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On the Suspicious Timing of #Pointergate

This morning, the internet lit up with a brand-new scandal, complete with its own hashtag: #pointergate. But something is going unsaid here, and we want to go ahead and say it.

Here’s the super-short version of #pointergate: a local ABC affiliate in Minneapolis, KSTP, ran a story that claimed Mayor Betsy Hodges had flashed a gang sign while posing for a photo with a known criminal, thereby putting the entire Minneapolis police force in danger. Here’s how the news station was promoting the story on Twitter:

The punchline (of course) is that the “gang sign” was a simple point, and the “known criminal” was a volunteer with a local activist group called Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. The photo was taken while the Mayor worked with the group to get out the vote in a Minneapolis neighborhood.

Now, we don’t want to get into how ridiculous this story is – the folks at the Daily Kos do a great job breaking down the not-even-subtle racism at play here. We’re more interested in what looks like some sketchy-as-hell behavior here – not from KSTP, but from the Minneapolis Police Department itself.

Where Did #Pointergate Come From?

As KSTP itself acknowledged, unnamed law enforcement officials were the source of their original story on #pointergate. The three-minute segment opened like this:

“Tonight, law enforcement sources alerted us to a photo that has them fuming over the actions of Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges. They want to know why the mayor would take a picture with a convicted criminal while he and the mayor flashed gang signs.”

The segment (which you can watch in full here) goes on to quote multiple law enforcement officials, including a retired officer named Michael Quinn, who worked in internal affairs. At one point, Quinn says that by “flashing gang signs back and forth at each other, showing solidarity with the gangs,” Hodges is “legitimizing these people that are killing our children.”

At first this looks like pretty typical news fare: overblown statements and badly-researched half-truths being presented as fact. But here’s the thing: the Minneapolis Police Department was “fuming” over Betsy Hodges well before #pointergate took the internet by storm. The reason? Hodges has been an outspoken proponent of greater police accountability since before she even entered office.

Press Conference Controversy

Back in October of 2013, when Hodges was a member of the city council, she and two fellow council members held a press conference to announce a pilot program for the city: a test group of police officers would be fitted with body cameras to wear at all times while on duty.

However, no law enforcement officials were present at the conference, and that did not sit well with Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau.

Harteau told a local NBC affiliate that she was “very frustrated because I’m out of town and all this stuff is happening without me there and nobody ever asked me to be there.”

Battle of the Open Letters

Fast forward about one year, to late September of 2014. Councilwoman Hodges was now Mayor Hodges, and as such was facing higher expectations from the community. On September 26, a coalition of local professors, religious leaders, community groups and others penned “An Open Letter to Mayor Betsy Hodges,” which was later published in the Star Tribune, a local paper. The letter laid out serious concerns about the conduct of the Minneapolis Police Department, particularly residents’ frustration with the behavior of Chief Harteau, who had abruptly dropped out of a listening session intended to address these very concerns. The letter urges Mayor Hodges to break her “silence” on the growing tension and start working to regain public trust of both the police department and local government.

Mayor Hodges responded on October 8 with an Open Letter of her own, emphasizing her commitment to “eliminating gaps based in race and place, growing inclusively, and running the city well for everyone.” The letter goes on to lay out, in exhaustive detail, the plans and goals Hodges had for improving relations between police and the community at large. Early in the letter, this passage appears:

Hundreds of police officers serve respectfully and collaboratively every day to keep people safe and make neighborhoods across our city stronger. But not all do: some officers abuse the trust that is afforded to them, and take advantage of their roles to do harm rather than prevent it. Minneapolis has, and has had, officers like that. These officers do not represent a majority of the department, but their behavior disrupts community trust for all officers in the community… This is why it is so important to check bad behavior and end it, once and for all.

Well. Minneapolis Police were pissed, to put it lightly.

In the third and final entry of the Battle of Open Letters, the President of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, John Delmonico, wrote a blistering reply to the Mayor, calling her words “repeated and personal slaps in the face to every member of the Minneapolis Police Department.” He accused her of painting all officers with the same unfair brush, and expressed anger that all of her plans for improving community relations involved changes in the department (Delmonico did not offer alternative plans, nor clarify as to what it would look like to reform the community rather than the police).

Familiar Faces in Sketchy Places

That letter was published on October 17, 2014. Hodges was apparently undeterred by Delmonico’s response, and her office planned to move forward with the body camera program as planned.

A press conference was scheduled for the afternoon of November 7th, where Hodges – along with Chief Harteau – would launch the pilot program and explain its details to the press. The #pointergate story aired on the morning of November 7th.

Heavily featured in that KSTP story? John Delmonico.

At one point, Delmonico asks, “For as critical as she can be with the cops, ah, is she gonna support gangs in this city or cops?”

One last point: in the segment, the anchor says that “law enforcement sources tell us they found the photo on the man’s Facebook page while they were doing investigative work.” That’s certainly possible. But, as Daily Kos points out, Hodges and the volunteer weren’t alone when they took the photo: the Minneapolis Police Department tweeted this photo of the group – accompanied by none other than Police Chief Harteau.

Sometime between that day and the morning of the #pointergate story, the department deleted the tweet.

That Escalated Quickly

We don’t want to claim conspiracy where none exists. But the timing of this “scandal” is pretty sketchy, to say the least. Is it possible that #pointergate was a deliberate attempt by the Minneapolis Police Department to undermine Mayor Hodges on the eve of her body camera press conference?

If so, it may have backfired on them: #pointergate has been trending on Twitter all day — thanks to the huge volume of people mocking the story.

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