Minneapolis officials are asking the state Supreme Court to intervene in a legal dispute as they challenge a judge’s ruling ordering them to hire more police officers.
City attorneys are asking the state Supreme Court to take the unusual step of granting “accelerated review” as they challenge an order requiring Minneapolis to hire at least 730 police officers by next summer.
“A ruling from this Court … is necessary to clarify the meaning of the provision in time for the November election when this critically important issue will be presented to the citizens of Minnesota’s largest city for a vote,” the city attorney’s office wrote in legal briefs filed Friday. If the justices grant the emergency request, the city’s case will bypass the Court of Appeals and head straight to the state’s highest court.
Minneapolis’ minimum police staffing requirements have become a key issue in debates about how to transform public safety and in the November elections, when the future of the Police Department, the mayor’s office and all 13 City Council seats will be on the ballot for the first time since George Floyd’s murder by an officer.
The city’s charter, which serves as its constitution, requires Minneapolis to fund a police force with a minimum size based on population. One question placed before voters this November will ask residents whether they want to keep that requirement or eliminate it, a move that could allow city officials to dramatically reduce the size of the force.
At the center of the case working its way through the court system are two key questions: Whether Minneapolis has to budget for a minimum number of officers or employ a minimum number of officers; and whether the city must update its population numbers when new estimates come out, or only after the new census results are released, usually every 10 years.
The legal saga began last summer when a group of residents based on the city’s North Side, including a former council member, sued the mayor and City Council. They argued that elected leaders weren’t fulfilling their obligations to keep a minimum number of police officers and that residents were suffering amid an increase in violent crime.
The 2021 budget approved by the city’s elected leaders, includes enough money to cover the costs of 770 officers. City leaders, though, have acknowledged they won’t have that many officers working, in part because of an unprecedented number of resignations and claims of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In court filings, the city anticipated it would have 690 officers on payroll in June of this year, with 46 on long-term leave; 649 on payroll in January of 2022, with none of them on long-term leave; and 721 on payroll in January of 2023, with none on long-term leave.
Attorneys for the city argued that elected leaders fulfilled their obligations when they included funding for 770 officers in the budget and that the minimum number required is about 650, based on the 2010 census results.
Lawyers for the North Side residents who brought the suit argued the city needs to employ “a working police force” that meets the minimum size requirements. Citing 2020 population estimates, while the expected census results are delayed, they placed the minimum number at roughly 743 officers.
Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson, in a ruling earlier this month, largely sided with the residents. While saying she could not exclude officers on leave in the official counts, Anderson did order the city to fund more officers.
“If the City is not proactive in anticipating what will be required of it in coming years, it will constantly be behind — constantly underperforming and, as a result, understaffing the police force,” Anderson wrote. She added: “That is not the intent behind the funding requirements in the City Charter. The City must be proactive.”
Anderson gave the city until June 30, 2022, to fund a police force with at least 730 officers — or a higher number if new census numbers are released and warrant it. She arrived at that number using 2019 population estimates, a number she used because attorneys for both the city and residents had previously agreed they were accurate.
Lawyers for the city are arguing that Anderson overstepped “by ordering the hiring of a certain number of police officers by a certain date.” They argue that she could use a writ of mandamus, the type of order she issued, to instruct the city “to execute a clear, non-discretionary duty” or to “engage in the process of exercising discretion” but couldn’t tell city leaders how to use that discretion.
“The district court’s order substitutes the court’s policy judgment of how a police force should be operated for the plain meaning of the City Charter’s words,” City Attorney Jim Rowader said in a statement. “In addition, the timetable imposed by the court infringes on the City’s discretion and autonomy, and thereby impacting its ability to hire only well-qualified candidates who are good matches for Minneapolis, its communities, and the challenges Minneapolis faces.”
A lawyer representing the people who brought the lawsuit said they were disappointed but not entirely surprised.
“Our clients were hopeful that the city would kind of take the hint from the court that they needed to take action now and, unfortunately, this applies both to the City Council and Mayor [Jacob] Frey, it seems as though they’ve dug their heels in,” said James V.F. Dickey, an attorney with the Upper Midwest Law Center.
Calling Anderson’s ruling a “good decision” based on “solid” legal reasoning, Dickey said they “will oppose the appeal, as strongly as we are able to, consistent with the law.”
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