How could George Floyd’s death and the destruction of Lake Street have been avoided? What went wrong during that critical time in 2020, and who should Minneapolis hold accountable for it? What could or should happen the next time there is civil unrest following a police-involved death?
Minneapolis voters could have had the answers to these critically important questions before the Nov. 2 city elections. They do not, however, because they still do not have a comprehensive, independent after-action report.
This is the story of how the after-action report on my and the city’s response to the 2015 occupation of the Fourth Police Precinct grounds after the death of Jamar Clark at the hands of Officers Dustin Schwarze and Mark Ringgenberg came to be. This is also me asking the questions: Why didn’t Mayor Jacob Frey insist on an after-action report of his own as soon as possible after the death of George Floyd, and why is it that Minneapolis voters still don’t have it before the election next week so they can be fully informed when they vote for mayor?
In the late winter of 2015-2016 I was in a quandary. There had been an 18-day occupation of the Fourth Police Precinct grounds. My team and I had tried to respond to the crisis in a new way, allowing the occupation to continue and negotiating a peaceful ending rather than immediately sending in cops in protective gear to arrest a huge group of people. When a negotiated ending wasn’t possible, we tried to show, not just tell, why we were going to have to end the occupation. In the end, six people were arrested and the city did not burn.
Minneapolis’ right-leaning constituencies, most notably the large business community, were angry that I had let the occupation continue at all rather than simply arresting everyone and calling it a day. I had explained to them that that would likely have resulted in widespread property damage and destruction, but their criticism ran on unabated. They were shifting their ambient lack of support into more active work to oppose me and my agenda. They were aided and abetted by the Star Tribune, owned by their conservative business colleague Glen Taylor.
I had also lost a great deal of political support from the left because of the way I used my role as the head of the chain of command of the police department in a city whose charter made that role my sole responsibility. They expressed anger that I hadn’t joined them to protest, and that I had not been able to prevent the police from using aggressive crowd-control tactics in moments when tensions were highest. They also expressed anger that I had eventually ended the occupation as peacefully as I could after it became clear that a negotiated ending was not possible.
I was taking heat for my response from the right, the left and others. Some were telling me I had done a terrible job and should resign or should be fired by the voters. The echo chamber was played out consistently on social media and in the Star Tribune’s editorial page and reporting.
While I was watching the flotsam and jetsam of my professional life wash up onto shore, my own assessment of my performance included the following: The city had not burned down, which had been my explicit and stated goal.
I was tempted to dig in defensively and leave it at that.
But I knew that I didn’t really know how the city and I had performed.
I understood that my personal opinion of the situation didn’t matter much, except to me. I could see that it was important to the city to have transparency, to have openness, to have a picture of what our actual internal process and response had been rather than what they could glean from the outside looking in.
As a result, I asked the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to do an assessment of our response. This is why in March 2017 — 15 months after Jamar Clark was killed, and long before the municipal elections of November 2017 — the people of Minneapolis had an after-action report in their hands. It provided a very detailed timeline of the events of those 18 days, an assessment of where our response could have improved and plaudits for where we had done a good job.
When I look at the report now, almost six years after the events, I can hear both the critiques and the praise. I could have communicated more and more regularly with my constituents. The Police Department and I could have handled the clearing of the precinct’s vestibule differently. Other criticisms in the report are factually incorrect. But overall — and especially given that we were doing something that no city or mayor had done before by applying the tactics of 21st-century policing and trying our best to negotiate, not police, our way out of the crisis, and that the city didn’t burn as we did it — to my eyes the report says we did a pretty good job.
But here’s the thing: I don’t need you to agree with my assessment of the report. I don’t need you to agree with the report itself. The point is this: That report exists for you to react to. Furthermore, I volunteered for it, even knowing I likely wouldn’t agree with all of it. The city needed it for its own healing and progress, so we would not just move on and pretend nothing happened. I needed it for myself as a leader to learn from. And certainly, voters needed and deserved it before the next election.
If I had been mayor when George Floyd was killed and Minneapolis burned, I would have wanted to know as quickly as possible: Was there misconduct by police officers or state troopers? Excessive force? Violations of law? Violations of city or state policy by sworn officers? Did the actions of officers protect people or exacerbate conflict? When officers went “hunting” down Lake Street and fired plastic rounds from an unmarked van, were they disobeying or following orders? From whom?
Most of all, as mayor I would know and would convey to the best of my ability: Has there been any accountability for any of these actions? And where could I have done better?
But I was not mayor then; Jacob Frey was. So now, I am mystified. By the time of this year’s city election on Nov. 2, 17 months and eight days will have passed and the voting public still will not have in their hands an after-action report related to the civil unrest and fires that followed Floyd’s murder. Understandably, the city could not ask the Trump administration’s DOJ for an after-action report. But other options existed then, exist now, and the Biden administration has been in office for over nine months to assist. In place of having any independent document to react to, Minneapolis voters instead have only the motivated communications of political campaigns.
Also egregious is that the lack of answers is making all of Minneapolis look even worse on every stage — local, statewide, national and international. The eyes of the world are upon Minneapolis, understandably and deservedly so. Voters in Minneapolis and people around the world are questioning the conduct of city employees all the way up the chain of command to the mayor.
Here it’s important to remind people once again that in Minneapolis’ current system of governance, the mayor has sole authority and oversight of the Police Department and is at the top of the chain of command. Put another way, when it comes to the Police Department, Minneapolis already has a “strong mayor” system of government. So the failure to provide a timely after-action report is, like the Police Department itself, the mayor’s responsibility. I knew that when I was mayor, which is why I was the one who asked for — and got — an after-action report.
The current mayor’s failure to provide voters a timely after-action report — of the kind they had before the election four years ago and had a right to expect in advance of this year’s election less than two weeks from now — is not a small oversight: It is a major blow to transparency and accountability after the worst calamity to hit Minneapolis in decades. The implications of the lack of this report 17 months after this calamity could have profound effects on Minneapolis’ future, including on what happens the next time there is civil unrest after a police-involved death if there has been no after-action report of the last time, no lessons learned from it and no one held accountable because of it. Voters should take that into consideration when they assess their vote for mayor.
Betsy Hodges was the 47th mayor of Minneapolis. She writes from Washington, D.C.