George Floyd died on May 25, 2020, after Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin detained him for the potential crime of using a counterfeit $20 bill, kneeled on Floyd’s neck and refused to move as Floyd pleaded for his life, repeating that he could not breathe.
Predictably, the discourse around the harms of law enforcement in America exploded in the aftermath — another day, another extrajudicial killing of a Black man by police. But something felt even more insidious about the way in which Chauvin, along with his partners J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, willfully ignored Floyd’s cries for help, even when it was obvious the detained man posed little threat.
Prosecutors claimed that Chauvin was just a “bad apple” who didn’t follow the laws and ethos of a just police officer. Those who had lived in Minneapolis and experienced life under rule of the MPD, however, knew that there was nothing new about Chauvin or his mindset. “The truth is, we do not have a good history,” Jamar B. Nelson, 41, a longtime community activist, told the New York Times days after Floyd’s killing. “The biggest complaint is that the community feels the police department is racist, bigoted and uncaring about the black community.”
On April 27th, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights released a damning 72-page report on the abuses and systemic flaws of MPD — the result of reviewing hundreds of hours of body-cam footage, nearly half a million pages of city and police documents, interviews with officers and community members and a decade of documented instances in which police used violent force against a suspect. The conclusion of this two-year investigation is clear, finding probable cause that Minneapolis and the MPD “engage in a pattern or practice of race discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.”
The sins of MPD is a distinct product of individual officers, police leaders and longstanding social tensions in Minneapolis, but the department’s problems are hardly unique in the landscape of American policing. From large agencies like the NYPD and LAPD to those in small towns around the country, we have seen and heard the same tragic mistakes play out again and again, whether it’s the disproportionate harassment of Black people or the repeated failure of cops to de-escalate unpredictable situations. Most of all, the new report reminds us that calls for reform have failed because reform cannot happen in the confines of a police system with gaping holes in oversight, accountability and cultural integrity.
Of course, the specific details of the problems in Minneapolis are shocking, even if we’ve heard similar statistics from similar cities all over the U.S. Consider that all but one of the 14 victims killed by MPD between 2010 and 2020 were people of color or Indigenous, despite those demographics only comprising 42 percent of the city’s population. Even if you increase the sample size by looking at uses of “severe force” by police rather than killings, the racial bias remains impossible to ignore. “Although Black individuals comprise approximately 19 percent of the Minneapolis population, MPD’s data shows that between January 1, 2010, to December 31, 2020, 63 percent of all use of force incidents that MPD officers recorded were against Black individuals,” the report states.
While neck restraints (that is, pressing on the neck to control a person on the ground) were explicitly banned by the MPD after Floyd’s killing, a review of past incidents showed that officers were almost twice as likely to use the widely criticized technique against Black individuals than white individuals, even when controlling for suspect behavior and the alleged offense that police responded to. Traffic stops were biased, too: Officers were 12 percent more likely to stop a car occupied by a person of color when it was light outside, compared to when it was dark outside, indicating the presence of racial profiling. And the specific disparity for Black individuals being pulled over is alarming: Although they comprise about 19 percent of the population in Minneapolis, between 2017 and 2020, Black people (and their vehicles) were subject to some 78 percent of all searches.
What is perhaps most damning about the investigation, however, are the trends and behaviors of the department that cannot be so easily quantified. The report found all sorts of abuses of power, ranging from a “high-level” MPD leader admitting that officers often arrest people for merely pissing them off, to the revelation that officers stop cars driven by people of color without probable cause, profiling them simply in the hopes of confiscating firearms or drugs.
Beyond merely judging others by their race, MPD officers went a step further, pretending to be Black on social media and setting up sock-puppet accounts to interact with Black activists, organizations and elected officials, often for the purpose of surveillance or even covert advocacy in support of police. Meanwhile, at least up until December 2020, not a single social media account was used in the same way to track local white nationalist and far-right extremist groups. To top it all off, the investigation found no formal oversight mechanism for this covert social media work, lacking even a basic inventory of the accounts being used.
Usually, prosecutors have symbiotic relationships with police, sometimes even helping them get away with misconduct. But in Minneapolis, county prosecutors complained to investigators that MPD officers are so disrespectful to community members and offensive in their language that their body-cam footage is often unreliable in a jury trial. Officers and supervisors were found to freely use slurs and racist imagery in conversation, even against fellow officers of color.
On paper, these offenses could be addressed — but in practice, officers guilty of misconduct simply fell through the cracks. The report found that half of the misconduct investigations led by Minneapolis’ Office of Police Conduct Review, a third-party agency, were improperly conducted. And some 37 percent of officers who were assigned “coaching” to address their misconduct never saw a minute of corrective action.
Taken in tandem, the statistical biases and cultural failures of policing in Minneapolis paint a clear image of internal rot that has decayed the department’s relationship with every entity it touches. While many of the criticisms point to the inadequate training of officers, only a handful of flaws can be explained as operational errors. In interviews, officers who objected to various kinds of racist and sexist actions expressed that they don’t report problematic officers because they don’t trust MPD will be held accountable at all.
This isn’t just an unfortunate stain on the history of MPD — it’s an indictment of identical sins unfolding in a police district near you. Whether it’s massive entities like the New York or Los Angeles police departments, or much smaller forces in places like Springfield, Massachusetts, officers have had problems with violent, biased behavior since the birth of law enforcement as a way to catch enslaved people. To make things worse, there is no centralized system of oversight, leaving “reform” efforts a matter of local will.
The saddest part is that nothing in the report is new. In the context of Minneapolis, activists and community members have long demanded sweeping changes to protect the community from police abuse; we already knew in 2020, based on MPD’s own data, that there were glaring structural inequities to address. The investigation criticizes current and former city leaders for claiming that their hands are tied when it comes to police accountability; it counters that city police leaders could immediately institute substantial changes, if they wanted to.
Such is the failure of reform — an endless series of tragedies, protests, investigations, oversight boards and damning reports that affirm what victims of police misconduct have known for themselves. Solving this corrupt riddle requires more than data and analysis, but the structure of America’s police, including the decentralized nature of oversight and the aggressively antagonistic behavior of its unions, makes radical, lasting change a Sisyphean task.
It recalls a recent conversation I had on the failures of police reform with the lawyer and criminal justice advocate Jody Armour, who has long been vocal about how “reform” within a broken system is merely an excuse that sets everyone up to fail. “We’re not just saying that we need to refund the social and community programs that you’ve been defunding for 30, 40 years in order to pump those dollars into a rapidly bloating police and prison bureaucracy. People are fighting and saying, ‘We need to get those violence workers, who have become bloated and protected by the bureaucracy, out of our neighborhoods,’” Armour told me. “Black people have an ambivalence with policing — we want public safety, but we don’t trust police. But we’ve all been conditioned to believe that safety comes from police.”
Instead, he argues that what makes communities safer is more resources of every kind, not just a stricter framework of punishment. Again, it’s a dilemma facing every city in America, and one that thrust Minneapolis into the national spotlight two years ago. The investigation into MPD suggests a litany of ways to address the racist sins, but under the system at hand, nobody really knows when the fix — any fix — will actually arrive.