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The Minnesota Department of Human Rights is investigating the Minneapolis Police Department. How much can it do to change the MPD?

A police officer standing in front of a bus during a May 31 rally in Minneapolis.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
A police officer standing in front of a bus during a May 31 rally in Minneapolis.

After the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by Minneapolis Police officers last week and the days of protests that have followed, the state agency with the authority to enforce Minnesota’s Human Rights Act announced Tuesday it would investigate the Minneapolis Police Department.

In a charge filed this week by Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR), Commissioner Rebecca Lucero says Floyd’s death and others like it require investigation into whether MPD’s “training, policies, procedures, practices, including but not limited to use of force protocols, and any corresponding implementation, amounts to unlawful race-based policing, which deprives people of color, particularly Black community members, of their civil rights.”

This is not the first time MPD’s tactics have been called into question. If the investigation leads to reform efforts, that wouldn’t be the first time, either. In 2015, for example, a U.S. Department of Justice study determined the MPD’s early intervention program for police conduct needed to be overhauled.

But Lucero said unlike past efforts to bring about change, if a MDHR investigation found violations of the state’s human rights law, it would bring the power of the courts to enforce remedies.

“People have worked really hard in working groups, meeting with community to put together reports that have incredible suggestions, but without teeth behind them they can’t really move in a meaningful way,” Lucero said. “The reason why I have hope here is because this path forward provides teeth.”

Toward a consent decree

When the MDHR launches an investigation like Lucero announced this week, a team of investigators looks into documents, data and interviews to study policies, practices, systems and their implementation, said MDHR Deputy Commissioner Irina Vaynerman. MDHR has subpoena power.

“This investigation into policies, procedures, and practices over the past 10 years will determine if the MPD has engaged in systemic discriminatory practices towards people of color and ensure any such practices are stopped,” a statement announcing the investigation says.

Commissioner Rebecca Lucero
Commissioner Rebecca Lucero
Vaynerman said looking at training, policies, procedures and practices of MPD over the last 10 years is a wide enough span to look at patterns.

“We’re looking here at systems. This isn’t about an individual person,” Vaynerman said. Indeed, the last decade in Minneapolis spans three mayors and three police chiefs.

If the department finds discriminatory MPD actions that violate the Human Rights Act, Lucero said the goal would be to come to a consent decree, a court order that both parties have agreed to that remains under the supervision of the court. According to an MDHR statement, it will seek the city’s cooperation to instate interim measures immediately before seeking long-term measures “to address systemic discriminatory practices.”

“We are moving as quickly as we can to try to not just move forward with the investigation itself but see what steps we can take in the interim to connect with community and to really work with community leaders and city leadership to see if we can make any next steps,” Vaynerman said.

Of course, the consent part means both parties have to agree, but Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo signaled later Tuesday MPD is willing to work with the state.

“With the assistance of the State Human Rights Commission, we can take an honest examination at systemic barriers that have prevented us from reaching our greatest potential for those we serve,” he said in a statement, according to the Star Tribune.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told the Strib an agreement with the state may help overcome resistance to change he sees as coming from the powerful police union, headed by Lt. Bob Kroll.

Minneapolis Police Officer Federation President Bob Kroll
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Minneapolis Police Officer Federation President Bob Kroll
“For years in Minneapolis, police chiefs and elected officials committed to change have been thwarted by police union protections and laws that severely limit accountability among police departments,” Frey said.

Once a consent decree is in place, one or several court monitors — people who both parties have agreed will keep tabs on progress, are typically appointed to oversee the decree.

Vaynerman said it’s too early to say what a timeline could look like for the completion of the MDHR investigation. If an agreement is reached, consent decrees typically last for several years.

“Typically in these types of cases involving police departments, it’s several years with particular benchmarks, and those benchmarks help to keep folks accountable,” she said.

If the Minnesota Department of Human Rights finds human rights violations and the party they’re investigating does not agree to a consent decree, the MDHR has the power to file a lawsuit in court asking for the relief that would otherwise have been presented in a consent agreement, Vaynerman said.

A working solution?

Consent decrees have a decades-long history in the American Civil Rights movement. In the wake of 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, many school districts were under consent decrees to desegregate. Some still are.

More recently, they’ve been used to seek reform in police departments. Under the Obama administration, consent decrees were reached between police departments in cities including Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black teen named Michael Brown was shot dead by police, as well as in Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago.

Despite the court having the power to enforce consent decrees, some doubt their utility, and there’s little research on their effects, wrote John MacDonald, a professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Consent decrees often require new trainings for officers, new hiring and promotion criteria, internal review of police, and sometimes more extensive outside auditing of department data, MacDonald wrote, upgrading police departments’ standards. Whether that changes policing is less clear, he writes.

Brendan Roediger, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Law, said many of the reforms proposed in consent decrees designed to reform police departments are already done in Minneapolis, which he said many would consider a progressive department. These days, many activists are calling for less funding for police departments and fewer police, whereas consent decrees tend to bring more money to departments, Roediger said.

Besides, he said, enforcement of consent decrees has generally been lacking.

“The reality is that there’s no good example of a consent decree,” he said. In his view, Ferguson’s has meant a series of continuances in federal court “where the city says ‘we’re doing our best’ and the judge says ‘well, keep on trying,'” — something he says was true under the Obama administration and moreso now.

Others say despite their shortcomings, consent decrees, which can try to target police culture and not just policy, are the best tool for the kind of change many communities want to see in their police departments.

“Consent decrees are not perfect because there is no perfect mechanism for the kind of change that’s required,” Vanita Gupta, an acting assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Obama administration and currently president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told the Washington Post. “But they’re the best thing that exists.”

In a press conference in Minneapolis Wednesday, Rev. Al Sharpton, who will deliver the eulogy at George Floyd’s memorial service Thursday, criticized the Trump administration’s step away from consent decrees entered under the Obama administration.

“We need fundamental federal laws enforced. We started moving toward that with the consent decrees of the last administration. The first thing that happened with this administration is they canceled the consent decrees and they backed up on incremental steps. We’ve to go for the long steps now. And I think this case has given us the opportunity if we do not have premature jubilation on some arrest,” Sharpton said.

Civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton shown leading a prayer on May 28 at the site where George Floyd was killed.
REUTERS/Adam Bettcher
Civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton shown leading a prayer on May 28 at the site where George Floyd was killed.
Of course, a MDHR consent decree would differ from U.S. Justice Department-originated decrees in that it comes from the state and would be overseen by state, and not federal, courts.

Lucero said Wednesday she’s not naive to the difficulty of the work of bringing change, necessary, she said because of centuries of decisions that have created and sustain systemic discrimination.

“We know this is a really big challenge,” she said. “These systems are constantly fighting to keep moving forward as designed.”

But, Lucero said the moment feels different in Minnesota than it did before.

“There’s real alignment with community and policymakers and leaders in the city. There’s real shared values around this,” she said.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Ed Felien on 06/04/2020 - 11:54 am.

    There needs to be a full investigation of the homicide of Terrance Franklin by the Officers Durand and Peterson of the Mpls Tactical Sq / uad.

  2. Submitted by Richard Lentz on 06/04/2020 - 12:09 pm.

    The underlying problem is police culture, supported by the police union and police contracts. It is the way that Minneapolis police Department has become militaristic, the way It views all citizens – especially (but not only) black people and minorities —‘as adversaries, not people to protect and serve. The culture values support of colleagues and camaraderie to the degree that it does not allow compassion or common sense. How else can one explain three policemen standing by and doing nothing while George Floyd had no pulse? I have met Minneapolis policeman who are good people, with compassion, commonsense, who did not abide yes culture. I have met Minneapolis policeman who are good people, with compassion, commonsense, who did not abide yes culture. I suspect that Chief Arradondo is one of them. They will be powerless unless the culture changes. Consultants should look broadly for expertise in culture, particularly Police culture. What works? What does not work? And why? While qualified immunity has made sense in the past, that concept is broken and must be legally redressed.

  3. Submitted by Don Casey on 06/04/2020 - 12:37 pm.

    It is doubtful stare Human Rights personnel have the type of expertise necessary for the type of in-depth investigation needed. It would seem a intimate knowledge of police procedures and the type of challenges faced by officers would be essential. This isn’t a matter of determining whether a business owner has been unfair to an employee.

    It would seem to make more sense to establish a special panel of experts with backgrounds and experience in law enforcement – outside Minnesota. Look to sources like retired chefs with recognized records of effective enforcement and good community relations in metropolitan areas with large minority populations, FBI experts, perhaps academics who have worked with law enforcement agencies … .

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/04/2020 - 05:33 pm.

      I expect the Human Rights department is probably better suited than most cops. George Floyd’s murderers clearly don’t understand police procedure. The head of the Minneapolis police union is absolutely clueless. Police made the riots worse because they don’t know what they are doing.

      Minneapolis police are stupid and don’t know how to do their jobs. We need someone from the outside to teach them how to be actual cops.

    • Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/04/2020 - 11:28 pm.

      Nowhere in the US is policing done that well, in large part because police departments are always much more white, male, conservative and from military backgrounds than their communities. We need to look internationally for countties where police killings and police killed are both rare.

      What the military does best, armed combat with the goal of killing or capturing your adversary, is not the most important skill set for policing. Men resolve problems through power and force, while women as mothers want the best for people and to keep misguided youth out of trouble. Minority people also want to shield young people trouble, the worst fear of any minority parent. Those who powerful white men have victimized have more understanding and empathy.

  4. Submitted by lisa miller on 06/04/2020 - 12:51 pm.

    Roedieger is right–it is hard to enforce. The DOJ did have some oversight in the past and having a court sign off isn’t much–usually more people who don’t have a lot of direct know how agreeing to what looks like agreed upon changes.
    In terms of culture change, many of the cops are good people, yet like so many systems there is a view that if you make a mistake like Mr. Floyd you are the one who is less than, who is to be not believed; this is true even of good liberals–they have a drinking problem and its considered brave that they sought out treatment–they need to hire cops who are in it to help people not for the action and real interactive training and quality line supervisors who check in with their staff for starters.

  5. Submitted by tom kendrick on 06/04/2020 - 01:01 pm.

    The question I have is this: does this action by the MDHR and the consent decrees and all that – is this enough to fundamentally change the structure and the nature of the police department? Pardon my ignorance of consent decrees, but is the police union able to block any proposed changes?

    My belief is that if the police union is not ordered to make changes deemed by the MDHR to be very important, if the MPD is not fundamentally restructured this will change nothing. I do NOT want to be here again after the next police killing of a black man.

  6. Submitted by Peggy Rader on 06/04/2020 - 02:40 pm.

    The union runs the police department. Until
    Bob Kroll is gone and someone very different and committed to culture change heads that union nothing—no studies, no consent decrees, no public pressure—will do more than scrape the surface.

  7. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 06/04/2020 - 04:08 pm.

    I’m having a difficult time with this. Aren’t we a nation of laws, so how can the police be exempt?

    • Submitted by T.W. Day on 06/06/2020 - 08:35 am.

      We are almost as far from “a nation of laws” as civilizations can get. Police enforce the laws they want to enforce and prosecutors prosecute the easiest targets to prop up their conviction numbers. Meanwhile, the worst criminals wear suits and ties and rarely worry about the police.

  8. Submitted by Benjamin Osa on 06/04/2020 - 04:22 pm.

    Counsel President Lisa Bender on Twitter stated that defunding the MPD is going to happen and the Mayor does not have a say in the matter because they have at least 9 yes votes which would override any veto power by the Mayor.

    • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 06/04/2020 - 09:13 pm.

      Excellent. Let the 2040 comp plan people, along with the city council, figure out how to run a city without police.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/05/2020 - 08:25 am.

      Correct, and the only way change will happen.

      800 Members of the MPD and not one has come forward and express their revulsion for what fellow officers did.

      Not one has come forward and challenged Bob Kroll and his vision for what the MPD is and should be.

      Fire them all from a bankrupt department unable to fulfill their pensions: Racist, head knocking cops burned down the MPD just like the violent perpetrators burned down businesses this past week on Lake Street.

    • Submitted by Timothy Davison on 06/11/2020 - 08:38 am.

      The city charter says that the city WILL fund a police department and even specifies at what level. A Unanimous vote of the city council is not sufficient to override the charter. An amendment to the charter requires a vote by the Charter Commission and approval by the electorate. The nine members are pandering

  9. Submitted by T.W. Day on 06/06/2020 - 08:39 am.

    The “joke” I keep hearing from black and white friends these past weeks is, “You know why you never see a cop at a KKK rally? They’ve changed uniforms.” A top-to-bottom reform of our policing system will be required to fix any of this and there will be a lot of resistance because a real police department would be focusing on the worst crimes and most dangerous criminals and that work would be infinitely more dangerous than four cops piling on a non-resisting man who is just asking for decent treatment.

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