Group evaluating MPD protest response are mostly law enforcement veterans

By: - October 5, 2021 6:01 am

Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Minneapolis hired the firm Hilliard Heintze to evaluate the city’s response to the protests and civil unrest following the police murder of George Floyd. Seven of the eight members of the team doing the work are law enforcement veterans, and the eighth is a firefighter.

That has some questioning the rigor of their review of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad, who is a policy organizer for police abolitionist group Reclaim the Block, said the people most impacted by police violence should steer the accountability process.

“I think investigation by people who are outside of law enforcement should be the bare minimum for any action of justice and accountability,” she said. “The system will never hold itself accountable.”

The city hired risk management company Hillard Heintze. (In April, Hillard Heintze and two other companies merged under the Jensen Hughes name.)

Hillard Heintze was founded in 2004 by a secret service agent and retired Chicago Police Supt. Terry Hillard, though he’s no longer with the company. The city’s Internal Audit Director Ryan Patrick told the Minneapolis City Council in July Hillard Heintze’s founders are no longer with the company.

The team evaluating Minneapolis is composed of former San Jose Police Chief Robert Davis; former Chicago police officer Robert Boehmer; former executive assistant Houston police chief Michael Dirden; former Ohio State Patrol officer Chad McGinty; Massachusetts police chief Edward Denmark; former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms agent and director John Torres; former Ohio State Highway Patrol commander Wes Stought and Joshua Dennis, who worked 10 years for the Chicago Fire Department.

Minneapolis City Council Member Linea Palmisano — who led the effort to hire an outside group to do the review — said the council debated whether to request proposals for the review during budget deliberations in December. Once the council decided to go forward with a review, it unanimously voted Feb. 12 to approve the nearly $230,000 Hillard Heintze contract without discussion.

Palmisano said the company was vetted by city staff and selected as most qualified based on its legal background and experience with civil rights and community engagement. A key requirement was public trust, she said, so while some of the consultants come from law enforcement, many also are experienced in community engagement and police reform.

“I certainly push back on the notion that we contracted with a biased group that was leaning toward law enforcement,” Palmisano said. “Their recommendations on Breonna Taylor did not sugarcoat what happened.”

Palmisano is referring to a review conducted by Hillard Heintze of the Louisville Metro Police Department after the police killing of Taylor last year as police raided her apartment. The firm issued a scathing 150-page report on what it described as a low-morale department that’s not trusted by people of color.

The Chicago Sun-Times called the company a law enforcement dream team, and the Louisville Courier Journal said its reviews appear to be thorough and often highly critical. The company demands that departments keep records of stops and arrests to detect bias and release annual reports on officer discipline, the Journal reported.

Palmisano also said the Minneapolis team is a racially diverse, although the company’s own documents indicate the team leading the Minneapolis review is all male and mostly white. The team interviewed city staffers and council members, and Palmisano said their questions tended to be more open-ended compared to questions from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which she called “overtly biased.”  

Jensen Hughes officials declined to comment to the Reformer, but the company has defended its police pedigree in the past. The company was hired by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014 to do a federal review in Baltimore after the city paid out millions for police brutality cases, and has reviewed and monitored departments from the Chicago suburbs to San Francisco.

Davis — who is on the Jensen Hughes team evaluating Minneapolis — told the Baltimore Sun, “This is not window dressing,” and touted its federal contracts. In 2015, the Obama DOJ awarded Hillard Heintze a $50 million contract to help law enforcement agencies with internal reviews and reforms in nine cities.

​​Sam Walker, a use-of-force expert who is a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the firm is reputable.

Todd Schuman of Minneapolis became more politically active after the 2017 police killing of his neighbor, Justine Damond, who called 911 to report a possible assault. He filed public records requests about the police review and shared more than 400 pages he received with the Reformer

According to the documents, as of Aug. 17, the firm had done 96 interviews, reviewed almost 2,400 city documents and held two closed listening sessions with “various ward community leaders” and two open listening sessions with about 100 residents.

Schuman said he’s baffled by both the cost and presence of so many law enforcement veterans on the review team: “You don’t need a $250,000 consulting contract to tell your police officers to not spray chemical weapons into a non-violent crowd,” said “They know what they could do to fix these problems,” he said.

The documents indicate the company is analyzing the mayor’s participation in the MPD Command Center during the crisis, and communication between the mayor’s office and the police and fire departments, community and mutual aid agencies such as the office of Gov. Tim Walz and the National Guard.

Robert Bennett, an attorney who represented Castile and Damond’s families in their civil lawsuits and has dealt with the MPD since the 1980s, said the firm will find a “historically troubled and problemed police force.” 

The review is not expected to land until after the November city election, in which Mayor Jacob Frey and the City Council go before the voters, as well as a charter amendment that could strengthen the mayor’s hand over city administration, while another would give fresh authority to the City Council over a new Department of Public Safety. 

Mayoral candidate Kate Knuth said it’s important to build trust in the process of doing the review, and “it’s a concern to have such a police focus on the team.”

Other cities have had special prosecutors or independent investigators conduct reviews. Law enforcement should be part of the review, Knuth said, adding, “There’s important things about civilian authority, about protecting First Amendment rights, about basic human rights that I think are also important to have on the team.”

Among the 434 pages of documents Schuman obtained was a separate Hillard Heintze proposal to do a staffing and efficiency study of the MPD. The proposal said the firm would discount its rates 40% from the usual $378 hourly rate to $225 “because of our interest in building a strategic relationship with the City of Minneapolis.” They didn’t win that contract. 

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.