Rybak on Rye

David Fick

Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson's contract runs out on January 2, 2004. I'm guessing that Mayor R.T. Rybak has a calendar squirreled away someplace with that date circled in red and accented with a choice expletive or two--especially given the mayor's most recent public relations debacle, which began with Olson leaking a Rybak memo concerning plans to streamline communications between the media and the police department. All this came to a head of sorts last Friday, when a grieving father accused the mayor of letting insider politics get in the way of a homicide investigation.

"The chief keeps playing the mayor for a fool," a city hall insider told me Friday night, as the two of us watched the story unfold on the 6 o'clock news. "And you just know R.T. wishes he had never tried to take the guy on in the first place."

It was less than a year ago that Rybak tried and failed to convince the city council to buy out Olson's $116,000 a year contract. It was a public relations nightmare for the newly elected mayor. The community rallied around the chief, who has shrewdly chosen not to comment publicly on the flap; editorial writers questioned Rybak's sincerity; and, in the end, even the mayor's staunchest supporters believed their man had made a rookie mistake. ("Rybak should have known better," former police chief Tony Bouza told the Star Tribune.) Since then, Olson has not only demonstrated resiliency; he has proven himself one of the city's most masterful politicians.

When racially charged violence erupted in the Jordan Neighborhood last summer, for instance, protesters gathered in front of city hall and angrily demanded something be done about police brutality, especially in communities of color. Across town, Olson ingratiated himself to black activists by more or less deputizing the City Inc.'s Spike Moss, who patrolled north Minneapolis live at 6 and 10. Just recently, as the chief was finally starting to take some heat for refusing to participate in federal mediation to improve relations between police and the community, he received the FBI Director's Leadership Award for, yes, "crime prevention initiatives and relations with community." It's possible this little bit of symbiotic timing was just dumb luck, of course. But it sure was nice to have Deborah Pierce, special agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI office, tell reporters that "Nationally, [Olson] is highly respected in law enforcement." When Rybak was forced to publicly congratulate the chief for all his good work, it no doubt made the chief's day.

The latest set-to between Olson and the differently abled mayor began two weeks ago, when word got out about a memo Rybak had sent to Olson, explaining that he was "centralizing all strategic decisions about how--and when--the Police Department communicates with the public via the media." In practice, that means cops and their commanders must notify Gail Plewacki, communications director for Minneapolis, in situations where there is a question about city or MPD policy, when there is an allegation involving officer misconduct (on- or off-duty), and when an officer is involved in a shooting. Police spokeswoman Cyndi Barrington was also moved into Plewacki's department, which led her to resign and complain publicly that the mayor and the communications director were concerned that she didn't provide reporters with enough "positive stories."

Beat reporters were outraged, First Amendment attorneys bristled, and the requisite editorials and letters to the editor followed, rightly criticizing Rybak for trying to package public policy inside a media matrix more suitable to a corporation. (It didn't help that Rybak uses phrases like "framing the message," that Plewacki talks about coordinating the "dissemination of information," or that the policy, as currently written, is maddeningly vague.) That said, it's worth noting that the way the story played had as much to do with how it broke as any tangible policy changes. (In the end, veteran reporters at the Strib guess the policy might actually cause more disgruntled cops to leak stories.)

When I quizzed Rybak about the controversy last Thursday, he says that he believes the situation was initially "blown out of proportion" because the memo he sent was cast in broad strokes and intended for Olson's eyes only. "This is not an idea that sprung up in my head on a sunny Sunday afternoon. This was informed by what citizens have told me and what police have told me one-on-one," Rybak explained. "I know this is being played as me being Mr. Happy Talk Spinmeister, but it's not about that."

Asked if making the memo public was yet another example of the chief's efforts to punish him for past sins, Rybak would say only that the question was "very perceptive." "Look, I think it's clear that I tried to change the chief," Rybak said later in the interview. "And there's no sugarcoating the fact that for the next year this will continue to be an awkward situation. This is not a situation I chose, but a situation I'm working with, and I'll try to do my best."


The next morning, Mark Pearson held an impromptu press conference outside of the Stop 'N Go on the 1800 block of Johnson Street NE, where less than 48 hours earlier, his son Eric had been murdered. Pearson blamed the mayor's office for what he believed to be a lack of response from homicide investigators, who had yet to make a surveillance video available to the public. "It starts with the mayor's office," he said, in reference to the seeming communication snafu. "That where it starts. Because, you know, he's got some bad things going on and he don't want no bad publicity. Everyone knows that, right?"

KSTP-TV led its five, six, and ten o'clock news with the story. At six, reporter Rod Rassman opened his coverage with the following comment: "Reporters working on the situation have been frustrated from the very beginning about the lack of information coming out of city hall regarding this case. After all, there is a killer out there somewhere, and traditionally our role is to get information out there to help the public help police find the killer."

This was followed by footage of Rybak, walking to or from another meeting in shirtsleeves, obviously unaware of the press conference, and looking every bit a deer in the camera lights. "If that's what you're imagining...that may be something you're imagining," he stammered, when asked if the his new communications policy was hindering a murder investigation.

Cut to Olson, the only public official who looked to be in control of things. The chief waited till a couple of hours after Pearson's press conference to hold his own; dressed in his blues, he told reporters that releasing the store's videotape of Eric Pearson's shooting too soon could hamper the investigation. He shook his head empathetically, expressing grief for the victim and his family, then promising the killers would be brought to justice. He didn't blame Rybak's new communication policy for the misunderstanding, but he didn't defend the mayor either. "We'll give you what we can give you," he assured the media horde.

"And while someone in city hall decides what that will be," Rassman concluded with a dramatic vocal dip, "a family waits and hopes."

By 10:00 p.m., the mayor was on camera on both WCCO and KSTP, calmly assuring viewers that his number one priority was bringing Eric Pearson's killers to justice.

Somewhere, Olson was no doubt carving another notch in his gun belt, plotting his next spin move while Rybak waits for New Years Day 2004.

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