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Police practices in a just society: The potential for real change is in the air

Many of us have done too little to find remedies that work. But there is hope and optimism that given the current dynamic, especially among our younger citizens, change will happen. 

Minneapolis Police Department officers detain a man
Minneapolis Police Department officers detaining a man during a May 31 protest.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Unlike many Minnesotans, I was not surprised when I saw a Minneapolis police officer acting with violence that resulted in an intentional homicide. Two decades of service as a Minnesota appellate judge has taught me that the Minneapolis Police Department harbors one of Minnesota’s most dysfunctional police forces. I observed this type of behavior in several Minneapolis criminal cases that came before our court. I anticipated I would see it again. 

I reviewed Minneapolis criminal cases with a heightened level of scrutiny in an effort to sort out improper conduct. I found that many Minneapolis police officers routinely acted unprofessionally and with impunity. They often used their power and authority in an arbitrary and capricious manner and exhibited racial bias. Excessive force was used with little fear of any consequence. This statement may seem unduly harsh. It is not. There is much evidence to support this judgment. Some of this evidence can be found in Supreme Court opinions I have written. 

A history of bad behavior

Minneapolis police have a history of bad behavior, especially when they interact with persons of color. They inordinately focus on communities of color, often with respect to status offenses and low-level drug offenses. When interacting with persons of color there is a pattern of elevated levels of engagement and violence that lead to an arrest and enhanced criminal charges. Excessive force is used when it lacks justification. Police reports I read indicate officers have been schooled on how to write reports to cover up or justify bad behavior. 

These policies and practices foster unwarranted assumptions and a policy of making quick arrests, putting persons in custody and taking them “downtown” with the premise that others will sort things out at the courthouse. A large number of arrests of persons of color, especially young males, results in a dismissal without any charge. This policy has a devastating impact. Having an arrest on one’s record can have collateral consequences for employment, housing, and educational opportunities. This problem and other problems are not problems caused by just a few bad apples; parts of the whole tree are diseased. Systemic reform is long overdue. 

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Unfortunately, many reports of bad police behavior are ignored, dismissed or suppressed. Some persons, including myself, have spoken out on this issue, but we have not done so with enough force and volume to overcome the forces and culture surrounding a police community that has stymied efforts to address this issue. The police want their transgressions kept quiet or minimized. For the most part they have succeeded. 

The good news is there are leaders in the city and the police department who see the need for reform and are committed to seeing that it happens. The tough question is how it will get done. The bad news is that past efforts to reform have been stymied by an embedded culture that defends the status quo. This culture gets much support from a union that is adept at using existing laws, policies and practices to protect current policies and practices. Some citizens and “civic groups” have been nurtured by the police and the union to assist them in this effort. These forces still exist and are robust. They will need to be dealt with in a forthright and firm manner. 

Needed reforms

Among the reforms that are needed are the arbitration of police misconduct, police union leadership and residency. Too few Minneapolis police officers live in the city. The vast majority of officers come to the city to work and retreat to the suburbs when their shift ends. There is a need for officers who are more directly invested in the city; otherwise it can easily be viewed as an alien occupying force similar to the police in Ferguson, Missouri, or our troops charged with keeping the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under the current system of arbitration, it is almost impossible to discipline or terminate an officer for bad behavior. The police union and its minions have gained control over this system and have manipulated it to protect police officers who should be disciplined or terminated. One of my greatest frustrations on the court was an inability to properly review and reverse arbitration cases when they were clearly wrong. Astute observers have for many years written about this problem. The Legislature must address the arbitration issue.

The power of the union must be curtailed

The police union is a major part of the police accountability problem. The union is good at protecting the worst of the worst. Many parties have pointed out the union’s dysfunctional role. At least two former chiefs of police have told the current chief he has lost control to the union. The chief, elected officials and citizens need to be empowered to regain control of the department. For this to happen, the power of the union must be curtailed. Much of the union reform must come from the current members of the police force, the majority of whom are good, conscientious officers who want to do the right thing. These good officers must come to understand that current union policies and practices protect a systemic culture of bad behavior, hurt them, and put their best interests at risk. Job protection and an attitude of but for the grace of our God go I are part of the rationale lying behind support for the union. This view is flawed. 

Retired Justice Paul H. Anderson
mncourts.gov
Retired Justice Paul H. Anderson
An officer only needs to look at the mug shots of former officers Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, contemplate their ruined lives and visualize Chauvin confined in a 6 x 10-foot cell at the Oak Park Heights prison to see my point. Protecting and covering up multiple instances of bad behavior — 18 complaints in the case of Officer Chauvin — allows that behavior to continue. It has had tragic results for George Floyd and has ruined the lives of four officers. By reforming their union, Minneapolis police officers will not only act to protect their own future best interests but at the same time act to protect the best interests of the citizens of Minneapolis. 

Gov. Tim Walz has shown leadership by initiating a review of the Minneapolis police activity. This review will find that much needs to be changed. The courts also need to be more involved. We have a good Minnesota Supreme Court. Yet, as a former member of that court, I know it can do much better. The court’s 1993 Racial Bias Task Force report identified many problems, some of which have been addressed, like bail reform, better court interpreters and better education of judges. But the report is woefully out of date. Former Justice Alan Page and I worked very hard to get a follow-up report off the ground, but for reasons I will not get into here, it was not done. Current efforts are diluted and lack sufficient resources to do the job. The court needs to create a new task force with an expanded mandate that includes review of police practices. The court needs to act quickly to design an action plan and implement it. 

Being a peace officer is a tough job, made all the more difficult by our lax attitude toward guns and a willingness to ignore mental health problems that cause many people to act erratically and unpredictably when they interact with the police. The police are on the front lines when dealing with these social problems. Our society must act to reduce these aggravating circumstances. In the near term, this is the environment we must live with. It does not make a tough situation any better when we protect police misconduct. 

Many of us have done too little

A larger issue has been much on my mind of late, an issue that needs to be addressed by those of us who are members of the current majority class of Americans — white America. People like me are an essential part of any solution. We must work to level the playing field in America so that all citizens are treated equally, irrespective of the color of their skin, national origin or gender. Our founders believed that the pursuit of happiness requires our government to provide the maximum opportunity for the maximum number of our citizens to achieve happiness. Recent events have shown that we have failed to fulfill this mandate.

Currently we are not a happy society. Many of us have done too little to find remedies that work. But there is hope and optimism that given the current dynamic, especially among our younger citizens, change will happen. 

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We need to engage in the type of introspection that looks into the depths of our souls and the soul of our country. We need to seek a better understanding and appreciation of who we are as a people and a country and that we share a common humanity irrespective of skin color, creed or ethnic origin. We must commit ourselves to making a more just society, a safer society where we have trust and confidence in those we empower to keep us safe. To pursue happiness, we need a society where every mother and father can go to bed at night without worrying about the safety of their children at the hands of the police.

That society does not exist today, but the potential for real change is in the air. If we commit ourselves to work together to make it happen, it will happen.

Paul H. Anderson is a retired justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

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