Nearly two weeks after George Floyd’s killing last May by Minneapolis police, hundreds of people rallied at Powderhorn Park demanding change — not incremental change. Floyd’s death, they said, showed it was too late for half-measures.
Since then, Mayor Jacob Frey, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and state lawmakers have put into motion a series of reforms designed to boost public trust and officer accountability.
But efforts to transform policing are not as substantial many would like.
The changes can’t come fast enough for Kenneth Wright, a member of the Barbershop and Black Congregation Cooperative and who has urged the City Council to overhaul or replace the Minneapolis Police Department. He told City Council members last month that officers constantly harass and disrespect him.
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“I’m in fear of my life every time I get in my car because I’m constantly being pulled over and humiliated by them,” Wright said.
But in the face of pressure from the public and some City Council members to defund or dismantle the department, both Frey and Arradondo have pushed back. They say slashing the department’s budget, or replacing the department with another agency, is not the way to make the necessary change.
Instead, Frey and Arradondo have instituted a set of new or updated policies that include when officers use force and how they report it, as well as restrictions on “no-knock” warrants.
“A large share of the changes that we’ve pushed for are preventative,” said Frey. “That means the absence of an incident or an interaction is actually proof of the policy’s strength and our department’s embrace. One example would be no-knock warrants. The fact that you haven’t heard any news about no-knock warrants indicates the policy is having its intended impact.”
Frey said other policy changes are also taking hold. The updated use-of-force policy prohibits officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless safety is an issue. It compels officers to provide explanations every time they unholster weapons, and they have to report every time they use handcuffs and other defensive tactics.
As a result, Frey said the department is actually seeing an increase in use-of-force reports.
“We’ve asked people to report more kinds of force, and they are,” he said.
Frey and Arradondo also made changes to the department’s body camera policy, including barring officers who may face criminal charges from reviewing camera video before writing police reports about critical incidents.
Some of the changes to the Minneapolis police policy and procedure manual did not come from the inside.
Less than a week after Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for around nine minutes, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights filed a discrimination charge against the Police Department.
At the request of state Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero, a court issued an injunction designed “to stop immediate and irreparable harm to the public, in particular for people of color, who are at risk of further harm due to the discriminatory practices alleged in the charge of discrimination, while the Commissioner’s charge is pending.” .
That order, among other things, banned the use of chokeholds by Minneapolis police and required officers to report and intervene anytime they see an unauthorized use of force by another officer.
The state Legislature also instituted its own ban on chokeholds as part of a larger package of police reforms passed in a special session last July. While some lawmakers hailed the legislation as a step forward, some police accountability advocates panned it for not going far enough.
“The bills that the Minnesota Legislature passed last night is not a major step forward toward reimagining our vision for what public safety looks like,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, deputy director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations
The legislation included some laws many police critics favored, such as a ban on so-called “warrior training” and training for officers to deal with people with autism.
However, Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality said lawmakers failed to pass anything that would hold to account officers with long lists of complaints against them like Chauvin.
“Our message to the Legislature is: Not good enough. And we will be back,” said Gross.
She made good on that promise.
Movement this session
In February, Gross and others testified in favor of a bill authored by Rep. Aisha Gomez, which would require some cities to form civilian oversight authorities. Gomez, a Democrat, represents an area that includes the Minneapolis intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue — the site where prosecutors say Chauvin murdered Floyd.
“And it turned into the epicenter of a global reckoning and uprising of people demanding justice and fairness in their interactions with law enforcement,” said Gomez.
The bill Gomez introduced in the House committee for public safety and criminal justice reform would require police departments with more than 50 officers to institute civilian oversight boards. She said that would apply to about 40 law enforcement agencies statewide. It was one of several reforms proposed during the special session last year but didn’t make the final cut.
“But it remains vitally important to our efforts to make real progress in improving accountability and relationships between police and the communities that they serve,” she said.
Representatives from the Minnesota associations of chiefs of police and sheriffs don’t support the bill and say it’ll have a hard time passing through the Republican-controlled Senate.
Brian Peters, the executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said the Gomez bill and others, including a proposal to require professional liability insurance for officers, were not crafted with the input of groups like his.
“A lot of these [bills] I don’t think have a chance of becoming law today,” said Peters. “And it’s unfortunate that some lawmakers feel that it’s their crusade to reform law enforcement but yet they don’t want to understand law enforcement.”
Major change may yet come to the Minneapolis Police Department.
In January, Minneapolis City Council members Phillipe Cunningham, Steve Fletcher and Jeremy Schroeder introduced a proposal to eliminate the Police Department as a charter department and replace it with a new agency.
Earlier this week, a council committee voted to push that proposal forward.
As it is, the plan has a long legislative path before it.
The full council is scheduled to take a vote on March 12, which could send the proposal forward to the city's charter commission — which has up to 150 days to consider the language.
Last summer the council proposed a similar measure to change the Minneapolis Police Department. Members of the commission complained council members rushed the process and decided to take more time to consider it. That stalled the council’s effort to get the language in front of voters last November.