(AP) Mayor R.T. Rybak, after an hour-long meeting with police commanders, partially backed down Thursday from a new policy that would have required police officers to seek permission from city hall before talking to reporters.
The policy, issued Wednesday, had angered some police commanders and prompted the police department spokeswoman to resign. It also caused media concerns about getting accurate, timely information about crime and public safety.
On Thursday, the city said officers would still need to notify city hall when the media questions city or police policy, when an officer’s conduct is in question, or when an officer is involved in a shooting. But officers apparently can continue to provide other information at crime scenes.
The meeting came a day after Rybak sent a memo to Police Chief Robert Olson that read, “The Communications Department will sign off on all external police communications, including but not limited to news releases and interviews.”
Rybak also moved police spokeswoman Cyndi Barrington’s job into the city hall communications department Wednesday, prompting her to resign.
The mayor said the memo was part of his effort to centralize communications.
“It’s wasteful and confusing to citizens to have people in all different parts of the city involved in communications and not working together,” he said.
The move was part of a “long-needed strategy for coordinating communications,” Rybak said. “It’s not muzzling cops. Cops will talk.”
Rybak declined to cite examples of how the current system has failed.
Rybak is a former Star Tribune reporter and former publisher of the now-defunct Twin Cities Reader, an alternative weekly.
Several high-ranking police officers had expressed concern over the policy. Lt. Mike Sauro, head of the sex crimes unit, said, “It’s censorship. End of discussion.”
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, said he knows of no other major city where police information comes from the city communications office, which ultimately answers to the mayor.
Penny Parrish, who was Barrington’s predecessor as the department’s public information officer and who now teaches police-media relations at the FBI, said she doubts the change will be effective.
“When you have a crisis — like the sniper out in the East Coast, a natural disaster, any crisis in the community — to put layers of impediments between the (public information officer) and the chief is not an effective way to communicate,” she said.