The photo-op mayor

Has the newspaperman gone P.R.?

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, the former Star Tribune reporter who galloped into City Hall pledging to throw open its doors, moved last week to “centralize” discussion of certain police matters under the City Hall communications staff. According to Rybak, the effort is aimed at combating what he says is a gap between the reality of police and safety in Minneapolis and the public’s perception. Deputy Chief Lucy Gerold put it more clearly: “The goal Ö is to increase positive stories of the good work being done every day by the police department.”

To be sure, Minneapolis police could use some good publicity these days. The department is under scrutiny after allegations surfaced that two officers beat an American Indian man. Meanwhile, an effort to hold federally mediated talks with the community is moving along at a snail’s pace.

Rybak’s effort to accentuate the positive, however, puts an unnecessary barrier between citizens and information. Minneapolis citizens need to be able to trust what they hear from the department. Restricting the flow of information encourages skepticism and makes it more difficult for citizens to examine the behavior of police.

Word of the new plan has sparked stern criticism from some in the police department. Police spokeswoman Cyndi Barrington resigned in protest. Concerned officers, including Minneapolis Chief of Police Robert Olson, raised objections in a meeting with Rybak on Friday. As it stands, the new rule is said to work like this: Officers must alert a public relations official in City Hall when a journalist asks questions about police policy, an officer’s conduct or a police officer involved in a shooting. Even the chief will have to contact city communications people before he can discuss policy.

While image isn’t everything in politics, it matters a great deal. Many observers argue that former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, who had an impressive record in Minneapolis, lost an election because she wasn’t seen as visible enough. Still, style cannot mask substance. Minneapolis citizens deserve to get the straight scoop from their police department and City Hall. A former newspaperman should understand this.