DOJ finds Minneapolis police discriminate against Native Americans, a first in the country

By: - June 22, 2023 7:00 am

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announces the results of a federal investigation into racist policing in Minneapolis on Friday, June 16, 2023. Photo by H. Jiahong Pan/Minnesota Reformer

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that federal investigators found, for the first time ever, a U.S. police department discriminates against not only Black people, but also Native Americans.

The Justice Department also made another first-time finding: the Minneapolis Police Department discriminates against Black and Native people by disproportionately using force during stops.

A two-year federal investigation sparked by George Floyd’s 2020 police murder found MPD routinely uses excessive force and discriminates against people based on race.

Investigators reviewed five years of data — about 187,000 traffic and pedestrian stops from November 2016 to August 2022 — and found MPD searches and uses force on Blacks and Native Americans more frequently than during stops of white people, even when they behave similarly.

“This is the first time we have made a finding that the police department unlawfully discriminates by using force after stops against Black and Native American people,” said Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, during a Friday news conference.

Garland launched the investigation into MPD shortly after he took office in the spring of 2021, and found MPD recklessly, routinely uses excessive force, is inadequately trained and rarely held accountable for misconduct.

Mike Forcia, a Native activist who works at a homeless shelter for Native Americans, said the finding “wasn’t shocking in the least.”

“They spent all that money to come up with what we’ve been saying for years,” said Forcia, who is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Yohuru Williams, a history professor and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas, said, “It was good to see that named. I think it was very important to have those experiences validated for the indigenous community, particularly.”

Police brutality is one of the reasons the American Indian Movement was formed in Minneapolis in 1968.

It’s the reason Arthur Cunningham, head of the NAACP in Minneapolis, accused the MPD in 1975 of declaring war on Blacks and Indians, he said.

And it’s the reason why in the 1980s, Native Americans said they were being targeted by police, who justified it by saying they were drunk and disorderly, Williams said.

In 1975, when the state Department of Human Rights held hearings on police and the Black community, Indigenous people said, “that’s us too,” Williams said.

“It’s a longstanding problem with the department,” he said. 

Even though Minneapolis has a large number of Native Americans, their allegations of disparate treatment in traffic stops and excessive force get less attention, he said.

“Indigenous folks are still invisible in our community as a whole, even now,” Williams said. “We just don’t — for a host of reasons, all of which are not flattering to our community — recognize the disproportionate impacts on Indigenous people.”

Before Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara was hired, Forcia took him to Little Earth, a housing complex that serves mostly Indigenous people, and explained how the American Indian Movement started. O’Hara asked Forcia to speak at his ceremonial oath of office event.

Forcia agreed, and during the event, he talked about how they were planting seeds of trust, transparency and community — but planting is the easy part. The hard part, he said, is cultivating and pulling weeds.

Forcia told O’Hara he knows what it’s like to have the knee of a Minneapolis cop on his neck: He was paid a $125,000 settlement after getting beaten in 1999 by police who thought he stole a car because “I was a Native American with a jean jacket and ponytail running from the scene.”

One of the officers who assaulted him, Brian Sand, was later promoted to be internal affairs commander.

Last year, Forcia worked with Sand for a May Day Parade. Sand apologized.

“I forgave him,” Forcia said.

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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.