Some ‘cautiously hopeful’ state oversight will lead to changes in Minneapolis police

A sign reads justice for George Floyd
A sign demanding justice for George Floyd hangs from a security fence around the burnt-out 3rd Police Precinct on the second anniversary of the police murder of Floyd on May 25, 2022.
Tim Evans for MPR News 2022

Legal experts and even some longtime critics of the Minneapolis Police Department are expressing guarded optimism about the recently ratified court-enforceable agreement between Minneapolis and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

The agreement aims to eliminate discriminatory and abusive policing in the city by enacting changes that include better training, more supervision and improved officer wellness.

But attorneys who’ve worked on federal consent decrees warn that Minneapolis is at the start of a long journey, with the outcome depending on how willing city officials are to go beyond the words printed in the state agreement, and how forcibly the public holds officials to it.

A ‘blueprint for change’ 

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez has been working on issues of police misconduct so long that he prosecuted a Los Angeles police officer for the federal government even before Rodney King was beaten by LAPD officers in 1991, an incident that brought concerns about misconduct to the national news.

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Perez went on to oversee investigations and eventual federal consent decrees with dozens of police departments across the country. He’s been closely following Minneapolis’ agreement with the state Department of Human Rights. In his opinion, the agreement on Minneapolis police is a “blueprint for culture change.”

“I’m very impressed with the thoroughness of this agreement, and I applaud Governor Walz and Commissioner [Rebecca] Lucero for how thoroughly they investigated the case and how this proposed agreement really is a blueprint for comprehensive reform of the Minneapolis Police Department.”

What stands out for Perez about this state agreement is how it specifically addresses training, use of force policies and adds transparency to a department, and city government, that has been criticized for withholding information. It also requires Minneapolis to collect and share more data about officer misconduct, use of force, and even the demographics of people officers pull over.

That data collection is going to be of utmost importance in assessing whether the city is making progress on the provisions in the agreement, Perez said. But he said cities also need the continued political will to enforce the changes. 

“The cities that did really well had a humility about them, a non-defensiveness about the situation,” Perez said of cities involved in federal consent decrees.

Minneapolis’ agreement with the state came after an investigation that found routine discrimination from Minneapolis police, especially against Black residents and a lack of accountability for police misconduct. It also found Minneapolis police routinely used racist and “hateful” language against witnesses to suspects. Perez sees that behavior as something the city and police chief need to tamp down if any real culture change is possible.

“The most important tool an officer has in their arsenal is the trust of the community, when you refer to community members in derogatory terms, you’re telling them that you don’t have respect for them,” Perez said. “How can you expect the community to respect the police department when the police department doesn’t respect the community?”

Dozens of cities have been in federal consent decrees in the past three decades, where federal authorities have required changes to the policies and practices of local police departments that were found to violate people’s constitutional rights. But Minneapolis could be one of the first cities in the United States under such close scrutiny by a state agency.

Minneapolis is also under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Perez said any ensuing federal consent decree would likely just strengthen and expand on the provisions in the state agreement.

‘Watching the statistics’ 

Perez isn’t alone in his assessment of the state agreement with Minneapolis on policing. The court-enforceable agreement with the state provides some strong provisions, including baked-in requirements for community engagement, said Georgetown Law Professor Christy Lopez. 

Lopez is a former deputy chief in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where she worked to investigate and negotiate the federal consent decree with Ferguson, Mo., following Michael Brown’s fatal shooting by a police officer 2014. 

She said the public needs access to information that’s required to be released under the agreement so they can be used to hold police, and city leaders, accountable.  

Other changes Minneapolis has agreed to include limitations on traffic stops for minor violations, like a burned-out headlight, and a ban on officers searching someone because they say they smell marijuana. Lopez said these are the sort of risky stops that are more likely to lead to harm to civilians and serve little purpose for public safety.

A lot of factors play into whether government consent decrees over police departments are successful: what monitor is appointed, how thoroughly the judge considers the evidence and the level of public engagement on the issue. But Lopez said local leadership — the police chief and the mayor — are maybe the most important factor.

“Those are going to be the individuals who will determine whether the agreement is successful more than any other players in all this,” Lopez said.

Some local activists have mixed feelings about the agreement. 

Michelle Gross has been pushing for police reform for decades as head of Communities United Against Police Brutality. She said her group likes parts of the agreement and worries about others. Gross said the group will be watching closely as the department reports data that’s previously been difficult to access. 

“It’s all about watching the statistics, how many complaints are actually disciplined, how many officers who fail to report use of force by another officer are disciplined,” Gross said. “All those things are going to matter.”

The Minneapolis City Council voted to approve the proposal without showing it to the public, which Gross said was a bad way to start the process. Her group plans to give as much input as possible when the judge opens up the courtroom to community input. 

They’re also paying attention to who is appointed to monitor the agreement. 

“The monitor is the secret sauce for making these things work,” Gross said. “You’ve got to have, not some corporation that is a professional monitoring outfit, but we’d really like to see local people, civil rights attorneys and people like that, to be part of the monitoring team.” 

Gross said the requirements in the agreement are validating, but she added changes in the department could have been made decades ago if city leadership had the courage. 

“I’m encouraged by the fact that there’s a court that’s going to breathe down the neck of the city and tell them to do it, because it just has never been the political will to make it happen,” Gross said. “It’s sad to me that we got to this stage because the city could have done this stuff anywhere along the way if they would have just listened to the community.”  

The real work starts now

A significant portion of the state agreement with Minneapolis relates to officer wellness, including more mental health support. This might be an acknowledgement that the city, which has seen record numbers of PTSD claims by officers, has previously not supported police in their challenging jobs, Lopez said.

“But I also think the reality of policing is that police who are unwell emotionally or physically, tend to not police as effectively and to cause unnecessary harm,” Lopez said. “Even if they’re not behaving illegally, they’re just not policing the way we want them to.”  

There might be another incentive for including provisions supporting officer wellness, said University of St. Thomas School of Law Professor Rachel Moran, whose scholarship focuses on officer accountability.  

Moran said officers themselves play a big role in whether oversight agreements like the one in Minneapolis are successful. Police officers around the country, including in Minneapolis, were accused of pulling back from their responsibilities after protests following George Floyd’s murder. 

“A lot of this is, how willing is the police department or, conversely, how resistant is the police department to these changes?” Moran said. “That’s absolutely going to be a question on the table in Minneapolis.”

Moran said the agreement is “fairly ambitious with a lot of requirements,” but that it won’t include everything everyone wants. 

“Some of this stuff is actually very ambitious by text. I guess I’m cautiously hopeful, but also I’m a mix between optimistic and skeptical,” Moran said. “I’ll just be paying attention to six months from now, a year from now, 18 months from now, what changes are we really seeing?” 

Longtime Minneapolis civil rights attorney and activist Nekima Levy Armstrong said the agreement seems to be a step in the right direction.

“The city has engaged the community on some level — I feel like it’s more box-checking than the type of engagement that produces this change,” Armstrong said. “The engagement is only as good as the aftermath of the engagement, in terms of how the city takes that information and the public feedback and actually implements it in a genuine, authentic and consistent way.” 

Armstrong said she’s hopeful, but wary. 

“I'm definitely watching. Absolutely,” Armstrong said. “And I would urge the public to watch and not just take what the city puts forward at face value.”

Now, said Lopez, is when the real work begins. 

“There’s no negotiated settlement agreement that’s going to fix policing, there’s no negotiated settlement agreement that’s going to assure accountability for past policing harms or guarantee that there’s no policing harms in the future,” Lopez said. “But these sorts of policing agreements can be very useful tools as part of a panoply of other tools in bringing about policing that’s less harmful and more protective.”

Lopez said communities would do well to understand there are lots of things that could help change Minneapolis policing outside the pages of this agreement, and that if the public wants results, they need to keep up the pressure.