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Police reform: 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.

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

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.

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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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