How our “Bad Cops” story came to be, and why it’s important

Thomas Lane is escorted out of the courthouse to a car through a throng of demonstrators during a protest outside of the Hennepin County Family Justice Center Friday, September 11, 2020, during a hearing for the now-former police at the scene of George Floyd's killing. They have filed for dismissal of charges. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

This morning the Minnesota Reformer published a significant story on the Minneapolis Police Department’s failure to discipline its worst officers, which winds up costing the city millions of dollars while losing the trust of the very people the police are supposed to protect and serve. 

Work on this project began before there was even a Minnesota Reformer. A little more than a year ago, journalist Tony Webster asked the city for the disciplinary files for all its officers employed as of October 2019. Webster’s fierce advocacy on behalf of government transparency has earned him a First Amendment award, even though journalism has never been his full-time job. In this case, he doggedly pursued what the public is rightfully owed.  

We give police the power to investigate, detain, incarcerate and — when necessary — beat and kill their fellow Minnesotans. Once you consider that vast power, Webster’s request doesn’t seem all that outlandish. In fact, it is bread-and-butter journalism. But from the get-go, the city of Minneapolis, which is supposedly one of the most progressive in the nation, fought him. They didn’t hand over a single document — despite the fact that they are public documents — until he sued them. He used his own money to finance the lawsuit. 

As Webster was engaged in litigation with the city, we were getting Minnesota Reformer off the ground. A few months later, George Floyd died under the knee of then-Officer Derek Chauvin. As an editor, my request to our deputy editor Max Nesterak was to figure out how this happened. Because it wasn’t the first time. Over the years, journalists had revealed Minneapolis police officers engaged in malfeasance, while the city paid out staggering sums in settlements.  

As documents started to roll in from Webster’s lawsuit, I asked if he’d like the Reformer to become the home for extensive reporting on the files, and an expansive look at how the  Minneapolis Police Department disciplines its own. 

With Webster’s assistance, Nesterak combed through the files of 195 incidents, many running as long as 90 pages, though others just a single page summary. The material we received was disorganized and often incomplete, and an embarrassment to professional record keeping. And, Webster is owed still more material.   

I encourage you to read today’s report by Nesterak and Webster. The reporting found outrageous examples of police misconduct and attempts to cover it up. 

A young man whose face was broken, charged with nothing more than underage drinking. 

A woman brutalized in the lobby of her own apartment building, the officer only investigated after a lawsuit was filed. She was punished with a mere 10 hour suspension. 

The files also reveal a disciplinary process so slow, so ineffective and so feckless that it seems deliberate. An officer was paid more than $290,000 to sit at home while the department engaged in a yearslong effort to terminate him for two separate incidents. 

I encourage you to read it and draw your own conclusions

I hope those who say they are skeptical of the government and public workers — like my many conservative friends and readers — will pay particular attention to this story. Is there another government entity with so much power while at the same time facing so little scrutiny as local police departments? I can hardly imagine a story that you should be more invested in than this one.

Finally, from the entire Reformer team, we’d like to thank our community of readers and supporters, without whom this kind of work would not be possible.