Ending violence in the Minneapolis Police Department

May 25 was a beautiful, sunny day — the perfect capstone to a long holiday weekend. But as night fell, the perfection of the day was pierced by a profound ugliness that will forever mar this date in Minneapolis.

For possessing a phony $20 bill — which he likely didn’t know was counterfeit — George Floyd, 46, had a life-ending encounter with four Minneapolis police officers.

The $20 is the most counterfeited bill in the country. Its possession, without intent to defraud is not a crime under state law, and the state’s rules of criminal procedure bar police from arresting a person for a non-crime. At most, Mr. Floyd should have been asked about the source of the bill and it should have been seized.

However, because he was black, Mr. Floyd was subjected to the kind of overreaction to a low-level offense that is emblematic of the history of policing in Minneapolis. Ongoing protests worldwide over black people’s deaths at the hands of law enforcement make it clear that this behavior is not unique to Minneapolis police, nor is it an anomaly. People are crying out for change. But before we can move forward, we need to understand the past.

The evolution of modern policing stems from three threads:

  • Slave patrols. Armed groups known as “patterollers” enforced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by intimidating slaves as a means of social control and brutally, capturing escaped slaves for economic control.
  • Union busting. The Pinkerton agency was a private policing firm that formed “goon squads” to break up union organizing, sometimes by viciously attacking union events and brutalizing and killing union leaders.
  • Protection of property. Watch patrols protected wealthy homeowners from property crimes. Eventually, these homeowners determined that if privately hired agents could at least minimally work for the broader community, costs could be transferred to taxpayers.

The successful PR move to turn private agents into forces sworn “to protect and serve” effectively leveraged tax dollars to offset the costs for the wealthy without decreasing the protection they received. This history is stitched so intricately into our social fabric that we routinely assess the quality of policing based on the degree to which non-poor people are protected from the “disorder” of poor people. It is unsurprising that police are less likely to be held accountable if their misconduct is focused on the poor or people of color.

In addition to the heavy emphasis on protecting property, policing has also fortified itself against efforts to hold officers accountable for misconduct and excessive use of force. The strength of police unions is certainly one factor. But another factor has been our elected officials actively seeking endorsement from the police union during elections, signaling to a white electorate that they are not “soft on crime.” Elected officials routinely cater to law enforcement over the interests of the communities being policed.

Over and over, our city and legislative leaders have failed to commit to needed reforms. Communities that are the most vulnerable and have the least power — indigenous and communities of color, the homeless, immigrants and the poor — pay the price.

For example, in 2007, under pressure by the police union, city leaders removed some of the oversight powers of the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority, an independent body that investigated allegations of police misconduct. In 2011, the state legislature passed a law forbidding civilian oversight bodies from upholding complaints by issuing findings of facts, paving the way for the city’s 2012 gutting of civilian oversight. The city replaced the CRA with the toothless Office of Police Conduct Review, an agency with a dismal 0.48% discipline rate for complaints by civilians.

In 2016, Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB) was part of an effort to get a measure on the ballot requiring police to carry professional liability insurance.  This insurance would incentivize good policing and provide consequences for bad policing. City leaders blocked the ballot measure, claiming it violated state law.

Most recently, CUAPB and other organizations proposed 14 changes to the police federation contract aimed at eliminating officer fatigue, adding mandatory mental health screenings and requiring more flexible staffing. We met with council members, but Mayor Jacob Frey only granted us a meeting with his aides. The city and police union then blocked our access to the negotiating sessions where we could have seen whether the city was planning to include our recommendations.

Instead, city officials have all but ignored input from the community and the suffering of victims of police violence and have willingly paid out nearly $30 million of our tax dollars in settlements and judgments between 2003 and 2019. The officers behind those payouts are almost never disciplined.

Many leaders, including some state legislators, propose more “community policing” focused on improving relationships between communities and police, implicit bias training and a residency requirement for police. These proposals sound like common sense. Unfortunately, studies show they don’t work.

A 1999 study in the journal “Policing” showed that cities with residency requirements “affect citizens’ perceptions of police in a negative way.” Likewise, a 2016 meta-analysis of 17 studies of implicit bias training showed that the trainings do not “consistently change behavior.” Finally, too many reform efforts center on the proposal of “police-community relations.” The underlying premise is that if police and the community could somehow just get along better, trust would be built and the problem would be solved. This framing is false. We need to be clear — the issue is and always has been police abuse of authority, the oppression that underpins it and the lack of accountability that encourages it.

Some city leaders believe they can “put the genie back in the bottle” by creating the appearance of change without substance. Mayor Frey is bringing in the Minneapolis Foundation, headed by former mayor R.T. Rybak, under whose leadership civilian oversight of the police was gutted. Why would anyone think he is the “white knight” to bring forth police accountability?

On June 7, City Council members announced their intention to disband the MPD. A few days later, they modified the language to “defund” the MPD. This has now been walked back to a “year-long conversation” on what to do about the police, largely because disbanding or defunding the police would require a change to the city charter — an arduous process unlikely to occur before November 2021.

While a “year-long conversation” on problems with the MPD is a welcome change from the deafening silence of the last two decades, the people on the receiving end of police violence really can’t afford to wait that long for solutions. Now is the time to rein in the Minneapolis police.

CUAPB has issued a list of 44 evidence-based recommendations for how the city, county and state can end police violence now. Minneapolis, for example, could adopt a disciplinary reset mechanism and a “last resort” deadly force policy, post use-of-force data and lawsuit information on the city’s website and start to build a robust civilian oversight body now. Many of these recommendations are not new — our organization has presented them to officials for years. Every recommendation on this list is readily able to be implemented. All that is required is the will.

Prior failures by elected officials to adopt these evidence-based solutions are what brought us to this place. The city has consistently failed to learn from past mistakes. The burning down of the 3rd Precinct was a plea for change. We need to heed that plea.

Michelle Gross is the president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, an all-volunteer Twin Cities-based organization founded in 2000. You can read the group’s full recommendations for reform at tinyurl.com/CUAPB-report.