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The lesson of George Floyd: A new entity needs to run the Minneapolis Police Department

The department needs to have a major cultural change that can only be effected by either state takeover of it or by merging it with (or having it taken over by) the county sheriff or placed under receivership and operation with another jurisdiction.

Police on Tuesday night spraying mace at protestors to break up a gathering near the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct.
Police on Tuesday night spraying mace at protestors to break up a gathering near the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

Minneapolis has a police problem. It has a race problem. We have known both of those facts for years.

The question is the cause — and what are the possible solutions? There is no simple answer, but one is that Minneapolis Police Department needs to have a major cultural change that can only be effected by either state takeover of it or by merging it with (or having it taken over by) the Hennepin County sheriff or placed under receivership and operation with another jurisdiction.

Minneapolis has long had a problem with its police department. Muckraker Lincoln Steffens in his 1904 classic the “Shame of the Cities” and in his 1903 McClure Magazine cover story highlighted the corruption and problems in the Minneapolis Police Department that included graft, corruption, and a host of other issues. There is a problem in controlling the police that goes back over a century.

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There is also a well-known racial problem. It is one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation with terrible disparities in education, health care, incarceration, income, and employment. Combine them together and they yield a racial problem with policing, especially including excessive use of force.

20 years ago, a living laboratory of what not to do

Twenty years ago I taught a class on police civil and criminal liability law. Minneapolis was a living laboratory in what not to do. The city made constant payouts to victims and families, and across two county prosecutors that included now Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Mike Freeman little had been done to hold officers criminally liable. There are lots of reasons for this. Some are political and not wanting to take on the police or wanting to appear tough on crime. Others are the fact that the law on police criminal (and civil) liability favor them over victims. As a result, Minneapolis is perhaps the most notorious example of police racial violence against people of color.

What do we do now? Addressing the underlying racial and economic disparities in income, education, and health care are needed but they will not change police behavior. There is a persistent cultural problem with Minneapolis police practice that needs to be addressed.

photo of article author
David Schultz
Some had hoped that Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978) would provide an answer. The Monell decision allowed individuals to sue under 42 U.S. Code § 1983 for civil damages. These §1983 suits, if won, would require cities to pay civil damages for abuses of constitutional rights. If cities had to keep paying out, then maybe they would have an incentive to force changes in police practices or training. Great theory except it did not work, including in Minneapolis despite millions of dollars paid out.

Others blame the police unions. It is not so much the unions as it is the psychology of the “thin blue line” where in a view of us versus them, police are hesitant to take action against or buck other police officers. This is just the most extreme version of no one likes a snitch or fink.

Maybe the fault is with the public. Generally suspects and defendants do not garner much sympathy from the public. Racism may be a factor when often it is white police interacting with people of color. Of course the exception in Minneapolis was when a black police officer shot a white woman and there was a rush to convict him. Many felt good about themselves here indicating they could now support a victim over the police.

A culture of complacency

There is also a culture of complacency. By that, Minneapolis has a reputation of being one of the most liberal cities in America. Mayors, City Council members and voters can say all the right things about race, but at the end of the day the solutions fall from short of anything beyond rhetoric.

Finally, mayors in Minneapolis are weak. They cannot do much. The city is effectively a one-party town where the establishment is not going to challenge anyone in power for fear it will hurt their career.

Now firing four police officers and calling for them to be charged with murder will placate some, but it still will not change the culture and administration of policing. What should be done?

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It is clear, if Steffens was correct, that the police have been a problem for Minneapolis for more than 100 years. The city has shown it is incapable of reforming or correcting the problem. It is doubtful people of color have much confidence in the city of Minneapolis to fix the problem. Someone needs to step in.

Take it over, disband it or merge it

Solution one is a takeover of the Minneapolis Police Department by the state of Minnesota. This probably would require legislation altering or pre-empting home rule authority of the city. Across the country states such as New Jersey have employed similar solutions when it comes to education. Maybe the state of Minnesota putting the city’s police department under its control would be an option.

Solution two is disbanding the department entirely and letting the Hennepin County sheriff perform public safety functions in Minneapolis. A variation of that is merging the Minneapolis Police Department into the sheriff’s office or putting the former under some type of receivership with another jurisdiction. Perhaps this what should have been the remedial basis of a previous civil rights lawsuit.

Overall, continuing to believe that the city of Minneapolis can administer and reform its police in a racially neutral manner increasingly looks unlikely and a new entity needs to run or provide for the public safety needs there.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. He also holds an appointment at the University of Minnesota law school. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” 

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