Consent decree negotiations on MPD: 9 questions, answered

Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau watches officers work out.
MPD cadets participate in an outdoor workout in Minneapolis. Minneapolis and federal authorities say they’ll negotiate a consent decree around the findings from the Justice Department’s report on the department.
Brandt Williams | MPR News 2015

The U.S. Department of Justice released stunning findings Friday of its investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, more than three years after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

The release of the report kicks off a new phase in the government’s investigation into the Minneapolis police, as the city and federal government likely start negotiations on the terms of the court-enforced consent decree.

Here are some questions and answers around what these agreements entail and how one might work for MPD.

A consent decree is a legally binding agreement between the federal government and another party like a city. It’s often the result of a federal government investigation that finds the city’s police department violated federal law. In cases like Minneapolis, it would be based on the findings of a pattern or practice investigation that looks at whether the department systematically violated people’s constitutional or civil rights. 

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Once the findings of the investigation are released, the federal government will seek to reach an agreement with the city. That agreement will be the blueprint for changes at the department over the next few years. It’s enforced by a U.S. District Court and will be overseen by appointed independent monitors.

The power to enter into consent decrees over policing was expanded in the 1994 crime bill, and has since been used in dozens of places across the country. It was spurred partly by the beating of Rodney King in 1991 by Los Angeles police officers. 

2) What areas will it focus on? 

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in April 2021 — nearly a year after the police murder of George Floyd — that they’d opened a pattern or practice investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department. Investigators have been looking at how Minneapolis officers use force, especially against disabled people or protesters. They’re also looking into whether the department racially discriminates in how they police.

Past consent decrees have required cities to offer new training for officers, improve how they collect data and revamp hiring practices. Each consent decree is different because it’s meant to address local conditions.

In Cleveland, Ohio, the Department of Justice found evidence that officers consistently used excessive force. In Cleveland’s consent decree, the city “agreed to provide clear guidance to officers; increase accountability; provide for civilian participation in and oversight of the police; provide officers with needed support, training and equipment; and increase transparency.” The Cleveland agreement also required the creation of a community police commission including members of the public to make recommendations to reform the department.

The Portland, Ore. agreement required the city to revamp its use of force policy, dial back the use of electronic weapons like Tasers and require officers to report more often when they use force. It required the city to develop units to better engage with people suffering from mental illness or chemical dependency. The agreement also required Portland to create a fairer process for allegations of police misconduct to be considered and for officers to be held accountable.

Man in city council room
Brian O'Hara speaks during his confirmation hearing to be Minneapolis police chief on Nov. 3, 2022.
Ben Hovland | MPR News file

3) What will the MPD investigation include? 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, this pattern or practice investigation is looking at Minneapolis Police Department policies, training and supervision. They’ll also examine the process for how officers are held accountable, from the initial complaint to discipline.  

The investigation is based on interviews with police officers, people who filed complaints and others like public officials. It doesn’t focus on a single egregious incident, but looks at the practices of the department to see whether people’s rights are consistently being violated. 

There’s no exact timeline for the pattern or practice investigation to be released, although it typically takes about a year. In Minneapolis, it took more than two years to compile the report.

Typically, a federal judge will appoint monitors to oversee the implementation of changes required in the consent decree. The monitor will report back to the federal court to ensure the city is making the agreed upon changes. The consent decree will be lifted when the judge is convinced the city has complied with the terms of the agreement by demonstrating that they’ve made all the required changes and that policing has measurably improved. 

5) How long will the process take? 

It can take many years for a local government to meet the terms of a consent decree. Some cities meet the terms of the consent decree in just a couple years, but cities that drag their feet in enacting change can remain under the consent decree for decades. The city of Oakland, Calif., has been under a consent decree since 2003, although city leaders now are pushing for it to be lifted.

6) What’s happened in other departments? 

The first federal consent decree with a local government on policing was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1997. Pittsburgh’s consent decree was lifted in 2002. Since the start of President Joe Biden’s administration, about two dozen departments have been investigated. The U.S. Department of Justice is now enforcing consent decrees in cities like New Orleans, Seattle and Cleveland

Another place subject to a consent decree is Newark, N.J., where current Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara once served as public safety director and deputy mayor. Since taking over in Minneapolis, O’Hara has repeatedly cited his experience implementing the terms of the Newark consent decree, seeking to make some changes such as adding a high-ranking official to oversee the implementation even before the consent decree requires it. 

Newark officials have argued that the consent decree should be lifted, but a federal judge has ruled the city hasn’t yet met the terms of the agreement.  

Demonstrators march in the street.
Demonstrators call to defund the Minneapolis Police Department march on University Avenue in June 2020.
Stephen Maturen | Getty Images 2020

Most academic studies of federal consent decrees show some success in reducing use-of-force incidents and improving police accountability. 

A study of the Pittsburgh consent decree by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2005 found the consent decree “dramatically changed the culture” of the police department. The study found that the department improved officer accountability, better tracked officer stops and use of force and created an early warning system for problem officers.

Researchers also found that residents reported improved relations with police after the consent decree was lifted, although many officers resented the terms of the consent decree and blamed it for declining morale on the force.    

In 2019, the city of Seattle reported a 63 percent reduction in serious use-of-force incidents eight years after a pattern or practice investigation. 

But some have raised questions about whether consent decrees make substantial and lasting change in police departments. Former U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions severely limited the use of consent decrees in 2018, arguing that the department didn’t prove that the costs were worth the changes.  

The state Department of Human Rights also investigated the Minneapolis Police Department and released its findings in April 2022. That report found that Minneapolis police officers posed as Black residents online to criticize city officials and are more likely to use force against Black people in similar circumstances. It also found that officers “consistently use racist, misogynistic, and otherwise disrespectful language.”

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights found fault with city leaders, who didn’t act with urgency to address racial discrimination in the department. 

The state and city have been negotiating the terms of the agreement, which city attorneys call a “court enforceable agreement.” As part of the terms of negotiations, the city of Minneapolis and state of Minnesota agreed that they’ll modify their agreement if the U.S. Department of Justice reaches a consent decree with the city in order to ensure that the agreements don’t conflict with one another. 

The Marshall Project reported last year the city of Cleveland has spent about $60 million since the consent decree was put into place in 2015.

That includes spending for reforms in the police department and the creation of a civilian board to recommend policy changes. About 10 percent of that cost went to pay the salaries and expenses of the monitoring team.

Even smaller cities like Ferguson, Mo., predict that their consent decrees will cost about $10 million. Larger cities like Detroit, Mich. have spent more than $50 million dollars implementing the terms of their consent decrees. 

The Minneapolis city budget for 2023 includes $2 million to help cover the costs of the consent decree. 

What other questions do you have about the consent decree? Ask us!