Residents seek role in federal investigation into Minneapolis police

Residents seek role in federal investigation into Minneapolis police

Minneapolis Terrence Jackson remembers driving on Lake Street in 2002 when he saw police arresting his cousin for driving with an invalid license. When he stopped the car and offered to take his cousin’s car home to keep it from towing, things went badly.

Jackson said one of the officers grabbed his hand and bent it back “in an effort to get me to respond.” When he got his boots off while he was tied up, another officer threw him across the parking lot.

Jackson, 63, is one of more than 1,000 people who have recounted their encounters with Minneapolis police against activist groups that plan to share their stories with US Department of Justice officials conducting a civil rights investigation into the police force. This effort aims to ensure that members of the community have a say in the investigation, which began the day after former officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd.

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Investigators are looking into whether the Minneapolis police have demonstrated an illegal or unconstitutional policing “pattern or practice.” They also examine the police department’s use of force, including against protesters, its treatment of people with behavioral health problems, accountability systems, and whether officers have participated in discriminatory policing.

The investigation can result in a consent decree under which the department is legally obligated to make certain changes.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on progress in the civil rights investigation or specify how much weight investigators might place on civilian accounts given to them by groups, because the investigation is ongoing.

But Kristi Lopez, a former Justice Department official, said such accounts could help guide investigations. Those who help collect civilian accounts say they believe the stories will make it difficult for investigators to ignore abuses.

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“It’s one thing to see things in the document. It’s another thing for someone to say to you, ‘This is what happened to me,’ or ‘This is what the police did to me,'” said Michelle Gross, a member of one of the groups, United Communities Against Police Brutality.

“This kind of information puts a face on the problem and also shows the pattern,” she said.

The Associated Press submitted a records request to the police department for information on Jackson’s 2002 meeting with the officers, but a spokesperson said the department had no record of the event.

The Justice Department’s investigation was unaffected by the campaign for a ballot initiative that Minneapolis voters rejected in early November to replace the city’s police department with a reimagined public safety agency that would have relied less on armed officers. The state investigation is still ongoing.

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Investigations of style or practice became a tool for combating police misconduct in the 1990s, when the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers for beating Rodney King sparked riots in the city and protests across the country. After an independent commission determined that King’s assault was ultimately due to an institutional failure within the Los Angeles Police Department, Congress authorized the attorney general to investigate whether a “pattern or practice of law enforcement officers’ conduct” violated individuals’ civil rights.

From the first such investigation in Pittsburgh in 1997, through 2016, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division conducted nearly 70 formal investigations for police departments across the country resulting in 40 reform agreements, according to agency data.

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The Minneapolis investigation was the first of three Justice Department investigations into domestic law enforcement launched during the Biden administration. It is also investigating police actions in Louisville, Kentucky, following the death of Briona Taylor, and in Phoenix over allegations of excessive force.

If investigators find a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing in Minneapolis, federal and city officials will negotiate the required changes, or consent decree. A federally appointed monitor oversees the progress and reports to a federal judge. Insufficient progress or failure to follow the ordinance could result in the federal government taking control of the department.

It might sound similar to the agreement between the Department of Justice and the city of Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the murder of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer in 2014. The agreement changed Ferguson Police Force policies on the use of force, body cameras, and searches And confiscation, respond to protests.

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Lopez, who led the group within the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division that conducted investigations into the pattern or practice from 2010 to 2017, said stories from community members can help direct investigators toward officers, units, tactics or specific types of interactions. She said the number and consistency of complaints could alert investigators to patterns of illegal police encountered only by members of the community, and they could then verify those accounts with documents from the city, such as arrest records and police records.

This proved true in Ferguson when accounts from members of the public helped Lopez’s team identify problems within the municipal court system, which was also part of the agreement that followed.

“In Ferguson, if you had just gone there and looked at the fatal shootings and the use of force, because that’s what happened to Michael Brown, you would have focused on that,” she said. But by talking to people, we really learned how concerned they are about fines and fees, and how they use the courts to abuse people’s rights. We would have totally missed it if we hadn’t talked to people and listened to their stories.”

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Iris Rowley, founder of Cincinnati Black United Front, said her community played an important role in crafting the agreement between their city and federal officials after the murders of Jeffrey Irons and Roger Owensby Jr. by Cincinnati officers in 2000. Rowley said her group compiled more than 400 reports of police brutality and abuse Behavior from community members who were brave enough to come forward despite fear of retaliation.

“What we did is when we listened to our community – the black community – we received complaints and we turned complaints into training, we received training and we turned that into policy,” she said.

Rowley said the agreement brought about changes in police department policies, including officers’ use of force. But she said the document was not a panacea, and that policing continues to evolve and requires constant oversight.

Lopez said investigators aim to complete investigations and release results within a year, but that it varies from case to case, with Ferguson taking six months while others take years. Although it may take another year to negotiate the consent decree with Minneapolis and bring it to court, Lopez said investigators are always aware of the urgent need to present their findings and begin the process of improvement.

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“There’s always a tension between the high urgency at the moment – which is very real – and wanting to take advantage of this opportunity, you have to learn everything you can about the department because you know that’s how you develop the best treatment to fix the problem,” she said.

Gross Group in Minneapolis has amassed more than 1,400 citizen accounts. In some cases, activists ask people to share their stories directly with investigators.

Jackson said he hopes his story and others will help bring about much-needed change to the city’s police force.

“When I grew up in North Minneapolis, we had officers in our community and we played with their kids, they got nothing but respect. They knew everyone’s family, they were from the neighborhood. It’s a whole different thing now.”

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Mohamed Ibrahim is an Associated Press/Reporting for America’s Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program that puts journalists in local newsrooms to report confidential issues.

Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.

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