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Police reform: Minnesota’s leaders need to think bigger

Minneapolis Police Department, 1st Precinct, downtown Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Minneapolis Police Department, 1st Precinct, downtown Minneapolis

Since the four officers involved with George Floyd’s death have been charged, the court of public opinion must now allow a court of law to do its job. As we wait for that to occur, Minnesota’s elected leaders must ask hard questions of ongoing racism within our criminal justice system.

Blaming Floyd’s death solely on systemic racism within the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), however, is too easy and it ignores a number of problems that haven’t been brought to the public’s attention. Threatening to disband the department is also not realistic, practical, or wise, and it only serves as a distraction to real reform. But it does prompt a legitimate question: Why haven’t previous reforms resolved the problems we all watched?

Minnesota’s leaders need to think bigger. The governor has launched a human rights investigation into the MPD, but that does not go far enough. We also need a nonpartisan commission that specifically focuses on who we have leading our police departments. Specifically, I am suggesting that if state leaders are going to look at racism within the departments, then they should take a hard look at whether chiefs of police and their command staffs are competent to run these organizations.

State leaders and policymakers will be shocked to learn that many chiefs throughout the state have perpetuated the crimes they now condemn. I have had several people in Minneapolis’ command staff privately admit to me they have physically assaulted suspects in custody. One even admitted that he had participated in “gay bashing” as a young officer. Another even apologized for his past conduct of beating up suspects.

As it relates to the MPD, the failure for reforms to take hold should not come as a surprise when the department’s last three police chiefs and their entire command staffs have come up through the ranks.

A stifling of reform and integrity

But it isn’t just perpetuating violence that is an issue for some of its leaders, it is the stifling of reform and integrity within the MPD. Most people do not understand that police departments are paramilitary organizations, and officers are ordered to follow the chain of command. The chain of command is sacrosanct, and it prevents young officers from challenging the authority of superior officers. This type of thinking may seem foreign and archaic to outsiders, but this is how all police departments run, and it may partially explain why three junior officers could not convince a superior officer to provide medical treatment to a man gasping for air and calling out for his mother in his final dying words.

Patrick Burns
Patrick Burns
In representing whistleblowers I have seen evidence where chiefs have ignored very serious problems by invoking the chain of command. The Metro Gang Strike Force is one example. All of the chiefs from the various cities who made up the MGSF knew about the problems that existed within the organization — but they did little to solve the problems. When those issues became public, rather than accepting responsibility, police chiefs allowed rank and file officers to take the blame for their malfeasance.

Similarly, many police departments have created a culture where they fail to promote officers who demonstrate the integrity and honesty we so desperately need. Critics have charged that systemic racism exists within the MPD, but they are not aware of the extraordinary heroism that some officers have displayed. In one instance, two MPD officers discovered that an African-American may have been wrongfully convicted of murder. These officers went to extraordinary lengths to exonerate the man so he didn’t spend the rest of his life in prison. Rather than promoting these officers for setting an innocent man free, the MPD’s command staff sought to tarnish their reputations and careers.

Code of silence?

Some believe that a code of silence still exists within today’s police departments, even though MPD’s discipline policies make it clear that lying on behalf of another officer will result in immediate termination. If it does exist, that code lives strongest in the chief’s office and among the command staff.

I have seen evidence where chiefs cover up for each other’s serious misdeeds, ignore lies, and refuse to stop subordinates from destroying the careers of honorable officers. In one brazen incident, a member of a suburban police department’s command staff was found by a judge to have engaged in illegal discrimination. Rather than disciplining or removing this individual from his command staff, the chief openly acknowledged that he did nothing.

As rage turns to reason, which it will, state leaders may reach an easy conclusion: Too many chiefs are not qualified to run the departments they operate, and it may be time to change Minnesota law that will allow civilians to run police organizations. It has worked very effectively for our U.S. Department of Defense; certainly it can work for our police departments.

Patrick Burns is a practicing attorney in the Twin Cities, and has litigated a number of whistleblower cases involving the MPD. He also serves as the president of the Epilepsy Foundation.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/24/2020 - 09:39 am.

    One month post George Floyd and we have Bob Kroll and the federation almost to the point of faulting Derek Chauvin; but claiming they really need to see the police cam video to be sure.

    Watching a man die live over 8 minutes as the life drains out of him is apparently not enough. Kroll spent more time complaining about their right to the police video than acknowledging their may be a problem.

    And he also spent more time blaming city leaders than accepting any responsibility or acknowledging their may be a problem.

    And the simple fact that one month later the rank and file have not seen fit to move to remove Kroll tells us all we need to know: these folks can’t be retrained or reformed. They will nod their heads on the way to a new contract and nothing substantial will change. It’s simply not in their DNA.

    Last Fall I had a chance to speak to a couple of Hennepin County deputies about their new Sheriff and they had only good things to say. I know, a sample size of 2, but their leader is elected by the people and must stand for re-election. Disband the MPD through a process that contracts with Hennepin County to provide policing services.

    Obviously they are in no way currently staffed up for such a challenge: allow current MPD to apply to the Sheriff, provide the Sheriff with the cars, equipment, etc… owned by the MPD and start over, picking MPD members who are assets going forward and letting Kroll and the other racist head knockers go.

    Only by weeding out and removing substantial numbers within the MPD will change occur. Invalidating the union contract and dissolving the MPD is the only way this can be achieved.

    And this will never happen because the egos of the Mayor, Council and MPD leadership will be self-protected from such an admission of abject failure and the need for a total restart.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/24/2020 - 09:48 am.

      “And this will never happen because the egos of the Mayor, Council and MPD leadership will be self-protected from such an admission of abject failure and the need for a total restart”

      I should have stated that better.

      It is the universal reluctance of one elected official to cede lasting power and authority to another. These public jobs do not attract candidates through offering lucrative financial gain: they attract candidates because of the power and recognition associated with the office.

      Voluntarily diminishing that power and recognition goes against every fiber of their being…

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/24/2020 - 09:43 am.

    For what it’s worth from an old white guy, I very much like the idea of civilian leadership and control of police departments – not just in Minneapolis, though the application there certainly seems worthwhile – but in Minnesota cities in general. Actually, I’d like to see it installed in every city in the country. Mr. Burns is absolutely correct, in my estimation, in characterizing the vast majority of police departments as paramilitary organizations, and in those kinds of organizations, rule #1 is to “follow orders,” whether those orders are discriminatory, benign, legal or illegal, innocent or criminal.

    “Keeping the peace” is one thing, and an idea that most citizens of whatever ethnicity can support. “Maintaining order” is a different philosophical ball game. I’d personally like to see a lot more emphasis by the police on the former, and a lot less emphasis on the latter, which – too easily – encourages the sort of authoritarian response we saw to the protests over George Floyd’s murder. The use of tear gas to disperse a crowd is, I’ve read, illegal, yet it’s commonly used. Rubber bullets are not harmless, as a blinded reporter can attest to. “Warrior training” for police work seems to me not just misplaced, but encourages aggressive and hostile responses from the police that are detrimental to the kind of social order we want to maintain in the first place.

    “Thinking big,” I’ve read, used to be a fairly common Minnesota trait, and civilian command and control of the police seems (to me) an idea worth not just talking about, or arguing over in the MinnPost comments, but trying out in real cities, in real situations, to see what differences is might make. Given what we;ve seen with George Floyd and far too many others since I moved here 11 years ago, my suspicion is that the results would not be worse for ordinary citizens, and might well be better. In today’s authoritarian political climate, it’s an innovative idea, and we should give it a try.

  3. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 06/24/2020 - 11:33 am.

    It’s an excellent idea and consistent with the private data I saw from complaints investigated by the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority several years ago when I was Board Chair. Police management did not act as executives of other organizations would: protecting the integrity of their mission, ensuring their employees reflected well on the organization, or considering longer-term questions of improving community reputation and support. Instead they seemed entirely focused on controlling messaging (including the information about employee misdeeds — keeping it private by not taking disciplinary steps), which appeared disturbingly parallel with the training officers receive about imposing control (e.g. at a scene, on an arrestee). This led me to similar conclusions as this author about the need to change the norm that leadership credentials are earned by having been a street officer and promoted. Working patrol or supervising a unit is not sufficient training for leading an organization that needs to maintain a community mission focus. Ideally, the Mpls City Council will address this in the restructure they envision.

  4. Submitted by lisa miller on 06/24/2020 - 12:12 pm.

    Again, people in power overlook the role of the mayor and city council who have oversight. Within 48 hours of the killing of George Floyd, the mayor, city council and a judge were able to have the choke hold removed from the policies. So why wasn’t this done sooner? Why does the city council, mayor and state fail to enforce past recommendations on reform? Arradondo some years ago made recommendations for change. And now the city council has contracted the Minneapolis Foundation to look at how to make changes–again isn’t this their job?

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/24/2020 - 12:38 pm.

    I think we have a convergence of several problems here, and we’re not going to make any real progress without addressing ALL of them.

    Racism is of course a old and deeply ingrained issue among law enforcement and that goes back almost a 100 years to construction of Jim Crow and the Black Codes. Black Codes created a template for “policing” that extended far beyond their Southern origins and remains rooted in may mentalities today. Killing a man for selling cigarettes is 21st century Black Codes in action pure and simple. Until this mentality and mode of policing is recognized and eradicated it will continue to promote brutality.

    Ray points out another problem that has been festering for decades, and that’s the loss of civilian control. In theory, all of our law enforcement must submit to civilian control but for a variety of reasons our politicians have increasingly surrendered that control over the decades. Even the establishment of civilian review boards has become an exercise in absurdity to the extent they even still exist. When we talk about “disbanding” police forces we should bear in mind that this about breaking them down to the ground and starting over with different chains of command and command structures, not sending everyone home and abandoning the precincts until a “new” force is created. But you don’t give people lethal weapons and permission to kill, and expect them to discipline themselves, that’s just common sense.

    The last (and I’m not saying these are the ONLY issues) issue that I’ll discuss is the change in the general approach and nature of the law enforcement mission that began in the 1980’s and was severely accelerated during the Clinton years in the 90’s.

    Anyone who’s familiar with the Honeywell Project demonstrations in the 70s and 80s, or any other demonstrations such as the one night occupation of Hennepin and Lake protesting alleged plans to invade Honduras (1983 or 84 maybe?), can tell you that we’ve seen a distinct and explicit transformation. I have photos of Tony Bouza and MPLS mayor watching the occupiers of Lake and Hennepin, and the line of police they had assembled to clear the demonstrators. All you have to do is compare that scene to the scene just a little over a decade later when police descended upon Earth First! and Native Americans protesting the Hiawatha Reroute. Likewise compare the police who arrested Honeywell Project demonstrators for trespassing in the early 80’s with those who surrounded and attacked demonstrators during the biotech conference in 2000. And of course there’s always the 2008 Republican convention.

    Bouza’s cops (about 30 of them) were wearing short sleeve shirts, helmets, and they had those riot sticks. Bouza and the mayor (Bob Frasier maybe?) decided to call it night and leave the intersection to the demonstrators. All but 6 or 8 cops went home and in the morning the intersection was clear for traffic with no damage in sight. No tear gas, no mace, no tasers, no “rubber” bullets, no arrests. And I’ll you didn’t even know this ever happened, THAT’S how “serious” it was.

    More adept historians that myself will have to flesh this out but somehow by the time we get to the late 90’s cops are confronting the same kinds of demonstrators with hundreds of dollars worth of equipment, and they’ve adopted military encirclement tactics. In the 80’s and before it was: “disperse and go home or wherever” by the time we get the late 90’s they’re encircling, making dispersal impossible, and then arresting people for failing to disperse.

    By the time we get the year 2010 it’s not just riot control but ordinary patrolling that’s become militarized. Cops are trained to see threats everywhere and shoot first and ask questions later because they’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6. Accountability completely disintegrated.

    I don’t know how this all happened precisely, maybe a nation at war for 20 years is bound to end up with warrior police? But we watched it happen, and did nothing. Some of us tried to raise the alarm but who listens to Anarchists?

    All we can say now is that we need to do WHATEVER we need to do fix this, and we can’t fix one part of it without fixing the others. Mr. Burns is absolutely correct, we need to think big here, it’s not about a few bad eggs, or a little sensitivity training.

  6. Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/24/2020 - 01:33 pm.

    I’m sure after 50 years of Democratic control, the DFL will come up with a solution for Minneapolis. It sometimes takes a bit to figure out what will work. Sadly the same folks who allowed the police department to be filled with systematic racism (over the past 50 years), are expected to fix it…. Should be interesting to see.

    • Submitted by Michael Friedman on 06/24/2020 - 03:41 pm.

      I thought MinnPost vetted comments and didn’t allow Krolling?

    • Submitted by Richard Owens on 06/24/2020 - 03:49 pm.

      Joe– You repeat the thing about Democrats and “city problems” we hear frequently from your (R)s.

      Why do you think voters overwhelmingly elect Democratic mayors in America’s greatest cities?

      Do Republicans actually WANT to engage in big city government?

      From London to Los Angeles to Miami to New York (and Houston to Dallas to Austin even in Red state Texas) voters continue to overwhelmingly elect progressive mayors.

      Why are they rejecting all the benefits of “conservatism”?

      Are the voters in these cities misinformed or do you think they simply choose the wrong solution for themselves?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/24/2020 - 03:50 pm.

      Joe, we’re talking about an ongoing nationwide problem that’s been around for decades. Yeah, both parties have failed here, and those failures are nationwide and go back decades and decades.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/24/2020 - 05:45 pm.

      We know the answer – get rid of the Republicans running the police union. Get rid of the outstate Republicans blocking any meaningful changes.

  7. Submitted by Orville H. Larson on 06/24/2020 - 02:25 pm.

    My compliments to Patrick Burns on his insights regarding police leadership.

    Police chiefs, truth be told, are little more than bureaucratic hacks. They like their high-paid gigs, and they don’t want to attract controversy. Chiefs don’t like disciplining cops, because they probably committed the same abuses themselves.

    Burns is right. There should be civilian leadership of police departments. Give them the authority to kick ass and take names.

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