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Court-enforceable police reform is coming to Minneapolis. How did we get here?

A refresher on the city’s long journey to a settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the federal investigation into its policing practices, likely to result in a consent decree.

Body camera footage from a Minneapolis police officer taken during the serving of a no-knock warrant Thursday morning.
Body camera footage from a Minneapolis police officer taken during the serving of a no-knock warrant.
Screen shot/City of Minneapolis

This story originally published on March 31, 2023. It was last updated at 12:15 p.m. on June 16.

Fourteen months ago, investigators with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights issued a blistering report on the Minneapolis Police Department.

The 72-page document confirmed what many Minneapolis residents already suspected: The city’s police department used harsher tactics against people of color and Indigenous individuals than they did against their white neighbors.

To many critics, the names of Black men killed by MPD officers — including Terrence Franklin, Jamar Clark and George Floyd— were only the most high-profile examples of this pattern. The state’s report did note that all but one of the people killed by MPD officers between 2010 and February 2022 have been men of color.

But the bulk of the state’s report focused on painting a stark picture of day-to-day policing in Minneapolis.

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“What pains me in this is that we needed a report to validate what Black people have been saying for decades,” said Saray Garnett-Hochuli, who is Black and led the city’s Department of Regulatory Services, at a city press conference after the report’s release in April 2022.

The report laid the groundwork for a settlement between the state and Minneapolis: an agreement to enact reforms to MPD, on a specific timeline, under supervision of a court. The Mayor, City Council and state’s Human Rights Commissioner signed off on that deal in late March.

RELATED: What you need to know about Minneapolis’ court-enforceable police reform agreement with the state

Meanwhile, federal investigators with the Department of Justice have been conducting their own, parallel investigation into Minneapolis’ policing practices.

On Friday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the results of that investigation, confirming what many officials at the city and state level have long suspected: that a layer of federal oversight — in the form of an agreement called a “consent decree” — is on its way too.

RELATED: DOJ finds Minneapolis Police violated Constitution; federal laws in pattern of discrimatory policing

Here’s a rundown of Minneapolis’ long road to court-enforceable police reforms:

June 2020: Floyd’s death triggers investigation & immediate changes

Less than one week after MPD officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) opened an investigation into whether MPD was engaged in racially discriminatory policing.

Two weeks later, at MDHR’s request, a Hennepin County court issued an order that required MPD to begin taking five immediate actions:

  • Ban officers’ use of neck restraints, commonly known as “chokeholds”
  • Require the chief’s permission to use crowd control weapons — like chemical agents, rubber bullets, flash-bangs, batons or marking rounds.
  • Speed up the discipline process against officers accused of misconduct
  • Implement an audit process for all footage from officers’ body-worn cameras
  • Bolster officers’ duty to intervene when they see a colleague using force without authorization, even if that colleague is their superior

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As the city began these initial steps — all of which were completed by August — MDHR investigators began what would be a two-year long investigation of MPD.

The inquiry was wide-ranging, involving some 700 hours of bodycam footage, 480,000 pages of records and use of force data from the previous decade. Investigators also completed multiple ride-alongs with officers, sought community input and crunched their data with the help of national police experts and a criminologist from the University of Pennsylvania.

Fall 2020: New limits on force, no-knock warrants?

As the investigation played out over the ensuing months — and with widespread anticipation that court-enforced reforms were on the way — MPD and city leaders began rolling out a series of policy changes.

The earliest reforms were aimed at limiting officers’ ability to use deadly force. In September 2020, the department instructed officers to use de-escalation techniques and tightened MPD policy to require officers to “consider all reasonable alternatives to deadly force and use the minimum level of force needed.”

In November 2020, MPD also announced new limits on no-knock warrants — restrictions that Mayor Jacob Frey would later describe as a “ban” or “moratorium.” (MPD’s subsequent killing of Amir Locke showed that, in practice, police could still execute “unannounced” search warrants under department policy, as MinnPost reported).

April 2021: Federal investigation begins

Since the mid-90’s, federal investigators have commonly used sweeping discrimination investigations — not unlike the MDHR’s inquiry in Minneapolis — as a tool to hold law enforcement agencies accountable in the wake of high-profile misconduct cases.

The Justice Department launched these so-called “pattern or practice” investigations in police departments in big cities — like Baltimore, New Orleans or Seattle — and smaller towns or suburbs — like Ferguson, Missouri, or Missoula, Montana.

During former President Donald Trump’s term in office, the Justice Department held back on opening an investigation into MPD.

However, after President Joe Biden’s inauguration — and one day after a jury convicted Chauvin of Floyd’s murder — Attorney General Merrick Garland announced an investigation that would “assess whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force.”

Garland’s announcement said the inquiry would not only assess issues of racial discrimination in policing: The federal investigation would also examine whether officers violated the First Amendment rights of protestors or journalists and individuals’ rights under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Throughout 2021: More policy changes

Minneapolis leaders continued to roll out policy changes, announcing that MPD officers would stop pulling over drivers for minor violations like expired tabs or broken license plate lights. MPD also instituted new prohibitions against officers turning off their bodycams. 

April 2022: Two-year investigation concludes

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On April 27, 2022, state investigators published their final report, concluding that MPD had “engaged in a pattern or practice of race discrimination” — especially, though not exclusively, in how officers policed Black residents.

In recent years, the state’s team found that — in a city where 19% of residents are Black:

  • Black people were involved in 63% of the cases where MPD officers used force. An expert-led review of body camera footage showed that officers were less likely to use force against white individuals than Black individuals in circumstances. Specifically, officers were almost twice as likely to use a neck restraint against a Black person than a white individual.
  • A little more than half of MPD’s traffic stops involved Black drivers. The vast majority of the searches, tickets and arrests that stemmed from these traffic stops involved Black individuals. Tellingly, investigators found officers were less likely to stop drivers of color just after sunset — when it becomes harder to ascertain the race of the driver.
  • Black individuals received 66% of MPD’s citations for disorderly conduct or obstruction. In the report, a “high-level” police leader described these as charges officers often used to arrest individuals “for things that could fall under the category, arguably, of pissing off the police.”
  • During these low-level incidents, MPD officers were more likely to use chemical irritants, like mace, against Black individuals than similar cases involving white people. The report noted that officers who used this tactic often escalated their encounters with Black men.

The report also concluded that MPD officers were too quick to use force, regardless of the race of the other person in the interaction. In a review of 300 use-of-force files, experts found that officers failed to de-escalate in 56.8% of cases, and “improperly escalated” in another 32.7% of cases.

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But the MDHR’s findings went beyond the numbers:

  • Despite officially banning “warrior style” training years earlier, investigators concluded MPD essentially continued to teach a “paramilitary” approach to policing, which led to unnecessary escalation — and “exacerbated a pattern of race-based policing.”
  • MPD lacked a “meaningful independent review process” for misconduct cases, with too close a relationship between the city’s civilian-led investigative arm and the police department’s Internal Affairs Unit. An oversight commission meant to bring community members’ voices into the process lacked resources and was frequently stonewalled by MPD and the city, investigators said.
  • MPD officers and supervisors used racial slurs about community members of color, and also about Black MPD colleagues, according to bodycam footage investigators reviewed. The video footage also captured misogynistic remarks about women.

At a news conference, Frey said the report’s contents “made me sick to my stomach and outraged.” The mayor also said the city was “open” to a court-enforceable agreement spelling out further reforms to be rolled out under court-monitored supervision.

“I feel this conviction to my core right now to make these changes,” the mayor added.

Meanwhile, MPD continued its drumbeat of policy changes, announcing a new ban on “all” no-knock warrants, though officers could still enter without announcing their presence in certain “exigent circumstances.”

Spring 2022: Rocky early talks

A disagreement over one of the MDHR’s findings led to snags in early talks.

State investigators had concluded that MPD officers “used covert social media to surveil Black individuals and Black organizations, unrelated to criminal activity.”

In May 2022, the city skipped several negotiation sessions with MDHR over concerns it could not “independently verify” this claim, according to the Star Tribune. The city wanted the state to share more evidence; MDHR argued the city had all the evidence it needed, and that sharing more could “reveal confidential sources.”

This stalemate delayed talks for several weeks.

July 2022: City, MDHR begin work on a settlement

Two-and-a-half months after the state’s report came out, MDHR and city leaders signed an agreement to begin work on a settlement that would enact reforms to the police department.

The reforms would “ensure non-discriminatory policing” in Minneapolis, according to a joint statement signed by both the mayor, City Council president Andrea Jenkins and MDHR commissioner Rebecca Lucero.

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

While the document was mostly a framework for future talks, it did include a formal agreement on a key substantive point: Hoping to avoid a muddle between the two settlements, Minneapolis and MDHR leaders agreed that, if the feds enter into a consent decree with the city, the state would amend its settlement to ensure the two did not conflict.

They also agreed to use the same court-appointed monitor, who would oversee compliance with both settlements.

The announcement of these discussions came just weeks after the city hired its first ever Commissioner of Community Safety, Cedric Alexander, who would oversee MPD and other existing public safety agencies — along with a new office that would explore other ways to keep neighborhoods safe without involving police.

September 2022: Minneapolis announces pick for new police chief

Frey nominated Brian O’Hara — then a deputy mayor in Newark, N.J. — to succeed retired MPD chief Medaria Arradondo.

In announcing his pick, the mayor cited O’Hara’s experience instituting a consent decree in that city — “which is obviously a route that we are in the process of going down.”

March 2023: Preparing for settlements, MPD announces administrative changes

In early March, O’Hara briefed City Council members on a series of proposed changes to the police department’s organizational hierarchy — with some changes taking effect immediately, and others taking effect later.

One immediate change: creating a new assistant chief position who would oversee the parts of the department “that work to rebuild trust, engage with community and … change the narrative around policing.”

In the future, the chief said MPD planned to create a new deputy chief position that would oversee a new “Constitutional Policing Bureau” — an office that would oversee all of the reforms that the coming settlement or consent decree would require.

“It’s all about coming into compliance. That’s what these things are all about,” O’Hara said.

He added that, while the city would pay for the court-appointed monitor to oversee the reforms, the onus for change “falls on us — you know, mostly on the police department — to get this stuff done, and to be able to prove in some way that we’re implementing [the agreement provisions] almost perfectly … I believe this is the structure that will get us there faster.”

A few council members raised concerns about bloating the ranks of the department’s administrative ranks. One council member — Ward 4 representative LaTrisha Vetaw — ultimately voted against the new assistant chief position over this concern.

O’Hara said new senior positions were necessary to signal the importance of these changes internally, to the department, and externally, to the public.

March 2023: MDHR, Minneapolis announce settlement agreement

State and city officials outlined the particulars of a deal that, under supervision of a court, would shape the Minneapolis Police Department’s practices over the next decade. Among the aspects of the deal:

  • Limiting the use of tasers to situations “where grounds for arrest or detention are present,” and when it’s also necessary to prevent someone else from being physically harmed
  • Officers would need to document their basis for stopping by speaking into a bodycam before approaching
  • Prohibiting certain pretextual traffic stops, including expired license tabs or broken rear view mirrors. The smell of marijuana would also no longer be sufficient grounds for searching a vehicle.
  • Improvements to the much-criticized field training program, including a review system that would allow police trainees to review their trainers
  • Creating a publicly-searchable database of use-of-force incidents

We went into more detail on the state settlement agreement here.

June 2023: Federal investigation concludes a ‘pattern or practice’ of discriminatory policing

After a two-year investigation, Garland appeared at a press conference in Minneapolis alongside Frey and O’Hara and a retinue of federal officials to announce the Justice Department had concluded MPD had engaged in a “pattern or practice” of using excessive force and violating civil and constitutional rights.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Bildtsen said the city had agreed in principle to enter into a consent decree that would include an independent, court-appointed monitor.

Settling on the contents of the consent decree would still take several months, “and even up to a year, depending on how negotiations go,” Bildtsen said.

Here’s our story on the DOJ’s announcement on Friday, June 16.