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How state and federal consent decrees could make way for broader scope of changes to Minneapolis policing

While city officials have openly resisted the idea of multiple consent decrees, some argue that could be the path to broader, more lasting changes to the embattled police department.

Minneapolis Police Department
REUTERS/Nicole Neri

The city of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) released a joint statement last week agreeing to return to negotiations for a consent decree following the state agency’s scathing report finding a pattern of racial discrimination in the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD) policing for at least a decade.

Talks were delayed in recent months over disputes in evidence laid out by the report, but in addition to the two parties agreeing to return to the table, they agreed on a way forward for how to address another potential consent decree that could come down from the U.S. Justice Department as federal investigators conduct their own probe into MPD.

While city officials have openly resisted the idea of multiple consent decrees, some argue that could be the path to broader, more lasting changes to the embattled police department.

The two investigations

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MDHR’s investigation into MPD, which began with the murder of George Floyd by ex-officer Derek Chauvin, culminated in a report released in April finding probable cause that the department engaged in a pattern of discriminatory policing. That included racial disparities in how officers used force and conducted traffic stops, use of social media accounts to surveil Black activists and organizations, and use of language that was racist, misogynistic and disrespectful.

Following the investigation, MDHR and the city of Minneapolis began the process of developing a consent decree, or a court-enforceable contract that would lay out the changes that would need to be made in MPD policies and a timeline for those changes. The city was initially cooperative but backed out of several meetings with human rights officials over disagreements related to the state agency’s findings and requests for more data.

After weeks of stalemate, state and city officials returned to the negotiating table last month, according to the joint statement of principles between the MDHR and the city. While the city still disputes some findings in the report, several meetings are scheduled for next month and the two parties hope to reach an agreement by this fall.

“Although the City does not agree with all of MDHR’s findings, it agrees that a number of MDHR’s findings raise important issues, and the City is committed to addressing those issues,” the document reads.

“For years, our Black and Brown residents have been telling us about the racism they face daily at the hands of the MPD,” said City Council President Andrea Jenkins in the statement. “I stand ready to work with all who are ready to fight for justice, equity and fair treatment for everyone. Most importantly, this includes continued collaboration and negotiation with the MDHR, and I am encouraged that we have reached a joint statement of principles agreement.”

As negotiations with MDHR continue, so does a federal investigation – launched a day after Chauvin was found guilty of murder last year – examining whether Minneapolis police have shown a pattern or practice of policing that is unlawful or unconstitutional. Federal investigators are looking into MPD’s use of force, including against protesters, its treatment of people suffering from behavioral health issues, its systems of accountability and whether officers have engaged in discriminatory policing.

Should the DOJ reach a consent decree with the city, MDHR and the city will modify their agreement to prevent any conflicting provisions within the two court orders.

More could be better

Georgetown Law professor and former Justice Department official Christy Lopez said it’s not uncommon for cities and even police departments to have multiple consent decrees in place for separate topics like housing or schools, or hiring practices. But, she said, it is rare for a single department to have multiple consent decrees focused on misconduct, citing another notable example in Cincinnati following the police killings of Jeffrey Irons and Roger Ownesby Jr. by Cincinnati officers in 2000.

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Lopez, who led the group within the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division that conducted similar investigations from 2010 to 2017, said multiple consent decrees negotiated by multiple plaintiffs — the federal government and private plaintiffs — was beneficial for Cincinnati because it allowed for a wider breadth in changes to be reflected in the agreements. In the case of Minneapolis, where both plaintiffs are government entities, that remains to be seen but it could work the same way.

“It has the potential to be an advantage because you have two sets of plaintiffs who can be helping to make sure that things are being implemented that can have a broader scope, and make sure that all of the things that need to change are changed,” she said. “And if they coordinate their efforts between each other and with the police department and city, I think it could have the potential to work quite well.”

Michelle Gross, of the local chapter of Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB), agreed that multiple consent decrees could end up doing more good, arguing that the scopes of the state and federal investigations aren’t the same and could therefore cover more ground in terms of changes to MPD’s policies.

“Department of Justice consent decrees, while valuable, tend to be a little bit more check-the-box and the MDHR one is going to be more about the culture of the department and things that are maybe a little less more quantifiable but equally important,” she said. “I think having two consent decrees will really broaden the scope of oversight of police in this city.”

Since the investigations were launched, Gross said her group has collected more than 2,300 accounts of Minneapolis residents’ experiences with police and relayed them to both state and federal investigators. 

Through their own work group, more than two dozen events and canvassers asking Minneapolis residents what changes they would like to see in MPD, CUAPB has also been working toward drafting its own “people’s consent decree,” emphasizing that the solutions need to come from the community.

Lopez said the state and federal agencies are the plaintiffs in the court orders that will come from the consent decree process, but it is their job to act as a conduit for the perspectives, rights and concerns for the public impacted by policing in Minneapolis.

“In the end, the purpose of these consent decrees are to eliminate the patterns of misconduct that are violating the rights of members of the public and members of the community,” Lopez said. “So I think that they should be centered in this process.”