Separate state and federal investigations into the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) followed Officer Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights released a damning report from the state investigation on April 27, detailing the many ways MPD and local officials have perpetuated a culture of impunity and racial bias in the department. Not only have these problems created discontent in the community at large, and in the local Black communities in particular, some officers’ inexcusable conduct has hampered prosecutions and harmed fellow officers who were targets of racial and misogynist abuse from colleagues.
The details in the 72-page report should deeply trouble who give police the benefit of the doubt when misconduct is alleged. The report is not a culmination of worst-case anecdotes that magnify a “few bad apples” within a department or precinct. It is a detailed analysis of thousands of police reports and internal documents compiled over an 11-year period, as well as corroborating body camera footage and candid interviews with people throughout the department and local governments. All of this information was reviewed by state officials and former police professionals who have dedicated their lives to improving policing.
Problems that other investigations had identified have persisted, and all putative checks for accountability failed over and over again. It is reports like this that lead police abolitionists to argue that “you can’t reform this.”
It absolutely is possible to reform the Minneapolis Police Department. But real accountability requires dedication and that must come from officials both within and outside of the department.
No quick fix to multiple systemic issues
To be sure, not every major city police department is as bad as Minneapolis, and undoubtedly there are good cops who serve honorably in the MPD. But the cultural problems and a well-known lack of accountability make policing harder for the good officers, even if they comprise a majority of the department. Trust is hard to build but can be easily broken, particularly in departments with known histories of misconduct.
The report lays bare many serious MPD policy failures, particularly involving racial bias and aggressive policing of Black and Indigenous Americans. Though it may be tempting to lump all racial problems together as one issue, it is important to separate the personal biases of officers from racially disparate policing on a precinct or departmental level. They are related and sometimes overlap, but as a policy matter, they are separate problems and thus require different solutions.
Explicit bigotry is anathema to fair policing
The offensive language caught on body camera footage and in other police communication is flatly inexcusable and should be easier to remedy, at least in theory. The words cited in the report cannot be dismissed as simply coarse language that often accompanies high-stress situations. No, the particular words cited in the report are unmistakably racial and gender-based slurs that compromise the objectivity of any officer speaking or tolerating such language. Moreover, the use of those words on the job raises deep questions about the judgment of the officers and the culture of the department as a whole. Indeed, prosecutors complained that they sometimes could not present evidence to juries because of the abusive behavior caught on police body cameras.
Other MPD officers feared retribution for reporting such misconduct among their ranks and had little faith the responsible officers would be held accountable—both for good reason, according to the report.
But in circumstances like these, when officers openly express biases and slur ethnic groups of citizens, the perpetrators should be identified and moved toward termination. As the report also mentions, extant mechanisms for discipline and termination have also failed basic standards of accountability. In the short term, prosecutors can create/expand “do not call” lists that should effectively end the careers of officers who cannot give reliable testimony in court.
These cops are obvious “bad apples” and they have to go.
When good cops enforce bad policies
The more difficult aspect of the report is addressing how colorblind policies and police tactics inadvertently harm the communities they are meant to help. The report breaks down in detail how various aspects of policing—traffic stops, searches, and uses of force, inter alia—all disproportionately affect Black and indigenous people in Minneapolis. In fact, the analysis uses over a decade of police-generated data to compare like circumstances to see if a person's perceived race is a factor in how they are treated. The data are clear that MPD treats non-white individuals differently and more harshly than white community members.
But this is hardly unique to Minneapolis. As I’ve written previously, the use of aggressive policing to respond to crime spikes and other issues can be motivated by good intentions and by officers and officials of color, not as a tool of purposeful racial oppression. If crime goes up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, for example, the community and local government will demand a response. Traffic stops and contraband recovery are common ways for police to answer those calls to do something, even though they don’t reduce violent crime or increase public safety. Well-meant aggressive police tactics—not necessarily the biases of officers—are a core problem across American policing. Changing how police patrol and operate on a day-to-day basis is a heavier lift than just driving overt racists out of a department.
How MPD punishes the poor
Predictably, MPD’s cultural environment that fosters racial bias and tolerates unacceptably high levels of police violence will amplify the deleterious effects of aggressive policing on minority groups, particularly among the poor. The report describes how the abuse of discretionary arrests—resisting arrest and other petty misdemeanors that elsewhere have been described as being “in contempt of cop,” reported by Minneapolis community members as the “Black Tax”—can have devastating collateral consequences, even when the arrestee is exonerated. The report states,
Even after spending the time and resources needed to have a charge dropped or dismissed or to be found not guilty, some individuals may nonetheless continue to have an improper arrest or citation on their record. [That] record…could impact child custody or immigration status. It could also prevent an individual from obtaining future employment, housing, or additional education…Furthermore, youth of color who enter the criminal justice system due to an unjustified arrest or citation may also suffer long-term consequences.
Restoring the rule of law
Police departments like Minneapolis have forgotten that the rule of law isn’t just adherence to the law by the public, but the fairness of those who enforce the laws justly and equitably. It is impossible to uphold the law in a lawless and unaccountable organization.
Taken together, MPD’s culture and policies perpetuate a way of policing that antagonizes the community and creates the mutual enmity that we saw in the streets of Minneapolis in 2020. Correcting these deeply seeded problems will be difficult, in no small part from police resistance. But the entire community—including the City government and prosecutors—will need to do more to hold the department accountable, as MPD has too clearly proven incapable of policing itself.