On Friday, the Department of Justice released a detailed report on civil rights abuses by the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).
The report, which was spurred by the 2020 police murder of George Floyd and released just days before Juneteenth, finds that there is “reasonable cause” to believe that the MPD and the City of Minneapolis engaged in a “pattern or practice of conduct that deprives people of their rights under the Constitution and federal law.” That includes the use of excessive force and discrimination against Black and Native American people.
Minneapolis has come to an agreement with the DOJ to negotiate a plan for overhauling the police force. “We will change the narrative around policing in this city,” pledged police chief Brian O’Hara at a press conference Friday.
The announcement comes months after the city came to an agreement with the state’s own Department of Human Rights. In March, Minneapolis settled with that department after their investigation found that the MPD “engage in a pattern or practice of race discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.” The City promised on that occasion, too, to overhaul its police force in accordance with the report’s findings (a state court is currently reviewing that proposed agreement).
Both overhauls could take the form of a consent decree, a legal agreement in which one party in a lawsuit agrees to change its conduct in certain ways, and then a court-appointed monitor watches to make sure they do.
Reading the DOJ’s thorough and damning new report, it’s clear why such drastic measures might be necessary. It describes a nightmarish system in which officers target civilians, frequently in racist ways and frequently violently, with little to no accountability.
The report finds that MPD officers repeatedly use unnecessary or even unreasonable force. It describes officers shooting at suicidal people, unarmed 911 callers, and dogs. It describes officers forcibly restraining people who were not resisting, including teenagers.
In one case study the report highlights, police refused to offer medical aid to a woman they arrested after she told them she was diabetic and begged for help. As she lay moaning on the pavement, barely responsive and repeating that she could not see, the report says MPD officers told her they would be charging her for obstruction of justice. They had a nurse briefly look the woman over. Then, although she was already handcuffed and could hardly move, they restrained her in a device called “the Wrap” (think: full-body straightjacket).
The report also demonstrates a clear pattern of racial discrimination among the MPD, showing that MPD officers stop Black people at 6.5 times the rate at which it stops white people, and Native Americans at 7.9 times the rate at which it stops white people — disproportionate rates given their respective shares in the population. The report documents police repeatedly using degrading and racist language to describe Black people.
In one instance, a police officer arrested a Somali-American teenager “because I feel like arresting you.” When the teen responded, “You’re a racist, bro,” the officer said, “Yep, and I’m proud of it.” That officer was eventually fired after cellphone footage of the incident went viral. Another officer who calls Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization and threatened to make sure its supporters “are wiped off the face of the Earth” was not disciplined and still works for the MPD.
Derek Chauvin, the officer who murdered George Floyd, makes multiple appearances throughout the report. At one point, he kneels on the neck of an unresisting 14-year-old Black child for 15 minutes as the boy’s mother pleads for him to stop. In every instance, he faced few consequences — which, the report makes clear, is not unusual for MPD officers when it comes to unreasonable force, either for the officers using the force or those who watched them do so.
“Between 2016 and the present,” the report notes, “the only officers who were disciplined for violating the failure-to-intervene policy during that time period were the officers who failed to stop Derek Chauvin from murdering George Floyd.”
The report represents the latest chapter in the ongoing national reckoning with police violence sparked by Floyd’s death. At similar moments in the past decades, including after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, the federal government has seen some success using consent decrees to fix rogue police departments. The DOJ’s bet is that an agreement with Minneapolis can lead to an overhaul of its broken police department.
Minneapolis has been central to a larger national reckoning on police violence
The MPD came under national scrutiny after Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020.
The killing, captured in a horrifying video, sparked protests against police brutality and racism around the country and the world. Along with the killings of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and hundreds of other Black Americans by police in recent years, Floyd’s death also helped intensify calls for police abolition, defunding, and reform.
In the year following Floyd’s murder, more than half of US states passed police reform bills, changing policies around use of force, misconduct reporting, and more. At least 14 cities, including Austin and Los Angeles, promised to cut police budgets and redirect the money to housing, violence prevention, and other community programs, according to the Brennan Center. In Minneapolis, members of the city council promised in June 2020 to “dismantle” the police department and create a new, transformative model for cultivating safety” in the city.
More recently, however, efforts to reduce the police presence in American cities have experienced pushback. Democratic candidates from Pennsylvania to Virginia have taken pains to avoid being associated with the concept of defunding; mayoral hopefuls in Los Angeles and New York have run on tough-on-crime platforms. Many cities began adding to their police budgets in 2021 after cutting them in 2020.
The effort to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department ran aground in 2021, with voters rejecting an amendment to the city charter that would have replaced the force with a “Department of Public Safety.” The same year, the city approved an additional $6.4 million to hire new police officers.
This March, Minneapolis did approve a series of reforms, including limiting the use of tasers and prohibiting some pretextual traffic stops. But the overhaul of the city’s policing, as promised in June 2020, has not yet arrived.
What comes next?
If change comes to Minneapolis now, it will most likely take the form of a consent decree.
As Ian Millhiser has explained for Vox, consent decrees emerged from 1994’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a “tough on crime” bill that some criminal justice reformers have assailed for contributing to the rise of mass incarceration in America. Controversial though it may be now, the law does contain one section that allows the DOJ to investigate and sue police departments for their lawless behavior. This tool has become a powerful implement to allow the federal government to curb racist law enforcement across the country — when it’s used effectively.
Consent decrees are usually long, detailed agreements negotiated between (in this case) the DOJ and the police department in question and approved by a judge. The judge has the power to enforce the decree and will usually appoint a monitor to report on whether or not the police are complying with the terms of the agreement. It can remain in place for years; the Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, was under a consent decree for almost 12 years.
While they’re in place, consent decrees tend to be generally effective at reducing civil rights violations. A 2017 study looked at 23 police departments subject to consent decrees. It found that civil rights suits against these departments dropped from 23 to 36 percent after federal intervention. Those effects don’t necessarily stick, and the number of lawsuits also tended to tick up after the consent decree was lifted.
Some consent decrees have enacted long-term change, but often through pushing out existing staff. In 2020, the NAACP’s Monique Dixon told Millhiser that Cincinnati’s 2002 consent decree was the gold standard in successful reform in part because of the amount of turnover the department saw. The culture of the department changed, she said, “because many of the officers transitioned out and the new officers came in under new policies.”
In Minneapolis, the powerful police union might prevent such a culture shift. The city already has a contract with the police union, and as Millhiser points out, “a city cannot consent to a court order that conflicts with its obligations under another, existing contract.”
Consent decrees also depend on enforcement from a judge, and we live in a country in which Trump spent four years flooding the court system with hard-right judges. Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions was so opposed to consent decrees that he all but banned them, and it’s fully possible that his judicial appointees may feel the same way.
Consent decrees, Millhiser wrote in 2020:
are not a panacea. They do not always succeed, and even when they do, police departments can backslide after the decree is lifted. They cannot address every obstacle to good policing, and they are not a shortcut around difficult political conversations about how states and cities should allocate limited resources. But they are a powerful tool in the hands of the federal government’s civil rights attorneys. …And they are one of the few mechanisms the federal government has to transform a police department in situations where state and local governments have proven unwilling or unable to do the job.
We’re almost certainly about to find out how well that mechanism will work for Minneapolis.