To reform Minneapolis Police Department, look to Northern Ireland and the Patten Report

October 4, 2022 6:00 am

A Minneapolis police squad car in May 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Recent commentaries on Minneapolis policing suggest adding more police or forging a court order requiring multiple governmental and community entities to enter a compact to “achieve racial justice and equity, reduce crime, increase safety for all and foster trust throughout our community.”

The first approach is too narrow; the second is too vague and unrealistic. Simply adding more police does not address the need to transform the culture of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD); yet a grand plan to resolve problems in the MPD by involving multiple parties in a compact is unfocused and impractical.

An approach much more likely to succeed is the model created by the Patten Commission (formally the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland). It was tasked with transforming policing in the six counties by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that resolved “the Troubles.”

The Patten Report was released in 1999. It may not appear intuitive on its face that the issues facing the MPD following the murder of George Floyd are comparable to those of the Royal Ulster Constabulary after the decadeslong sectarian violence from 1968-98, during which over 3,600 people were killed by police, military and paramilitary forces. But the MPD has built up decades of mistrust in minority communities comparable if not identical to the effects of decadeslong mistreatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland.

The last 10 years of abuse of minority group members by the MPD are amply documented in the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) findings released in June 2022. Earlier investigations, including those in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, documented previous decades of similar abuses.

The issues facing the MPD are significant, but no more formidable than those in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s.

Mayor Jacob Frey has repeatedly proclaimed that Minneapolis will be a role model for policing reform. He has often quoted J. Scott Thompson, former president of the Police Executive Research Forum and former Camden, N.J., police chief who transformed policing there, “Within a police department, culture eats policy for breakfast.” The MDHR findings also concluded that “without fundamental organizational cultural change, reforming MPD’s policies, procedures and trainings will be meaningless.”

Yet, to date, there have been no recommendations that address changing the culture of the MPD.

The Patten Report is widely credited with transforming the culture and practices of policing in Northern Ireland. The Patten Commission was chaired by conservative politician Lord Chris Patten and had eight members and a secretary. Among its members was Kathleen O’Toole, then Boston police commissioner, later Seattle police chief, and consultant or court-appointed monitor for several Department of Justice (DOJ) Pattern-or-Practice investigations.

The Patten Report made 175 recommendations across 19 thematic areas. The recommendations echoed many made by Frey’s work group on community safety regarding best practices on recruitment, training, accountability and oversight. But it also incorporated the key recommendation that the protection of human rights is fundamental to the performance of policing duties and must be the core of policing — and that upholding the law and upholding human rights are not separate.

In 2016, George Hamilton, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said, “As a police officer, human rights protect me, my family and my community, and I think that is something to be cherished.” The parties to the Troubles, including Sinn Fein and Loyalist groups, have joined over time in supporting the reforms produced by the Patten Report.

Americans do not often look overseas for solutions to problems, but in this case we should.

While the government structure in Northern Ireland, a constituent country of Great Britain, differs from the city of Minneapolis, the tripartite accountability system (a board that oversees the police agency; an ombudsman to investigate complaints; and an inspectorate that conducts periodic inspections of policies and practices and recommends reforms and improvements) can be adapted to fit the MPD, mayor, City Council and independent oversight bodies. It could be incorporated into MDHR and DOJ consent decrees with the city and MPD.

The mayor, City Council, MPD and community groups need not reinvent the wheel. The Patten Report is a viable model for transforming Minneapolis policing. It wasn’t easy there, and it won’t be easy here. But it’s a worthwhile start.

This guest commentary first appeared in the Star Tribune and is published with permission of the author. 

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.

James Roth
James Roth

James Roth is a senior research and advocacy fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School Human Rights Center.