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DOJ report finds systemic patterns of abuse by the Minneapolis Police Department

An demonstrator holds a portrait of George Floyd in March 2021 outside the Hennepin County Government in Minneapolis, Minn., where trial of former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd killing was under way.
Chandan Khanna
/
AFP via Getty Images
An demonstrator holds a portrait of George Floyd in March 2021 outside the Hennepin County Government in Minneapolis, Minn., where trial of former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd killing was under way.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday accused the Minneapolis Police Department of a pattern of bias and excessive force, the product of a wide-ranging federal investigation into the department following the 2020 killing of George Floyd.

Floyd, who was Black, was killed May 25, 2020, by a white Minneapolis police officer while others stood by, touching off months of protests. On Friday, Garland said the federal investigation revealed long-standing problems existed in the department before that moment.

"The patterns and practices we observed made what happened to George Floyd possible," Garland said.

The DOJ investigation has determined that the MPD has a pattern of four distinct types of violations of civil rights:

  • Officers use excessive force, both lethal and less-lethal
  • Racial bias in law enforcement, with disproportionate stops and actions taken against Blacks and Native Americans
  • Suppression and punishment of protestors and journalists
  • Discrimination against people with behavioral disabilities, including the use of force during non-violent mental health crises
  • With regard to racial bias, Garland says the Department found MPD officers "stopped Black and Native American people nearly six times more often than white people in situations that did not result in arrest or citation, given their shares of the population."

    Garland says investigators also found several examples of officers who were not held accountable for racist conduct "until there was a public outcry."

    The DOJ found MPD officers had a pattern of being too quick to fire their weapons, as well as an over-reliance on Tasers, even on people who were not being violent.

    They also focused on examples of officers pepper-spraying or otherwise "punishing" protestors and journalists, especially during the unrest of 2020 and 2021.

    These findings now give the Justice Department leverage to enter into a "consent decree" with Minneapolis — essentially, a reform plan that's controlled by a federal court. Similar arrangements have been in place for years in cities such as Baltimore and Seattle.

    Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Brian O'Hara were at Garland's announcement in Minneapolis, and Frey called the DOJ's report "objective" and "thorough."

    "We are going to use these findings to better policing in Minneapolis," Frey said. "We understand that change is non-negotiable."

    But Frey also stressed that the city has already turned toward reforms. "We haven't let up in the three years since the murder of George Floyd," Frey said, pointing to new violence-prevention programs and the creation of an Office of Community Safety, meant to offer the community alternatives to calling for a response from "an officer with a gun."

    The city has also entered into a separate, state-level consent decree with Minnesota's Department of Human rights to address racial bias. Officials said on Friday that they would work to ensure the state and upcoming federal oversight plans didn't duplicate efforts.

    Attorney General Garland recognized the efforts by Minneapolis so far.

    "Some important changes have already been instituted," Garland said. "Those include prohibiting all types of neck restraints, and banning no-knock search warrants."

    But he said more work needs to be done, and that the DOJ is "recommending 28 remedial measures that provide a starting framework to improve public safety, build community trust and comply with the Constitution and federal law."

    Minneapolis has agreed in principle to negotiate the terms of such a consent decree, but the specifics are not yet settled. Depending on their scope, federal consent decrees can cost cities tens of millions of dollars, and they can drag on for years — usually, they continue until the federal judge in charge is satisfied. In Seattle, for example, the federal judge has kept an 11-year-old consent decree going even though both the city and the DOJ have asked to end it.

    In Oakland, a judge recently approved the beginning of the end of the city's nearly two-decade-old consent decree, even as some community activists say the police department still hasn't reformed its "culture" of impunity for violent officers.

    Under the Obama administration, consent decrees were a preferred method for pressuring police departments to reform, but that stopped under President Trump. The Biden Administration restored the practice, and is also pursing a consent decree in Louisville, Ky.

    Minneapolis officials now negotiating with the DOJ have an incentive to negotiate as limited a decree as possible, before it's submitted to the courts. As the city tries to reform its police, it's also struggling with sharp increases in crime, as well as the lingering effects of the exodus of police officers after 2020.

    First Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Bildtsen said negotiations with Minneapolis could take "a number of months, or up to a year or more." Ultimately, if the Feds and the city fail to agree on the terms of the consent decree, the Justice Department would have the option of bringing a civil rights lawsuit against the city.

    But at the moment, city officials stress that they want to cooperate with the Justice Department. Garland welcomed that cooperation.

    "As I told George Floyd's family this morning, his death has had an irrevocable impact on the Minneapolis community, and on our country and the world," Garland said at the start of the news conference. "George Floyd should be alive today."

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.