Tanzina Vega: People nationwide are continuing to process the guilty verdict of former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, in the murder of George Floyd. For many, the conviction is the first step towards accountability after a year of reckoning with institutional racism and policing. On Wednesday morning, the Justice Department announced it will launch a civil investigation into the policies and operations of the Minneapolis Police Department as a whole. Here is Attorney General Merrick Garland speaking on Wednesday.
Attorney General Merrick Garland: Yesterday's verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis. Today, I am announcing that the Justice Department has opened a civil investigation to determine whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing.
Tanzina: The Justice Department says the team will investigate whether Minneapolis officers have engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing and excessive use of force including on protesters. Investigators will also look at the department's training policies and whether the system of accountability in place is effective. I'm Tanzina Vega, and a look at whether real change is possible within the Minneapolis Police Department is where we start today on The Takeaway. I'm joined by Brandt Williams, correspondent for Minnesota Public Radio News, who covers public safety, criminal justice, and racial disparities. Brandt, great to have you back.
Brandt Williams: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Dr. Michelle Phelps is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and author of the report Over-Policed and Under-Protected: Public Safety in North Minneapolis. Michelle, great to have you on the show.
Dr. Michelle Phelps: Thank you so much for having me.
Tanzina: Brandt, let's start with you because, after the verdict, which caught a lot of attention, the guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin, the Attorney General announced the DOJ would be investigating the police department. How significant is that?
Brandt: It's pretty significant. This is a lengthy process. It could take six to nine months if they actually do it quickly. Of course, Attorney General Garland said if they do find that there's been unlawful or evidence to show that MPD has been operating unlawfully, they're going to release a lengthy report. It could result in a consent decree and that, of course, could be enforced in court if they're found to be violations of it. It's pretty involved and pretty serious.
Tanzina: Now, this is a pretty, as you've said, pretty involved investigation. Do we know whether they'll be investigating similar killings by police, including those of Jamar Clark or Justine Damond?
Brandt: I'm not sure. It's possible. I mean, they are going to be talking with community members and police officers. They may be talking to some of the family members of Jamar Clark and Justine Damond, that they may want to get their input on how those killings impacted them. It's certainly possible. I would not be surprised if they took a good look at some of those past officer-involved killings.
Tanzina: Brandt, just wondering if the Minneapolis Police Department has said anything about this investigation, or have they just not issued any statement so far?
Brandt: Yes, the police department issued a statement including a reaction from Chief Arradondo. He basically expressed support for it. I've spoken with some people who have worked with the chief in the past. They say this is something that could bolster his efforts to bring about change in police culture. However, we have not heard any comment from the Police Federation as of yet.
Tanzina: Michelle, you've done studies on these police departments in North Minneapolis in particular. How would you describe the history of the Minneapolis Police Department and its relations with Black and brown residents of the city?
Michelle: Sure. For the past five years or so, I've been doing a study of the Minneapolis Police Department, looking at it from the perspective of community perceptions of the police activists, demands for changes in policing, and then what the department has actually done to reform the department. I think Minneapolis is more typical of American cities in some ways than it is atypical, and that the problems in Minneapolis I think are nationwide.
Since 2015, the department has actually been pretty aggressively involved in a lot of the kinds of best practices police reforms that have been suggested by things like consent decrees through the DOJ program, and yet they have also had this continuing series of high-profile police killings and more routine day to day harassment of residents, particularly Black and Indigenous residents. There's a long history in Minneapolis, both of police misconduct and police abuse, of police reform, and activism to change policing.
Tanzina: Michelle, this is supposed to be a pattern or practice investigation. What do we know about these types of investigations?
Michelle: These types of investigations were relatively common under the Obama administration and then petered out during the Trump administration. They, at their height, are still touching only a handful of departments. There's 18,000 police departments nationwide and so you can really only respond to the most high-profile cases and cities. I think what the pattern and practice investigations allow us to do is, as the Attorney General said, to really get at these more systemic issues, rather than these one-off cases, and try to see what's undergirding those problems.
Ideally, I think the model was that some of the reforms and consent decrees that came out of this process could be applied to other places. It could be that same package of reforms could be implemented in other kinds of cities. I think one of the concerns activists have today is whether the return of these pattern and practice investigations will help to, or will block efforts to really reimagine policing and move away from police reform and towards really thinking about alternative systems of public safety.
Tanzina: Brandt, there's also a separate civil rights investigation into the Chauvin case, is that right? What do we know about that so far?
Brandt: Yes. As Attorney General Garland mentioned yesterday, this is separate from the federal criminal investigation. I don't know much more about that. We've heard that there had been a grand jury impaneled in that investigation, but other than that, I don't have any more information.
Tanzina: Michelle, let's talk a little bit about the federal government's role here, because if the federal government identifies that something needs to be fixed or changed, who will then do the implementation of those changes? Will it be up to the department to take those findings and do with them as they please, or will there be some sort of mandate that comes from the federal government? How does that work?
Michelle: Typically when there is cause to issue a report, when the investigation finds that there was a pattern and practice of discrimination or excessive force, typically what happens after that is that the department releases a report and then the jurisdiction and the DOJ work together to negotiate an agreement. That agreement is often legally binding and can be enforced with a team or an individual who monitors the consent decree and ensures that the department is meeting the conditions that they promised to, and that can lead to litigation if the department does not do the kinds of reforms that it had promised to implement.
Tanzina: How effective is this strategy, the using the muscle of the federal government to reform police departments?
Michelle: There's only a couple of studies on the issue and it's still a little bit of a murky territory. I think the big picture is that the scale of the operation is just so small, that you're only ever going to be able to touch at max sort of 25 cities or jurisdictions at a time, so there's just a scale problem, but in terms of, for the cities that do enter into a consent decree, what changes. Part of the problem and the complexity of that research is that it's a little ambiguous what the outcome goal is.
If you look at, for instance, civil cases filed against the department. That's one outcome. People have also looked at what happens to crime rates in a city. People have also looked at, can department sustain the effort? I think the big picture summary is that these consent decrees and these investigations can be effective in helping to compel a department to revise their policies and practices, but they take an enormous amount of resources and are hard for departments to sustain that, particularly when they face a lack of internal or political support for continuing the reform.
Tanzina: Brandt, when you look at the Minneapolis Police Department, how would you as a reporter describe the patterns of policing and maybe things that we hear at the national level aren't seeing, in terms of how well they are received by the community, before potentially the Derek Chauvin trial. But just in terms of what their philosophy on policing is?
Brandt: Actually, there is a fair amount of data going back just about 20 years showing how Minneapolis Police Department has used force more likely against African Americans than they have white residents. Traffic stop data showing that police officers tend to pull over and stop people of color more often than white motorists and people. There's been this information out there that people can read, look at for themselves, and that basically influences how a lot of people see what's going on in Minneapolis.
Now the department has said, "Look, we are trying to correct this," and as your other guest mentioned, that the city of Minneapolis has really taken to heart a lot of these other best practices that have been recommended by think tanks like the Police Executive Research Forum. Former chiefs have taken all that data to heart and have tried to implement these types of policies that will help, not only just improve community and police relations but to also do a more fair job of policing. One thing that we have to point out is the role of the Federation over the years has been almost like a counterbalance to a lot of this.
Tanzina: Brandt when you say the Federation, you mean that the police union?
Brandt: Yes, the police union, and rank and file officers have not always taken to the new policies that these chiefs bring in. That's been a consistent problem over the years and something that Chief Arradondo and past chiefs have lamented.
Tanzina: We've talked about this on this show in the past, about the power of police unions. We got about a minute left in the segment, Brandt. How much power does the police union have in Minneapolis? Because you're saying the chiefs themselves are frustrated?
Brandt: Right, and this comes a lot of times in the form of when officers are fired and they grieve their terminations, they can go to a civil service panel and often get those jobs back. That's one of the things that police chiefs have lamented, saying that they're trying to lay down the law and discipline according to their values, but those efforts are often rebuffed by the legal process, which allows officers to get their jobs back if a mediator finds that they were fired without just cause.
Tanzina: Michelle, let's talk a little bit about the report that you published in November that looked at the experiences that residents in North Minneapolis had with the Minneapolis police department. What were your findings and why did you choose to focus on the residents of North Minneapolis?
Michelle: We focused on North Minneapolis because that is the historic heart of the Black community in North Minneapolis. [unintelligible 00:13:09] It is the area of the city that a lot of the families that came to Minneapolis during the Great Migration settled in, and it's the sort of cultural center and institutional heart of much of Black life in the city. It's also the area of the city where residents report the lowest rate of satisfaction with police officers, and the police department at large, so we really wanted to go where the problem was most acute, where people were closest to the problems in policing. What we found, which won't surprise anybody these days, was the same thing that we've been talking about earlier in the program.
That residents, particularly residents of color, are experiencing pervasive negative encounters with police officers, including getting pulled over in cars and getting stopped when they're on the street and being spoken to rudely, being treated with hostility by officers. That creates a real sense of distrust of the police department, particularly when violent crime continues in the community. People had this sense that law enforcement was not only failing to protect them from victimization in their community, but that police were themselves a form of violence and a form of harm because they were constantly stopping and harassing residents.
Tanzina: Brandt, we've seen calls for defunding or abolishing the police. In fact, the Minneapolis police department, weren't they supposed to disband to a certain extent. What happened with that?
Brandt: That was last year following George Floyd's killing. The city council proposed a change to the City's charter that would allow them to basically dismantle the police department and replace it with a different agency. That failed because the charter commission felt like they didn't have enough time to properly vet the idea and so it didn't get on the ballot last year. That effort got revised this year, the Council also proposed another similar charter amendment.
A group of citizens have also started a petition drive to get that also on the ballot. There's also change afoot and the city's charter commission itself is exploring the idea of, of changing the charter to change how the balance of power works between the council and the mayor, and the mayor has the authority over the police department. Those efforts are all still going forward, full steam.
Tanzina: Brandt, what was the perception of the Minneapolis Police Department before Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, by residents at least?
Brandt: Well, I'll tell you, as somebody who also used to live in North Minneapolis, I was there about almost 20 years ago. In [unintelligible 00:16:05] neighborhood a young boy was, according to police, accidentally shot during a high-risk raid at a house. Word spread around the neighborhood that the police actually shot and killed this young Black man, a young Black boy, and that sparked a riot. That was just one of many incidents that led to calls from the community to actually place the Minneapolis Police Department under federal receivership.
Now, instead of doing that, they engaged in a federally mediated agreement that started back in 2003. That agreement expired in 2008 but they actually restarted that process last year after George Floyd was killed. This has been going on for a long time. There's been federal intervention before, although not as invasive, so to say, as this particular-- or extensive as this current investigation. Yes, there has been an ongoing, quite contentious relationship between members of particularly the Black community and the Minneapolis police department.
Tanzina: Michelle, when you heard about this investigation from the Department of Justice into the Minneapolis police department, and of course your research on the interactions between citizens and police probably informs a lot of what you're thinking in terms of recommendations for the Minneapolis police department. In advance of this investigation, where do you see the biggest areas of improvement that need to happen for the Minneapolis police department?
Michelle: Sure. I do feel like you could write this report already given what we know and given, as Brandt said, that there had been these earlier consensual reports where the department has asked the DOJ to come in and write reports, specifically on issues like misconduct and handling of the occupation of the fourth precinct after Jamar Clark's killing. I think the department has really taken to heart a lot of the training principles that were embedded in the task force report on 21st Century Policing released under the Obama administration. They do de-escalation training, they do Mental Health Training, they do implicit bias training.
You could see all of that come up during the Chauvin trial as the department distanced itself from him, saying he had completed all of these trainings, we were doing best practices, but I think--
Tanzina: Michelle were you surprised to see, in fact, just interrupting for a second there. Were you surprised to see the department's testimony in the Chauvin trial?
Michelle: Not in particular. I think that the department really from the days following the murder, the department had really distanced itself from Chauvin in a way that I think prefigured what was going to happen in that courtroom. I think part of the way to read what happened in the courtroom was the department trying to vindicate itself and to say that Chauvin was an outlier. He's not representative of the department, which was a narrative explicitly embraced by the prosecution.
I think where the department hasn't made as much progress or has really been blocked in part by the union, as we were talking about before, is in really responding to officer misconduct and really having a process where community members are involved and have real oversight and power over the discipline and firing of officers. I think without that, it's really hard to rebuild Community Trust because there isn't this sense that officer misconduct, when they violate the policies of the department, will actually face any kind of accountability.
Tanzina: Dr. Michelle Phelps is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and author of the report Over-Policed and Under-Protected: Public Safety in North Minneapolis and Brandt Williams is a correspondent for Minnesota Public Radio News. Thanks so much to you both.
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