Minneapolis, MN – The Minneapolis City Council voted Friday morning to eliminate the public information officers (PIO) who have traditionally served as the liaison between the police department and the media and instead turn the responsibility over to City Hall.
City council members said they felt the role of the Minneapolis Police Department’s media liaison should be played by a member of the City Hall’s communications team, WCCO reported.
They called the move an effort to restore residents’ trust in the police department and its accountability to the community, KSTP reported.
“We see problems with accuracy… we see problems with at least perceived, you know, bias of the way information is reported,” Minneapolis City Councilman Steve Fletcher told WCCO.
Fletcher complained that public information officers delivered a pro-police spin with the news they released.
He and City Councilman Jeremy Schroeder both pointed to the first press statements released by the police department after Floyd died that said he had “appeared to be suffering medical distress” and demanded better accuracy from the media.
“While I appreciate the challenges of getting information out in a fast-evolving situation, accuracy is paramount. The world knows exactly what happened to Mr. Floyd. The world saw it,” Schroeder told WCCO.
But experts and the media objected to the proposed elimination of PIOs ahead of the vote.
“One press release based on information that was given to whoever wrote it means we ought to throw out a huge function of government? It’s just bad,” Don Gemberling, a public data expert from the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, said. “If you really care about this thing called transparency, then why would you get rid of a major way of providing transparency, which is what this is.”
The Society of Professional Journalists warned the city council that they didn’t understand the breadth or purpose of the public information officer and expressed concern that City Hall communications team would not serve as an effective replacement, WCCO reported.
“We strongly discourage this change, and request that members of the City Council table Friday’s vote until journalists and members of the public have an opportunity to weigh in,” the organization wrote in a statement. “Our primary concern is that the city’s communications department is not suited to this role. An effective PIO must have the trust both of police officers and journalists, and that takes time — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Will a communications liaison be on the scene of late-night shootings? Will he or she give press conferences and return phone calls on weekends and city holidays?”
All but three councilmembers voted in favor of eliminating the police department’s two public information officers despite the objections of the entities who are actually served by them, WCCO reported.
Minneapolis Council member Goodman calls "this hardly transformational change" by moving police public communications officer position to the city communications office."
— Eric Chaloux (@EChalouxKSTP) July 24, 2020
The move came just weeks after the city council voted to put an amendment on the November ballot that would change the city’s charter to allow the council to defund or abolish the Minneapolis Police Department.
Under the amendment, the police department would be replaced by a Department of Community Service and Violence Prevention that would take a “holistic” and “public-health oriented” approach to keeping the city safe, KFGO reported.
The proposed amendment, if passed by the city council, will proceed to a policy committee and the city’s Charter Commission for review.
Charter Commissioner Chairman Barry Clegg said the process feels rushed, WIFR reported.
“As I understand it, they are saying, ‘We are going to have this new department. We don’t know what it’s going to look like yet. We won’t implement this for a year, we’ll figure it out,’” Clegg said. “For myself anyway, I would prefer that we figured it out first, and then voted on it.”
He explained that the ballot measure must finish the review process, be passed by the council, and go through a mayoral veto period before Aug. 21 in order to be finalized and placed on the November ballot, WIFR reported.
But Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has said he will not support abolishing the police department and has expressed concerns about the amendment to the city charter.