Minneapolis’ legacy of failure on police accountability

December 13, 2022 5:59 am

Protesters are shot with pepper spray as they confront police outside the Third Police Precinct on May 27, 2020. The city has settled a wave of workers’ comp cases with police officers since the murder of George Floyd. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

Mayor Jacob Frey and members of the Minneapolis City Council have inherited and perpetuated a sad history of failures to fix a long-broken system of police discipline. For the past quarter century or more, these failures have harmed residents — especially people of color —and unfairly tarnished the good name of dedicated officers compelled to work with officers who have betrayed their badge.    

One more chapter of this legacy will be written this Tuesday when most of the council seems poised to pass an even further weakening of public citizen input into policing. I write this column from the perspective of one who has seen the avoidance of these issues from inside City Hall and from the perspective of a prosecuting attorney who currently enjoys working with law enforcement every day.

There have been many chances to go in a different direction. The departure of Police Chief William McManus, who cited “job insecurity” when he resigned in March 2006 to take over as police chief in San Antonio, was a huge blow to police reform. He diversified the leadership ranks in the department and had a proven record of working with communities of color. His departure was largely a result of the mayor and council’s collective failure to signal the support he needed for reappointment. He also spoke uncomfortable truths. He became one of the longest serving police chiefs in America in San Antonio.

The appointment of Tim Dolan as McManus’ successor in 2006 was a packaged public relations effort void of any coming to terms with issues in the department. Not long after McManus’ departure, an MPD reform plan to include a deputy chief to address institutional racism was hidden from public view and never received a public hearing. Dolan subsequently presented his plan to use “coaching” to improve policing. We now know that the primary impact of “coaching” — which is not considered discipline and therefore not a public record — has been to hide 90% of sustained conduct violations from public view.

Over the past decade, the mayor and City Council have relied on “attorney-client privilege” to shield their uncomfortable discussions of excessive force by police from the public. Following the conviction of former officer Mohamed Noor — who killed Justine Damond — every juror expressed outrage and shock that the serious issues of police oversight and training had been left unaddressed by the city. The City Council refused to have any public discussion of the lessons learned from these  tragic deaths. Instead, they met in closed session and congratulated themselves for their generosity in giving public funds to the victims’ families.  

Following a death resulting from the use of a chokehold by an MPD officer in 2010, the City Council awarded a large financial settlement, which also included provisions requiring changes in police training relating to the use of chokeholds. 

Nonetheless on the day of George Floyd’s murder, the MPD use of force policy — a public document — still permitted “unconscious neck restraint.” NBC News reported that since 2015, neck restraints were used 237 times by MPD officers, and that in 44 separate incidents people were rendered unconscious because of chokeholds. Despite having the power to ban “unconscious neck restraints” — and arguably the obligation to do so under a court decree — it took the international spotlight of Floyd’s murder for the council to finally act.

Did the murder of Floyd rouse the mayor and City Council to own up to these problems and fix them? Far from it. The calls to “disband, demolish and defund” police departments were not only irresponsible, they were a damning admission that the city’s elected officials were unwilling or unable to govern. Webster’s Dictionary defines “govern” as “to hold in check” or “control, direct, or strongly influence the actions and conduct.” Rather than all of us collectively taking up this challenge, we divided into camps — one irresponsibly vilifying the police and the other paying mere lip service to the problems.

For those who believed the new City Council would open an era of problem solving over politics, the abject failure to address issues in the city’s contract with the Minneapolis Police Federation was news that the old-style of “duck, run and spin” remains in style at City Hall. The City Council chose to do nothing to address the coaching issue even though a minor change in the contract could have addressed it. The majority said that it was too late to make changes and maybe next time.

I was in a very small minority that supported both charter change proposals in the last election. I have always supported a strong executive mayor subject to vigorous oversight of the executive branch by the City Council. I also believe in the City Council’s essential legislative role in setting policies for the MPD. I believe that the mayor’s “exclusive authority” over MPD relates only to his executive authority. Given the critical importance of transparency and accountability in the oversight of policing, this is the moment where the council must fight for the crucial role it plays in our city’s democracy.

Ten years ago, Seattle passed an 87-page comprehensive “Police Accountability Act” during federal oversight of its police department. No less a comprehensive approach is required in Minneapolis. City Council members need to decide what they want their legacy to be — a continuation of failures that may lead to another police murder, or a line in the sand that says clearly and unequivocally that the work of governing the MPD must finally begin. 

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Paul Ostrow
Paul Ostrow

Paul Ostrow, chair of Fentanyl Free Communities, has been assistant Anoka County attorney for 12 years and previously served as Minneapolis City Council president.