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

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

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.

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?

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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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Noah Goldman on 05/28/2020 - 05:05 pm.

    I am so hopelessly confused. Where in this piece does the author explain how a transfer of ownership would fix the police department & culture? Is the sheriff’s department better?

    I don’t even necessarily disagree. I just… don’t get it. Could someone explain the exact reasons why these proposed changes are better than reform?

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 05/28/2020 - 05:33 pm.

      I agree. Didn’t they have this discussion like 10 years ago when they talked about federal receivership and had mediation? How many more workgroups does it take. Arradondo is a good chief. My issue is where is the high quality training and money for the training? And does this city council and mayor even know what the police polices in detail are? If you are going to have oversight, you should. And where on earth is the supervision–do these cops know what the policies say, are the policies clear? How many more pay outs. This has gone on for like what 40 plus years and more? Most of them are good, but it’s beyond understanding. And the wheel keeps getting reinvented and more money thrown at the wrong things for the most part. And why on this case was the Park Police one of the responders?

    • Submitted by Erik Granse on 05/28/2020 - 06:11 pm.

      I found that omission frustrating as well. I think there’s a potential avenue to change by the approaches suggested, as they may well have a chance of truly disrupting the culture of the MPD. Disrupting that culture is necessary because decades of reform attempts have yielded virtually nothing.

      However, I don’t see any thoughts on *how* shifting to the Sheriff’s department would cause that cultural shift.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/28/2020 - 08:19 pm.

      Agreed: What is the change? 3 Police chiefs in what 5-6 years, and Mpls is one of the most liberal cities on the planet! Last one got booted for the shooting of a white woman by a AA, now its basically reversed, another COP bites the dust?

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 05/28/2020 - 07:43 pm.

    After the riots in Ferguson, MO, didn’t that dept become subject to fed oversight?

    I don’t disagree with Mr Goldman’s points, above, but do agree with Mr Schultz’s view, particularly in pointing at the union & the thin blue line. The union has long opposed anything that amounts to civilian oversight or any real accountability for officers. I don’t understand why the good officers – and I believe this includes most Minneapolis cops – continue to tolerate a culture that protects the bad apples.

  3. Submitted by Jennifer Tuder on 05/29/2020 - 09:07 am.

    I agree with Noah Goldman: why would the Hennepin County Sherriff make a better policing force? I think the changes needed are even more radical than this. Also, what about the Minneapolis Park and Metro Transit Police forces? Those need to be considered as well, I would think.

  4. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/29/2020 - 09:43 am.

    Maybe rather than making the MPD part of a bigger unit like Hennepin County, make it into smaller units like we see in the suburbs: Richfield, Edina, Bloomington, Hopkins all have the own units adjoining one another. Some better than others. All learning from one another. All cooperating as need arises.

    13 Wards = 13 New and separate Police units.

    Maybe a crazy idea, but it does provide for dissolution of the MPD, fires all of the current cops who may apply for a new job. Implement “live in the ward rules”. Implement many changes that simply can’t be done in the current system. Bob Kroll can work security at Menards…

  5. Submitted by David Bjork on 05/29/2020 - 01:14 pm.

    The only way to fix an organization with a culture as hopelessly sick as the Mpls police department is to get rid of it entirely and then rebuild it from scratch, hiring only people who demonstrate appropriate sensitivity to the community. There is no way to fix it through policy change and training without getting rid of the union and all of the bad apples at the same time; and this can’t be accomplished without starting from scratch, choosing the right group of new leader.

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 05/29/2020 - 02:07 pm.

    Minneapolis certainly has a race problem. Minnesota and the rest of this country have a race problem that goes back more than 100 years to the founding of this country. But Professor Schultz’s proposed solutions sound to me like rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. The police only mirror the values of the dominant culture that supports and sustains them. Shifting the political control from the City to the county or the State would be an exercise in futility.

    Professor Schultz seems to dismiss or at least downplay the effect of the police unions and the “thin blue line” police culture. He’s right to some degree: no one likes a fink or wants to buck their fellow officers in the line of duty that requires split second life and death judgment calls. Still, what we know of George Floyd’s death suggests that more than one officer stood silently by while watching Floyd being suffocated to death.

    Now flashback to last October, during Trump’s highly publicized and staged visit to Minneapolis where Minneapolis police union representative Bob Kroll and other Minneapolis police officers attended Trump’s MAGA rally wearing a “Cops for Trump” T-shirt. I don’t want to dispute his and other cops’ free speech right to wear those T-Shirts off-duty. But then they can’t complain when their open endorsement of Trump, who has encouraged racism and police mistreatment of suspects are interpreted as racist. He’s made other comments which are racist or at least highly sympathetic to racism which he either defends or shrugs off.

    I would have thought that the Philando Castile in 2016 had started the City on its way to reform. I blame Knoll and his police union for perpetuating a police culture that is unwilling to cooperate with political leadership that wants to confront racism in our culture including where it exists in police culture. I blame Kroll and the police union for sabotaging political efforts at reform and the rank and file for continuing to support a union leadership that aligns itself with the current racist leadership of the country. The police cannot be exempted or excused from confronting their role in perpetuating racism in Minneapolis or anywhere else in the United States.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/29/2020 - 11:03 pm.

      Exactly!

      As we watch the protests rip across the country, the single most responsible person after Chauvin is Bob Kroll. His stubborn belligerence has repeated a whirlwind of unimaginable proportion. And where is he? Hiding like a coward. Dissolve the MPD and build a new organization. Certainly the settlement costs to the Floyd family provide the rationale for dissolution

      • Submitted by Timothy Davison on 06/04/2020 - 06:29 pm.

        Take it from me, a recently retired second generation 40 year member of the MPD, Bob Kroll is no coward. The allegations made against him and the department in general are an attempt by far left elements in A very very liberal state to demean a very good PD with better than average reputation among PDs nationally. During my service I served in two precincts as a patrol officer, ten years as a patrol supervisor, and 15 years in two different investigative units. My patrol partners were male and female, white, black, American Indian and Asian. Soamehow I missed all of this climate of racism and bad conduct referred to by Dr Shultz. What is wrong in his article requires more space and time than here. Suffice it to say that I never heard of him spending any time around our department. I am extremely proud of my department and my service in it, and I deeply resent the insults to it by you, Dr Schultz, and all the other armchair quarterbacks and instant experts on police “reform” who have never done the job. None of you would last a week on a busy night shift in my old district.

    • Submitted by Delia Sonnenburg on 06/05/2020 - 01:28 pm.

      I couldn’t agree more with Jon Kingstad’s comment. Nothing has changed in spite of years of police brutality towards African Americans and supposed reformations. There doesn’t appear to be genuine interest or action with a gravely important matter by multiple branches of leadership. For starters, Bob Kroll must go! He might be suitable as security for Menard’s, but even that is questionable.

      As other commenters have stated, shifting the police department to the sheriff’s department will change what?!? New leadership and a complete clean start might be helpful.

  7. Submitted by David Markle on 05/29/2020 - 04:09 pm.

    For years, people have tried to increase the accountability of the Minneapolis Police, but to no avail. My former City Council Member Paul Zerby made it is key effort while in office. Layman Dave Bicking has poured time and energy into it.

    It seems to me that Chief Arradondo is about as good as we’ll get. Obviously better civilian oversight is due. We’ll see what happens now.

  8. Submitted by Arthur Swenson on 05/30/2020 - 12:41 pm.

    The Minneapolis Police Department has been beyond civilian control since (at least) the end o WWII. The last credible attempt to bring the force under control was by mayor Don Fraser and chief Tony Bouza. While I hate to admit it, perhaps professor Schultz is correct — the beast cannot be tamed. We must kill it and start over.

  9. Submitted by Dora Smith on 05/30/2020 - 07:36 pm.

    I live in Austin, Texas. Google brought me to this article. I was looking for anything on Minneapolis, police and corruption.

    A number of news articles have reported a number of statements by one Santamaria, who owned a dance club in Minneapolis. George Floyd and Mr. Chauvin were employed there at overlapping times, as security. Mr. Chauvin was one of a number of off duty police who did security there.

    She doesn’t know about any relations between the two men. George Floyd was cheerful and well liked. However, she says that Officer Chauvin got very nervous and edgy with Black clientele and on nights with events that attracted Black customers to the largely Hispanic club. He was nervous and aggressive with Black customers, pulling out pepper spray and the like and calling for backup when neither was warranted. And, the other off duty police officers acted pretty similar.

    However, the most remarkable part of the story is, Chauvin worked at the club for 16 or 17 years, and the other police worked there for a long time. It seems very strange that the owner of the club would have kept on security people who created a hostile environment for her customers.

    It is never clear who Santamaria said all of this to. Several news articles mentioned that they tried to reach her by various means and couldn’t. It is apparent that she said different things at different times. It is possible that for some reason she is lying.

    If Santamaria is lying, her longstanding business must have existed in a climate where businesses are often run by people who are unstable or corrupt.

    The other logical explanation is that Minneapolis police and businesses of the sort that nightclubs are, have some sort of feudal relationship where police get away with things they otherwise couldn’t, and business owners hire them after hours because they more or less have to.

    In either atmosphere, police bullying civilians would be a regular occurrence. They might tend to be poor or minority if the police thought that is how they could get away with it.

    In the local media it seems that people who ought to be knowledgeable about this sort of things are going on about the police and civil rights!

  10. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 05/31/2020 - 08:50 am.

    The thought occurs to me: Who is getting it right? By that, I mean, if we were to look at police forces across the nation, which among them seem to be doing a good job without the violence and racism we’ve seen here?

    It seems to me that finding those examples and studying how and why they are successful could be a good starting point. I don’t pretend that it could be the magic bullet, but if we’re going to look into adopting a whole new model, how about attempting to emulate one with an already proven track record of success instead of trying to start from scratch or reinvent the wheel?

    • Submitted by Doris Jean Heroff on 05/31/2020 - 02:11 pm.

      As someone who moved back to MN from Chicago, I have to say that Minneapolis Police are making Chicago Police look like professionals. When was the last time CPD personnel turned pepper spray and rubber bullets on the news media? Hmmm. St. Paul police seem to have handled things well. Perhaps it helps that the majority of St. Paul police live in the city, while the majority of the Mpls. Police live elsewhere? There should be a lot of firings in Mpls, but we know the record there. Don’t look to the Union to critique their own. It isn’t their purpose.

  11. Submitted by William Bond on 06/01/2020 - 02:07 am.

    I think there first should be a requirement that officers live in Minneapolis. I am not sure of the administration structure but changing it to the county or state seems idiotic. Its just change for the sake of change and the force seems like it would just become even less responsive to the community. The fact you have Trump supporters running the union and leadership shows you that the future is 180 degrees out of sync with the community they are policing.

  12. Submitted by Alan Muller on 06/01/2020 - 12:07 pm.

    Recent events have made me think the real chain of command in the Minneapolis police runs through the union to Kroll and not to the Chief and the Mayor. Thus, any reform that turned out to be more than cosmetic would likely require breaking the power of the Police Federation. This is probably a tough thing for Minnesota politicians, especially DFL politicians, to envision.

  13. Submitted by chuck turchick on 06/03/2020 - 05:47 am.

    We have a civilian oversight body in Minneapolis. It’s called the Police Conduct Oversight Commission. By City ordinance, it is required to meet monthly.

    In 2019, its July, September, and November meetings were canceled, its January meeting doesn’t even appear on the City calendar, and there are no minutes posted for its February, March, and April meetings. That’s seven of the twelve months in 2019.

    In 2020, its January meeting was canceled, it did meet in February and March, and its April and May meetings were canceled.

    Now I see its June meeting, scheduled for June 9, has also been canceled. No meeting, not even remotely by telephone or by other technological means. I guess they figured they didn’t have anything important to talk about.

    Did I mention the Commission is required by law to meet monthly?

    Maybe I’m confused and we don’t have a civilian oversight body in Minneapolis.

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