On March 31, Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously among present council members (two absent) to approve a consent decree — a court-enforceable agreement — between the MN Department of Human Rights (MDHR) and the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) to make various reforms to MPD.
Will this settlement solve MPD’s patterns of human rights violations? Will Minneapolis be safer as a result of the consent decree?
Below is the context to consider in answering those questions:
MPD Consent Decree Details
The consent decree (full version available here) between MPD and MDHR is enforceable by the Hennepin County District Court. The two parties agreed to this settlement “to avoid the time and expense of taxpayer funded litigation.”
Basically, in exchange for not getting sued by the State of Minnesota, the MPD is entering an agreement to follow through with MDHR’s reform requirements. Hennepin County District Court can legally force MPD to complete the agreement if they are ever uncooperative. However, MPD greatly prefers this agreement to a potential lawsuit, so it is highly unlikely MPD ever refuses to comply.
The agreement is in place until 2027, but MDHR Commissioner Rebecca Lucero suggested the agreement’s timeline will be extended since city police departments (PDs) rarely meet reform goals in under five years.
MDHR’s Reform Requirements of MPD
MDHR has reform requirements for every aspect of MPD’s operation highlighted in their 2022 investigation of MPD. These include community engagement, non-discrimination policy, use of force, stop and search policy, data collection, and accountability (internal and external).
Court involvement and the legal documentation of MPD’s human rights violations make this agreement appear strong. But many details in the consent decree call into question the actual amount of change MPD is expected to make.
Throughout the document, MDHR credits MPD with already having many of the required “reforms” in place. The phrase “MPD will continue to…” can be found 23 times in the document. Some of these policies — which existed during the time period MPD was found guilty of human rights violations (2010-2020) — include rewarding officers for using de-escalation tactics and prohibiting race-based policing.
If many of the newly-required “reforms” have been in place for a while, it’s hard to argue these policies are effective at keeping citizens safe from criminal policing. If MPD has already been shown to regularly ignore and violate these policies, their inclusion in the consent decree is unconvincing.
Below are several of the more important non-recycled reforms MDHR has requested MPD to make:
- Review and, “if necessary,” revise the Impartial Policing Policy (i.e. anti-discrimination policy) (p. 11)
- Require officers, “regardless of tenure or rank,” to report any perceived violation of the Impartial Policing Policy (i.e. discrimination) to their Commander or superiors (p. 12)
- Officers who fail to report discriminatory policing “may be subject to discipline as if they themselves engaged in the … behavior”
- Require all “reportable uses of force” to be reviewed by a reporting supervisor and a reviewing supervisor (p. 30)
- If a supervisor sees or uses a “reportable use of force,” they can still serve as a reviewer of the use of force as long as another supervisor is unavailable “within a reasonable period of time”
- Permit officers to only use “objectively reasonable” force and have policies and procedures to train officers to use the lowest level of force necessary (p. 19)
- Require the City of Minneapolis to maintain a community oversight commission (which will be called the Community Commission on Police Oversight) to give local residents “meaningful participatory oversight” of MPD (p. 103)
These reforms, like many existing MPD policies, seem to directly address key issues upon first glance. But ultimately, the flexible language used in many terms and conditions in this agreement gives MPD the power to interpret these policies as they see fit. This includes subjective conditions for “objectively reasonable” force such as judgement calls on “immediate threat” levels and “mental capacity” of an individual.
Along with interpretation, enforcement of these required policies depends entirely on MPD doing so internally. Historically, this is a losing bet.
The new policy requirements cannot be celebrated in good faith given the well-documented history of MPD allowing racist and criminally violent police practices throughout the department in spite of past reforms specifically made to curb those practices.
The Newark PD Consent Decree Under Chief Brian O’Hara
For an idea of a consent decree’s impact on a police department, let’s look at Newark, New Jersey’s PD under their consent decree with the US Department of Justice between 2016 and 2021.
NPD was supervised through its consent decree by its former Deputy Chief and MPD’s current Chief Brian O’Hara, giving this comparison an extra layer of relevance as to how MPD and the City of Minneapolis may navigate the MPD consent decree.
In NPD’s case, a federal department of government oversaw the agreement rather than a state department. Given the DOJ’s ongoing investigation into MPD, this could also be MPD’s situation in the near future.
The NPD consent decree was assessed by a court-appointed federal monitor named Peter Harvey. The City of Newark was charged $7.4 million as of 2021 in fees to Harvey and another $4 million to comply with his reform requirements.
Newark mayor Ras Baraka believed the consent decree was oppressive to the City of Newark. Baraka and Newark City Council were frustrated with the consent decree’s increasing costs as time went on. Mayor Jacob Frey shared similar concerns as the MPD consent decree was announced, claiming this latest reform process could cost “tens of millions” of taxpayer dollars, requiring “difficult budget decisions in the future.”
(Minneapolis has a 2023 police budget of $200 million and 22 percent of property taxes go toward MPD.)
Despite Mayor Baraka’s claims that NPD made a lot of progress during the consent decree’s duration, federal monitor Harvey did not find NPD’s progress to be in full compliance with the consent decree. For this reason, NPD has undergone a series of federal audits (i.e. check-ins) between 2021 and 2023 to follow up on the consent decree. The last audit is scheduled for this month, April 2023.
In short, NPD had better community relations and fewer cases of police brutality under the consent decree but was not clean enough to meet the requirements of the agreement. And despite the decrease in criminal policing, NPD still managed to kill an unarmed Black man and lie about it while under the federal agreement. The City of Newark complained about the cost, the DOJ complained about NPD’s lack of progress, and the consent decree’s impact appears fleeting and minimal compared to local organizing efforts.
Police Department Consent Decrees Across The Nation Are Inconsistent
To date, consent decrees are the strongest form of external accountability a US city PD can experience. That being said, the power to choose whether or not to actually transform a local PD is always given to the local PD in question. For this reason, it is common to see a consent decree fail to bring about meaningful change within a PD and the city it serves.
Albuquerque PD entered a consent decree with the DOJ in 2014 after an investigation found their policing unconstitutional (i.e. in violation of the Fourth Amendment). What was a four-year reform plan continued to fail seven years later in 2021 when APD was shown to have lost progress on implementing new trainings and field operations. APD continued to keep poor data on officer conduct, practice unconstitutional policing, and not discipline officers who violate APD policies and/or the Constitution of the United States of America. All of this under federal supervision of a court-enforceable agreement.
Baltimore PD saw a modest decrease (15 percent) in use of force two years into their 2017 consent decree with DOJ. The 2021 report on BPD’s progress with the decree also found lingering issues with severe uses of force and “insufficient evidence” to show BPD was building a culture of internal accountability.
Oddly enough, the relative success of BPD’s consent decree is making authorities question if “good” policing still fails to negate violent crime or community distrust. At a public hearing in January 2023, Judge James K. Bredar, the US District Judge overseeing BPD’s consent decree, openly wondered if BPD’s reported improvements are doing anything to improve public safety stating homicides and shootings “refuse to abate.”
In many cases, cities and PDs under consent decrees point to “staff shortage” as the biggest reason for their inability to make required reforms despite PDs across the country receiving even more money after the supposed “Defund” movement. Flaws in the belief of a police “shortage” are numerous and serve as political rhetoric toward the goal of a well-funded system of punishment rather than a safer population.
How The Word “Reform” Lost Its Integrity
“Reform” has become a dubious word in the decade since police brutality became a mainstream issue in the USA. From body-worn cameras (BWCs) to bias training, various policing reforms across the country have failed to address — and have sometimes worsened — fundamental ills of American policing including racism, excessive use of force, and poor community relations. Minneapolis is no different.
Announcements of “reform” require a closer look in the city where Amir Locke was killed during a no-knock search warrant after Mayor Frey “banned” (i.e. lied about banning) no-knock warrants:
Many reforms have maintained or worsened systemic criminal conduct by police.
Bias trainings, for instance, shield PDs from greater scrutiny or penalty after high-profile cases of racist policing. PDs get more money and staff to implement such trainings and policies while their officers continue their racist practices unchecked. BWC footage, touted as a tool for police accountability, has mostly been left in control of PDs to use at their convenience which includes strategic use of footage to convict people and gathering information on civilians for facial recognition data. Frustratingly enough, BWC use is listed as a requirement in many consent decrees including MPD’s.
The idea that PDs need “fixing” is fading as reform effort after reform effort fails to transform how police officers operate. Take, for example, the previously mentioned Community Commission on Police Oversight (CCPO), the City of Minneapolis’ third version of a civilian team reviewing police misconduct complaints. While the stated goal is to give residents “meaningful participatory oversight” of the police officers who patrol their streets, these are the conditions under which they can “oversee” police:
- The CCPO will review police misconduct complaints in teams of five — three CCPO members and two sworn MPD officers
- The CCPO can review police misconduct complaints and recommend actions to the Chief of Police; the Chief is free to decide what to do with CCPO recommendations
- The CCPO does not have the power to mandate an officer’s discipline if they find an officer guilty of misconduct
(The CCPO will have 15 appointed members — 13 for each ward selected by respective city council members, 2 selected by the mayor.)
So, even in the civilian review board that does not have true power to hold MPD accountable, police officers are directly involved in the police misconduct review process.
Like city governments and PDs throughout the US, intense skepticism of Minneapolis’ proposed “reforms” to MPD is well-earned.
No Permanent Fix
Among MDHR’s most conclusive statements in its 2022 MPD report is “Without fundamental organizational culture changes, reforming MPD’s policies, procedures, and trainings will be meaningless.” It is very unlikely MDHR’s required reforms will transform MPD culture enough to make the new policies, procedures, and trainings meaningful.
A consent decree can have the effect of a company executive coming in to observe one of the company’s satellite offices: workers sit up a little straighter, talk less, and do more until the exec is satisfied. As long as no entry-level employee scans their butt or takes a nap while the big boss is around, they can keep doing exactly what they were doing once the observation is over.
Nationally, even the best results from PD consent decrees — which are nothing close to real “overhauls” — still need more time to be validated. In the meantime, cities and PDs under consent decrees are asking for and receiving more money to continue funding unconstitutional policing that harms those who are supposed to be protected and served.
Editor’s note: Minneapolis city attorney Kristyn Anderson insisted this agreement was specifically a “court-enforceable settlement agreement” and not a “consent decree.” However, we find no meaningful distinction between the two terms given that “court-enforceable settlement agreement” is the literal definition of “consent decree.” Furthermore, Attorney General Keith Ellison is quoted referring to the agreement as a “consent decree,” hence our use of the term throughout this article.