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Justice Department finds pattern of discriminatory policing in Minneapolis

Providing LEOs “emotional and psychological support is important to ensure that officer stress and fatigue do not contribute to constitutional violations,” the report said


Stephen Maturen

By Stephen Montemayor and Liz Navratil
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minneapolis Police Department routinely engaged in a pattern of racist and abusive behavior that deprives people of their constitutional rights, according to new findings of a Justice Department investigation initiated by the murder of George Floyd three years ago.

Among the findings of the 92-page report, which follows an investigation launched in April 2021, the department uses excessive force, including unjustified deadly force, unlawfully discriminates against Black and Native American people, and violates the rights of people engaged in protected free speech. The department and city also discriminate against people with behavioral health disabilities when responding to calls.

“For years, MPD used dangerous techniques and weapons against people who committed at most a petty offense and sometimes no offense at all. MPD used force to punish people who made officers angry or criticized the police,” according to the report from the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice released Friday. “MPD patrolled neighborhoods differently based on their racial composition and discriminated based on race when searching, handcuffing, or using force against people during stops. The City sent MPD officers to behavioral health-related 911 calls, even when a law enforcement response was not appropriate or necessary, sometimes with tragic results. These actions put MPD officers and the Minneapolis community at risk.”

Since the beating of Rodney King in 1994, pattern or practice investigations have become a common tool used by the federal government to intervene on institutional failures within local police agencies. The Trump presidency abandoned these far-reaching investigations during his term in office. In 2021, in the months after Biden’s inauguration, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced probes in Minneapolis and in Louisville, Ky. Other investigations are currently ongoing in New York, Oklahoma City, Mount Vernon, N.Y., Phoenix, Worcester, Mass., and Louisiana.

The report follows reviews of thousands of hours of body camera footage and the same number of documents, analysis of data on calls for service, stops, uses of force, and other officer activities between 2016 and 2022, along with 2,000 interviews with community members, including family members of those killed by police, and members of the department at all ranks.

City officials in Minneapolis have been bracing for the findings of the Justice Department’s report, which comes in addition to a similar charge leveled by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights last year, which also found a pattern of discriminatory behavior by Minneapolis officers over the decade leading up to Floyd’s killing. The Minneapolis City Council approved a wide-ranging series of reforms this spring to settle the state’s case, including limiting the use of chemical irritants and barring officers from searches based on the smell of marijuana.

The city will now begin the process of negotiating a court-enforceable consent decree with the Justice Department. Per the state’s agreement, the federal decree will take precedent if any of the state’s terms conflict with it.

Unreasonable use of force, shootings

The report concludes that three-quarters of use of force by MPD, whether through bodily force, Taser or deadly force, did not involve a violent or weapons offense. Deadly force, which includes using a firearm or neck restraint, were frequently used in situations where there was no immediate threat. A review of 19 police shootings from 2016 to August 2022 reveals that officers frequently fired without first determining whether there was an immediate threat to officers or others, or provide warnings that they are about to use deadly force. Further, such force was used on people “who were a threat only to themselves.”

The report cites the 2017 killing of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who was shot by officer Mohamed Noor, who was “spooked” when Damond approached his squad when responding to a 911 call, and another officer, an an off-duty officer who fired his gun at a car containing six people within three seconds of getting out of his squad car after the occupants of the car were ordered by police to leave the area of a shots fired call by reversing down a one-way street, and a man shot six times after he began cutting himself with a knife when left in an MPD interview room — “Shooting a man who is hurting himself and has not threatened anyone else is unreasonable,” the report concluded.

“Despite these unreasonable uses of deadly force, MPD has failed to respond with effective, systemic reforms (such as revised policies and additional training) designed to prevent unlawful shootings,” the report said.

The report also found that officers used neck restraints during at least 198 encounters during the same time period, with no arrest in 44 of those encounters. In 2016, neck restraints were used 52 times. In 2021, one year after Floyd’s killing by Chauvin with a knee to Floyd’s neck led to a ban on neck restraints, the tactic was used only once — while the ban was met with “considerable resistance” by members of the department.

“We spoke to officers and supervisors who called the ban an overcorrection, ‘knee jerk’ and ‘politically driven.’ Some officers continued to see neck restraints as an efficient and reliable tactic,” the report read. “Officers warned that the ban would lead to an increase in force overall, because, as one officer put it, ‘if you can’t touch the head or neck, the result is you punch ‘em.’ These views took hold as MPD did not train officers in alternative tactics until the year after the ban.”

The report found that, in less-lethal incidents, MPD officers frequently use “gratuitous force” on citizens who have already been restrained, subdued and handcuffed, in what was deemed “a “completely unnecessary act of violence” in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

In one case, a handcuffed Black man who was compliant was to the ground face-first, with the officer claiming he had “tensed up” during a search while other officers had him bent over the hood of a squad car. In another, a white man in a mental health crisis was handcuffed to a stretcher when he spat at an officer, who slapped and punched him.

“I’m really proud of myself; I only hit him twice,” the offer said on body worn camera. The supervisor did not refer that officer for a misconduct investigation.

The report also found that force was unnecessarily used when people failed to comply with orders immediately, and that people were unnecessarily handcuffed. Pepper spray was frequently unreasonably used, including as a retaliatory measure, and encounters with youth too frequently resulted in force without de-escalation. In one case, an officer responding to a report of a robbery pointed a gun at two unarmed Black teens in the area and told them to sit in the snow, although they posed no immediate threat.

“Pointing a gun in the faces of two unarmed teens was unreasonable,” the report said. “When we spoke to one of the teens about what happened, he told us he experienced sleeplessness, tension, and persistent paranoia afterward. He told us, ‘I thought it was going to be my last night.’”

As illustrated in Floyd’s killing, the report also determined through numerous examples that officers failed to properly render medical aid or intervene when another officer uses unreasonable force. Despite MPD policy requiring the officers to intervene, the only officers disciplined for failing to intervene were the three officers fired and charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin in Floyd’s killing.

The report concluded that despite frequent unreasonable uses of force, the department fails to properly investigate, or take the officers’ word for what happened when the evidence indicates otherwise.

“Unreasonable uses of force undermine trust in MPD and take an immeasurable toll on the Minneapolis community. We heard from people who lost loved ones in encounters with MPD. Even beyond the use of force itself, some spoke of other indignities they endured,” the report said. “One father told us MPD did not call to tell him an MPD officer had killed his adult child; instead, he learned his child had died when the coroner called to ask for their dental records. A surviving parent going through unimaginable pain described the attitude of MPD officers as, ‘You don’t matter, I matter.’ Another father who lost a child told us MPD made his child “seem like a savage.” For him, three words expressed his views: ‘Enough is enough.’”

Unlawful discrimination

The report found that MPD engages in unlawful conduct in violation of Black and Native Americans when enforcing the law, including with disproportionate traffic stops without justification, use of force, searches and disparate enforcement tactics based on the racial composition of the neighborhood. For every white person stopped, seven Black people and eight Native American people were stopped, the report concluded. The use of force during such stops was also disparate: From Floyd’s death to Aug. 9, 2022, in the Third Precinct “where many Native Americans live and where supervisors told us the ‘cowboys’ want to work,” the report said, MPD used force 49% more often during stops involving Black people and 69% more often during stops involving Native American people than they did during similar stops involving white people.

After Floyd’s death, the data showed a steep drop in officers reporting race during traffic stops.

“We are not aware of MPD taking any action to address this widespread policy violation—a policy violation that can make it more difficult to detect and counter discrimination,” the report said.

The report also concluded that racial bias is prevalent throughout the department, even to the concern of officers of color.

“In incidents where we found MPD did hold officers accountable for biased conduct, it was often only after public outrage, and even then, MPD failed to communicate a clear message to officers, supervisors, and the public,” the report said.

First Amendment violations, failure to discipline

As was widely documented, the report says the department “also fails to hold officers accountable for violating First Amendment rights,” saying MPD only disciplined officers for misconduct at protests five times in a seven-year period.

Investigators found “numerous problems” with MPD’s training system, saying that instructors don’t have formal certifications and the department lacks criteria for selecting its instructors or evaluating their performance. The DOJ said it knew of instances where MPD officers served as field training officers — helping to train new hires — “even while under investigation for serious misconduct.”

It said supervisors lack training to properly review use of force and serious incidents, and that an effective early intervention system could help MPD better identify signs that an officer could use an intervention. It noted that the city received a $500,000 grant in 2021 to begin developing that system “but work was stalled until recently.”

Many of the report’s findings echo those made by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in its earlier investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department. The DOJ report, for example, calls the police department’s accountability system “fundamentally flawed,”

“It consistently fails at its core purpose: to find, address, and prevent officer misconduct. Instead of a clear, straightforward accountability system, MPD’s system is an opaque maze, with multiple dead ends where meritorious complaints are dismissed without investigation and often for no discernable reason.”

The report calls the department’s complaint system “needlessly complex,” noting that MPD used an eight-page flow chart to explain the number of steps involved in the process. The department found numerous instances where complaints were inappropriately closed. It said the Minneapolis Police Department declined to investigate a 2018 incident that had been referred to it by the city attorney. The referral included video taken by a city worker took a video that showed an officer place his knee and “full body weight” on an arrestee’s head and neck. The report said MPD inappropriately classifies complaints and “ignores explicit misconduct allegations.” The report includes a footnote that notes the DOJ’s analysis of MPD’s accountability systems was conducted before new changes were implemented in recent months.

Inappropriate response to behavioral health crises

The DOJ investigation waded into some issues that have dominated city politics in the three years since Floyd’s murder and suggests that some changes implemented by the city since then haven’t gone far enough.

It accuses the city of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against people with behavioral health disabilities while responding to emergencies.

“Many behavioral health-related calls for service do not require a police response, but MPD responds to the majority of those calls, and that response is often harmful and ineffective,” the report says. “This deprives people with behavioral health disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from the City’s emergency response services.”

It lists several examples of calls that were handled by MPD but could have been safely resolved by a behavioral health team: such as the call from a man who wanted to tell officers stories about his life, a call from a woman with schizophrenia who believed people were stealing her identity, and a call from a woman who was concerned about her grandson’s depression. The report credits the city for launching behavioral health crisis response teams that are staffed by civilians rather than officers but says the program lacks the capacity to respond as needed and “the city itself has unanswered questions about whether the program is on track.” It also says that people working in the city’s 911 call center need better training to appropriately dispatch behavioral health calls, noting that staffers specifically requesting training to help handle calls in a “gray area.” One dispatcher told investigators they are “trained to err on the side of caution and to oversend” police.

The report cites numerous occasions where police responded to a mental health crisis when no law enforcement response was required. Even if police are required, tragedy could have been avoided with de-escalation. For instance, the 2018 killing of Travis Jordan, who was in the throes of a mental health crisis when his girlfriend called a non-emergency line asking for help. Officers were directed not to force their way into the home, but peeked into the windows and calling him to come out before he emerged agitated and holding a knife.

“Responders could have taken more time to understand and de-escalate the situation, such as by allowing the man to stay inside the home, engaging in dialogue, attempting to gather other information from the girlfriend or other sources, and having officers on standby,” the report said. “Such strategies may have avoided the use of force that ended the man’s life.”

The reports suggests that officers, too, could benefit from having better mental health supports. While it credits the city with boosting wellness services in recent years, the reports says it remains unclear “to what extent those services are helping officers and affecting the conduct we observed during our investigation.”

“Given the considerable challenges of the last several years in the Minneapolis community—from the COVID-19 pandemic to the widespread trauma and unrest following George Floyd’s tragic murder—providing officers with emotional and psychological support is important to ensure that officer stress and fatigue do not contribute to constitutional violations,” the report said.

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