police unions often spend heavily in local elections to oppose any politician who challenges them. I know what that’s like. The union supported me near the end of my first race for mayor. But after I took office, we disagreed over the police budget and my choice of police chief. When I ran for reelection, the police union went all out to defeat me: It helped pay for polling to identify the strongest candidate to run against me and pounded voters relentlessly with literature and broadcast ads that portrayed me as soft on crime. I got more than 60 percent of the vote. The police federation also made a massive investment to defeat an incoming council member, Betsy Hodges, who still won overwhelmingly. Eight years later, again, despite massive police opposition, she was elected mayor.

In general, intimidated local officials overestimate the political muscle of police unions. Their credibility with the public is even more diminished in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. So now is the time to push for reforms that hold police departments more accountable to the public.

Electing mayors and city-council members who support such reforms is not enough. Police-union leaders use back channels to go around local officials and get more conservative state legislators to block meaningful changes. That dynamic holds true in Minnesota, where a Republican state representative, who was also a Minneapolis officer, helped overturn a residency requirement for police. Today more than 90 percent of Minneapolis officers live outside the city. The legislature also has stonewalled attempts by the city to get supervisory positions removed from police-federation ranks. As a result, some of the people directing and disciplining officers, and developing the union contract, are actually negotiating with the union of which they are a member.

In return, police unions have helped their enablers on the state and national levels. Police-federation leaders endorse Republicans in most gubernatorial races. Last fall, Kroll appeared with President Donald Trump at a rally in Minneapolis and was interviewed wearing a Cops for Trump T-shirt on Fox News.

But at this moment, as massive marches across the country demand dramatic change, police unions have less leverage than they’ve ever had. I am not suggesting that cities should try to bust police unions. Far from it. Working people need and deserve the protections that collective bargaining provides. In a better world, a police-union leader could help the public understand how hard the job can be—but could also set the moral and professional standards for officers, rather than defend them no matter what they do.

While the breakdown between the police union and the public’s elected representatives has been especially acute in Minneapolis, I know from my discussions with other mayors that many other communities experience similar tensions. These relationships must be fundamentally reshaped. When cities lack the power to provide basic oversight of their officers and cannot break down an us-versus-them culture, they cannot prevent future deaths like that of George Floyd.