A close reading of the DOJ’s breathtaking report on the unlawful behavior of the MPD

The (mostly) white liberals who have run the city for decades bear responsibility

July 14, 2023 7:00 am

Police prepare to open fire with tear gas and non-lethal rounds on a group of demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Minnesota high school students are now required to pass a course in civics to graduate. 

“Investigation of the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department” should be a canonical text in any Minnesota civics class, for it illustrates the tyrannical government the nation was ostensibly founded to prevent. 

Minneapolis may not exactly be ruled by a monarch or a tyrant, but that ignores the true nature of oppressive rule in America today, which is most likely to come from a local law enforcement agency. 

“The patrolling officer on his beat is the one true dictatorship in America,” said Baltimore homicide detective Jimmy McNulty of the HBO drama “The Wire.”  

In his way, he was channeling 18th century French philosopher Montesquieu, who wrote, “There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.

The federal government’s June report about the Minneapolis Police Department — compiled by investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the Minnesota Office of the U.S. Attorney — paints a ghastly portrait. It’s written in a clear and stoic prose, even when describing the casual cruelty of an officer dragging a white man in handcuffs down some stairs and pressing his weight into his chest, face and neck. 

“The man said, ‘Get your (expletive) knee off my head, it hurts.’ The officer responded, ‘No. This is how we operate.’ The supervisor concluded the use of force “follow[ed] policy.”

The crime that precipitated this treatment? Trespassing, unarmed, into a vacant house. 

If you’re a Black teen and you steal a $5 burrito, be warned: An off-duty officer might pull his gun on you and throw you on the hood of his car. 

The DOJ writers revel a bit in stating the obvious: “Unholstering a gun was an unreasonable use of force in the absence of a threat.”

The incident was not without consequence: “When we spoke to the teen’s mother, she reported that after the incident her son experienced a sense of ‘helpless rage,’ as well as feelings of ‘frustration’ and ‘powerlessness.’”

Here’s another example from the report that crosses into the absurd: Someone turned in a teenager’s lost wallet at an MPD precinct front desk. When the teen’s mother came to retrieve the wallet, it was gone. During an MPD investigation, the desk officer admitted that he had failed to inventory and secure the wallet. MPD dismissed the complaint as having “no basis.” Even though MPD knew the name of the desk sergeant, someone crossed out the name in the investigative file and replaced it with “unknown officer.”

If you’re having trouble sympathizing with a trespasser or a kid who steals a $5 burrito, let’s try another. 

“Officers carefully searched the shirtless, compliant driver for weapons and found none. An officer then said, ‘OK, we’re going to hook you up just for safety, OK?’ and handcuffed the driver. The driver objected, but was forced to stand handcuffed by the side of the road for five minutes before being released.”

You ever been handcuffed for no good reason? Made to stand on the side of the road, your neighbors gawking at you?

I did a search of the report for the word “unlawful,” and it turns up 45 times. Mind you, the people committing “unlawful” acts in this 89-page document are the police.  

As I read, I kept wondering how certain people I know would react to this kind of treatment, especially if it were routine.  

I’m thinking especially of the types who pledge to be libertarians, guardians against big government encroaching on us — folks who had a temper tantrum during the pandemic about wearing a mask on an airplane. 

How would they respond if they were subject to this kind of policing?

Well, that’s the thing, right? I’m thinking mostly of a certain kind of white guy, and this behavior is primarily — though not exclusively — directed at Black and Native American residents.

During the years the DOJ investigated — 2016 to 2022 — Minneapolis officers were constantly stopping Black and Native American drivers without a good reason for doing so. 

Investigators estimate MPD stops Black people at 6.5 times the rate at which it stops white people and stops Native American people at 7.9 times the rate at which it stops white people. 

We know many were bogus stops because the officers often didn’t cite the person they stopped. 

MPD stopped but did not cite or arrest Black people at 5.7 times the rate of white people, given their shares of the population. And Native Americans were stopped but not cited or arrested at 5.9 times the rate.

(In the most extreme example, officers made no arrest in 22% of the 198 instances they used a neck restraint, which is a polite phrase for a chokehold.) 

The same discrepancies appear in body and car searches — many of them likely in violation of the Fourth Amendment — and use of force. 

DOJ investigators report that MPD used force in more than 15,000 encounters with people, and used force against Black people at 9 times the rate that it used force against white people per capita, and used force against Native American people at 14 times the rate for whites.

The DOJ also worked the data to control for time of year, time of day and the behavior of the person the officers interacted with, so they could make apples-to-apples comparisons. They found 22% more searches of Black people than white people, 37% more vehicle searches and 24% more use of force during the two-year period after George Floyd’s murder, i.e., the behavior was so ingrained that it persisted even after the earthquake event of Memorial Day 2020. 

Moreover, the police tend to use force indiscriminately and without a good reason: Roughly three-quarters of the time MPD reported using force, it was for incidents that did not involve a violent or weapons offense.

Setting aside the racial discrimination at the heart of the crisis, the unlawful, authoritarian behavior of MPD places everyone at risk. The report is filled with examples of unconstitutional force used on protestors, the press and people experiencing mental health emergencies

Still, if you’re white, I’d ask that you consider what life would be like if you were frequently stopped and searched and sometimes assaulted, even when you followed the law. 

Or if your children were subjected to this treatment? ”MPD used force against Black and Native American youth at significantly higher rates than against white adults,” according to the report. (Emphasis mine.)

Domestic insurrections

This state of affairs is not terribly surprising, given the history. Many Minnesotans were born in an era when homeowners in some places weren’t allowed to sell their property to Black people, who were considered second-class citizens. 

The percentage of Black people who own homes in Minneapolis is more than 50 percentage points lower than the rate for other races.

Since we’re talking history, we could go back even farther, all the way to the Declaration of Independence, another text for our mandatory civics instruction. And I don’t mean the part we all know, the justly venerated “All men are created equal” bit. I mean this line amongst the catalog of complaint against the crown: 

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”

The “domestic insurrections” of the first clause refers to slave revolts, which Thomas Jefferson thought were a bad thing. The sentence’s second clause is easier to discern in all its revolting racism. 

America has forever been at war with itself like this; all men are created equal on the one hand, but also slavery and genocide on the other. 

In the Minneapolis Police Department, they haven’t been too big on the “all men are created equal” bit. 

There’s the racist policing, but they also tend to show a special indifference — contempt even — for a particularly vulnerable population: People in mental health crisis.

An example from the DOJ report: Officers respond to a call about a white man in his front yard undergoing a mental health episode. 

“The man was compliant with officer orders to sit on his front steps. At a quiet moment during the encounter — the man was seated, unarmed, and not posing a threat to anyone — an officer fired his taser without warning. After the man stood up in pain, he fell to the ground, officers handcuffed him, and EMS eventually sedated him.”

(Wonder if this was one of the times when EMS — at the urging of police — gave a person ketamine without consent.) 

Luckily, MPD has all the knowledge it needs when it comes to treating people humanely: “One officer told us he did not need training to know someone is ‘off their rocker.’” 

Told us, i.e., a Department of Justice investigator. 

This openly contemptuous attitude toward people with mental illness pairs with the open racism, like the infamous Christmas tree of the 4th precinct, which was bedecked with “ornaments” like a pack of menthols and a Popeyes cup that were meant to demean Black people in the neighborhood, though what I’ve always taken from that story is that the cops weren’t raised right

In its totality, what’s evident in the report is a longstanding revanchism of some Americans — turbocharged in recent years by Trumpism —  about who is really American and therefore entitled to all the rights laid out in the U.S. Constitution and an equal say in how we govern ourselves.

The real culprit

We must not dwell too much, however, on the rank-and-file officers or the motivations — be they ideological or just atavistic barbarism — that drive their disrespect for their fellow Minnesotans, especially Black and Indigenous. Doing so would absolve the civilian authority to which the police report, like letting Donald Rumsfeld off the hook for Iraq.

We should not shift accountability away from where it belongs: The (mostly) white liberals who have been running Minneapolis forever — the mayors going back decades who have sole authority over the police department, and the business and political elites who put them there. 

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey speaks at a news conference on April 19, 2021, as the jury begins deliberations in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Which brings us to another text for the new Minnesota high school civics class, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which King decries the complacency of the white moderates who question his confrontational methods and urge patience.

King writes: “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

Since Floyd’s 2020 murder, Mayor Jacob Frey, first elected in 2017, has touted a reform agenda, but the actions of MPD detailed in the report cast doubt on whether he’s instituted it.

The city now sends behavioral health specialists out to some distress calls, instead of police. Frey has shown an openness to other alternatives to policing, like so-called violence interrupters, who are often formerly incarcerated people who use their knowledge and contacts to mediate and end cycles of retribution. He placed restrictions on certain tactics like neck restraints and no-knock warrants. 

Frey told DOJ investigators: “We need help changing and reforming this department,” and the reforms “need to permeate the department itself.” 

Frey added: “Clearly, we still have a long way to go.”


Racial disparities continued in car stops after Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests — even though “the percentage of daily stops with known race data recorded dropped from about 71% just before May 25, 2020, to about 35% afterwards” as officers flouted department policy. 

From 2020 to 2022, DOJ investigators estimate MPD stopped Black pedestrians and drivers at 7.8 times the rate at which they stopped white people; for Native American pedestrians and drivers, the rate was 10 times higher than for white people.

That should come as no surprise — investigators found that officers patrol areas of the city differently based on the racial composition of the neighborhood. 

What really comes through in the DOJ report is a sense of impunity, the belief that rules don’t apply to MPD like they do to everyone else. Probably because no one has ever forced them to abide by those rules. 

The U.S. Department of Justice was formed in 1870. As Bryan Greene relayed in Smithsonian a few years ago, the focus of then-Attorney General Amos T. Akerman was “the protection of Black voting rights from the systematic violence of the Ku Klux Klan.” 

And so we turn to Attorney General Merrick Garland to clean up the mess.

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two young children