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Break the cycle: Five changes in Minnesota policing that can be enacted right now

These policy changes are only a beginning. They do not address the longstanding systemic racism in the Twin Cities, where we have some of the worst racial disparities in the country.

Police officers throwing canisters
Minneapolis police officers throwing canisters to break up protesters on Wednesday night.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

Trauma, anger and pain have boiled over in Minneapolis since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. As the only state where police officers are required to have a college degree, we have the most educated police force in the nation. Yet we are continually making national headlines for officers killing unarmed citizens. Each incident seems to follow a now-familiar cycle that includes pain, outrage, demands for change, and what seems a conciliatory attempt to improve officer training, police-community relations, or both.

As professors of criminal justice, we focus our teaching and research on the social inequalities and structural mechanisms deeply rooted in the criminal justice system. Changes are needed in policing in Minnesota. Below, we recommend several changes that follow existing research. These policy changes are only a beginning. They do not address the longstanding systemic racism in the Twin Cities, where we have some of the worst racial disparities in the country. They do not address the recruitment problem in Minnesota policing, where there is a desperate shortage of officers of color policing in communities where they live. They do not address the toxic culture within some Minnesota police departments, or the need to address officer mental health. They will not rebuild the trust between the MPD and the community, which is likely irrevocably damaged.

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These changes are a start. They have little cost. And they can be enacted right now.

  1. Use independent prosecutors

Gina Erickson
Gina Erickson
The 21st Century Task Force on Policing recommends policies to mandate the use of an external and independent prosecutor in cases of officer-involved shootings. Research shows that county attorneys may be biased toward cases involving police officers in their own jurisdiction, where they have longstanding relationships with police departments before, during, and after a criminal trial. On Sunday evening, under pressure from the ACLU and public campaigns to remove Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman from the case, Gov. Tim Walz announced that Attorney General Keith Ellison would prosecute George Floyd’s death. This move is a first step toward transparency and legitimacy, but the 21st-century report encourages policies that mandate the use of independent and external investigations and prosecutors for officer-involved shootings, use of deadly force, and in-custody deaths, not just when pressure from the public demands it. In order to rebuild trust, Minnesota must make statutory changes to mandate the use of independent and external prosecutors in cases involving officer-involved and in-custody deaths.

  1. Evaluate officer training in Minnesota

Sarah Greenman
Sarah Greenman
Following Philando Castile’s death in 2016, the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton dedicated $12 million in training funds for police officers, specifically dedicated to “crisis intervention and mental illness crises, conflict management and mediation, and recognizing and valuing community diversity and cultural differences to include implicit bias training.” Our faculty worked extensively with the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board to write the learning objectives for this new legislatively mandated training and the board was tasked with tracking agency compliance with this new training mandate.

To our knowledge, there has been no evaluation of this new in-service training mandate over the past two years. Our sense is that few departments have used the millions of dollars of funding that the Legislature provided for training, and the training that is taking place is primarily provided by retired law enforcement officers as opposed to experts in conflict management, mental illness, and cultural diversity. For training funds to make a difference, their impact must be independently evaluated.

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  1. Establish a Critical Incident Review Board

Jillian Peterson
Jillian Peterson
Law enforcement agencies need to establish a Critical Incident Review Board consisting of both officers and community members to review cases involving officer-involved shootings and other serious use-of-force incidents that have the potential to damage community trust. Officer Chauvin’s previous use of force incidents should have been reviewed by a board that includes citizens, separate from criminal and administrative investigations. This is being done in other cities, to increase transparency and accountability. Domestic Fatality Review teams can be used as a model.

  1. Re-examine the Minnesota POST Board

The Minnesota legislature created The POST Board in 1967 to establish law enforcement licensing and training requirements, and set standards for law enforcement agencies and officers. As the Star Tribune showed in 2017, over the past two decades, hundreds of Minnesota law enforcement officers have been convicted of criminal offenses. However, most were never disciplined by the state because the POST Board has little authority. In the criminal complaint against Derek Chauvin, one of the officers is “worried about excited delirium or whatever.” Excited Delirium is not recognized by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, or the World Health Organization as a legitimate diagnosis. Yet it continues to be a POST learning objective required to be taught to all future Minnesota officers. Currently, 10 of the 15 seats on the Minnesota POST Board are held by law enforcement. It needs to be restructured, and independently evaluated.

  1. Change the use-of-force statute in Minnesota

Shelly Schaefer
Shelly Schaefer
Minnesota statute 609.066 outlines three conditions under which the use of deadly force by an officer is justified: to protect the officer or another person from death or great bodily harm, to capture someone who the officer believes has committed or attempted a felony involving or threatening deadly force, and to capture someone the officer believes will cause death or great bodily harm if the apprehension is delayed. In practice, the law boils down to a “subjective” perception about whether an individual officer felt threatened. If an officer “feels” threatened, regardless of whether or not they are, deadly force is justified. The wording of the law gives officers wide discretion and makes it difficult to prosecute and charge officers. It’s time to revise the law.

These recommendations are consistent with the recommendations of the Minnesota Working Group on Police-Involved Deadly Force Encounters and the 21st Century Task Force on Policing. We are calling on Minnesota to use these recommendations to help break this cycle. We must make meaningful evidence-based change that is continuously independently evaluated.

Gina Erickson, Sarah Greenman, Jillian Peterson, and Shelly Schaefer are associate professors of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University.

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