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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?

The investigation will seek to determine if MPD policies or training lead to race-based discrimination. If so, the state can require changes, enforceable through the courts.

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

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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.