Minneapolis Police look on as demonstrators pass during the Black 4th protest on July 4, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A number of protest demonstrations occurred around the Twin Cities on Independence Day which were critical of the annual American celebration. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.
The city of Minneapolis is fighting back against the state of Minnesota after a scathing state Department of Human Rights report about the Minneapolis Police Department.
The city has raised questions about the report’s findings and delayed further negotiations with the state on a consent decree, which is a legally enforceable agreement to clean up the department.
Mayor Jacob Frey has openly questioned the wisdom of the city embarking on two consent decrees, one with the state and another with the U.S. Department of Justice, which is also investigating MPD for racist policing.
Frey’s hammer in this conflict with the state is the international law firm of Jones Day, which has taken on a larger role in negotiations since the departure of former City Attorney Jim Rowader, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations. After the state released the report in April, Rowader said the city was committed to working with state officials to address the issues raised.
After he left, the city attorney’s office canceled its regular meetings with MDHR.
“It appears that Jones Day is advocating for a more litigious path forward,” the source said.
Rowader didn’t respond to a request for comment.
After launching an investigation days after the 2020 Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, MDHR reported finding probable cause that the city of Minneapolis and its police department engage in a pattern or practice of race discrimination.
Last month, the city attorney halted negotiations on a consent decree with MDHR. The city attorney’s office said that after reviewing about 15,000 pages of documents, the office couldn’t find evidence to support the state’s contention that the Minneapolis Police Department used covert or fake social media accounts to surveil Black people and organizations without a public safety reason. The state report said as of December 2020, MPD didn’t do the same tracking of white nationalist groups.
The MDHR report was based on hundreds of interviews and a review of 700 hours of body-worn camera footage and nearly 480,000 pages of city documents.
The city attorney’s office has called on the state to substantiate some of the claims, including allegations of racial disparities in traffic stops; officers using racist, misogynistic, disrespectful language and failures to investigate and discipline officers for misconduct.
MDHR spokesman Taylor Putz released a statement to the Reformer saying the investigation was based on multiple data sources — not all of which are in city hands — and “every finding in MDHR’s probable cause determination is supported by robust evidence.”
Media outlets have already documented racist language by officers and deficiencies in MPD’s disciplinary system. A 2020 Reformer investigation found the department is slow to investigate complaints and mete out sanctions, even when officers are credibly accused of serious wrongdoing.
The Ohio-based firm, Jones Day, first got its foot in the city’s door by doing free work representing the city in negotiations with the police union. Later, the firm, whose clients have included Big Tobacco and Donald Trump, won a city contract worth up to $1 million.
Another source with knowledge of the negotiations said Jones Day attorneys are treating the city like any other client facing a lawsuit: “But this isn’t any other client facing a lawsuit. There’s not something really to be won here. Really what we should be aiming for is coming to an agreement.”
Christy Lopez is a Georgetown Law professor who served as a deputy chief in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice from 2010 to 2017. There, she led the group that conducted pattern-or-practice investigations as well as litigated and negotiated consent decrees. She managed the team that investigated the Ferguson Police Department and led investigations of police departments in Chicago, New Orleans and Newark and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.
Lopez said Jones Day is a “pretty high-priced law firm to be representing the city in a case like this.”
“My experience is that these cities tend to spend far too much on lawyers,” Lopez said. “I’ve always found that quite odd, and really unnecessary.”
Ferguson, Missouri, officials, for example, hired Dan Webb, at a rate of $1,335 an hour to negotiate reforms pushed by the DOJ after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer.
Minneapolis’ Interim City Attorney Peter Ginder released a statement Thursday saying Jones Day takes direction from the City Attorney’s Office in providing pro bono assistance responding to MDHR’s information requests and will assist with negotiations.
Jones Day also helps the city handle workers’ compensation claims.
The city paid Jones Day an average of nearly $157,000 per month from July through November for legal services related to a “Minneapolis Pattern and Practice Investigation,” according to invoices obtained by the Reformer through a records request.
Jones Day’s contract with the city was limited to $1 million, which it surpassed in November, when billings stopped, city documents show. So the firm’s work is free until the end of the discovery phase, according to city spokesman Casper Hill.
Most of the 76 pages of invoices were redacted by attorneys, but the few details remaining show Jones Day was charging the city $315 to $893 an hour for about 20 attorneys’ legal services. The city was also paying for those attorneys to fly to Minneapolis and stay at the Marquette Hotel for about $200 per night, and hundreds of dollars to chauffeur the lawyers around.
Jones Day Partner Yvette McGee Brown appears to be playing a key role, based on the invoices. She charged the city $74 for one meal and $585 for a plane ticket in October, the price after subtracting the cost of upgrading to first class.
Council left out of negotiations
The Minneapolis City Council has been briefed on the negotiations, but has been largely left out of it.
Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said the council hasn’t played a meaningful role in the discussions.
“I think we need to continue negotiating with the state towards a consent decree,” he said.
Council Member Robin Wonsley said Jones Day was part of the council briefing on the MDHR report, but she knows little about negotiations aside from what she reads in the media.
After the mayor said he wanted to avoid “dueling consent decrees that are providing multiple monitors, multiple administrators,” Wonsley tweeted that she appreciated the value of a “both-and” approach — following both the state’s consent decree and the forthcoming federal consent decree.
“That’s what happens when your city has a violent police force that city leaders are unwilling to challenge,” she tweeted in a shot at Frey’s frequent “both-and” position, which calls for both police reform and public safety.
Lopez said the city and state could talk about how to dovetail the two consent decrees — but they have to keep talking.
The posture the city has taken — questioning some of the state’s findings and demanding proof of them — is “pretty atypical,” Lopez said.
“Very few of the cities that DOJ investigated would fight the investigation or certainly fight the findings,” she said. “I think the difference here might be that this is a state investigation and they still see the federal investigation coming down the pike.”
But she’s still not sure why that would cause the city not to cooperate, since she thinks it’s unlikely the DOJ’s findings will be dramatically different.
“I don’t know if they’re just sort of trying to buy time until the DOJ investigation comes out,” Lopez said. “It’ll be interesting to see whether they… will fight the DOJ findings to the same extent.”
MDHR could sue to get city officials back to the negotiating table, which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Lopez said doing so is unusual but possible.
Lopez said city cooperation with state oversight agencies like the MDHR could lessen the need for federal oversight.
“I’d like to get to a place where they take their own state agencies — their own state oversight agencies — a little more seriously. And that would mean the DOJ wouldn’t have to come in as often. That would actually be a good thing for everyone.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.