BY CAM GORDON
The role of public involvement has been questioned as the mayor and City Council move forward towards court agreements on racist policing practices.
Last April 27, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) released a report that found probable cause that the city and its police department engaged in a pattern or practice of race discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
At the time, then City Attorney Jim Rowader said that he was “fully committed to working with MDHR to address the issue.” After his resignation in June, however, the city stopped attending meetings with MDHR and started publicly challenging some of the findings.
The U.S. Department of Justice began its own investigation into discriminatory and possibly illegal practices of the Minneapolis Police Department in April of 2021.
Since then, Mayor Jacob Frey has repeatedly objected to the idea of being subject to two consent decrees.
Nevertheless, the city started meeting with MDHR again and on July 14 the city and MDHR released a set of principles to guide efforts to reach a court-enforceable settlement agreement this fall.
The City Council has since established a new “Pattern & Practice Investigations Subcommittee” that received a report and update on the investigations from the city attorney’s office on Aug. 16. The interim city attorney, Peter Ginder, reported that the DOJ is still in the investigations phase, but eventually he expects them to make findings that will result in a consent decree. “We don’t know when the DOJ will be done with its investigation,” Ginder said. If there are no findings there will be no report and the matter will be closed.
A consent decree is a court-approved agreement that resolves a dispute between two parties without admission of guilt or liability. The court maintains supervision over the implementation of the legally binding agreement and almost always uses an independent monitor to act on behalf of the court in evaluating compliance.
At the subcommittee meeting Ginder announced that the city was now holding regular closed, confidential meetings with the MDHR but was not working on a consent decree. “We are currently working towards negotiating a court-approved settlement agreement with MDHR which is similar to, but not, a consent decree,” Ginder said. He also told council members that they (and the public) would likely not see the agreement until it was completed. Then it would be presented in a closed session of the council before a vote would be taken. Only after it is approved would the public have access to it. It was unclear if the proposed settlement would include an independent court-approved monitor or not.
Expectations were raised in July when the MDHR worked with the Minnesota Justice Research Center (MNJRC) to gather ideas about what should be included in a consent decree. Southside sessions were held on July 7 at Longfellow Park and on July 21 at Bryant Square. There, people shared ideas for ways to improve and measure practices in police use of force, community trust, use of social media, accountability, traffic stops, training and the makeup of a monitoring team.
“At the Minnesota Justice Research Center,” wrote Justin Terrell, the group’s executive director, “we are honored to play a role in developing the contents of the consent decree so that it truly reflects the experiences, perspectives, and desires of Minneapolis community members, especially Black and Indigenous communities.”
When asked by Council Member Robin Wonsley (Ward 2) about community participation going forward, Ginder said “the community will not be involved in the approval process.”
In a conversation after the meeting, Wonsley said, “There are fears that we are going to get a very weak consent decree.There is a lot at stake with the consent decree and it is unfortunate that we are not being transparent.” She also has no problem with two consent decrees. “If we need to be in two consent decrees,” Wonsley said, “so be it.”
“Past practice should lead us to expect this. But it is not acceptable, especially given the importance of these negotiations,” said Dave Bicking about the closed meetings and lack of any public hearing. Bicking has been active in the watchdog group Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB) for decades.
“For our part, since the announcements of the DOJ and MDHR investigations,” said CUABP’s Michelle Gross, “we have held over two dozen meetings in the community. We also sent 30 canvassers into the street and have collected over 2,300 experience forms documenting people’s experiences with the MPD. The experiences were all provided to the MDHR and DOJ and we continue to this day to provide additional forms to the DOJ.”
Gross met with the MDHR commissioner, Rebecca Lucero, on Aug. 22. “She assured us that they will not just agree to a settlement with the city behind closed doors without public input,” said Gross.
CUAPB is drafting a “People’s Consent Decree.” “Due to the MDHR timeline, we are crafting and submitting parts of it in waves,” said Gross. “We just submitted our first section, which is on Stops, Searches and Arrests/Citations. We will eventually provide this People’s Consent Decree to the DOJ once they release their findings.”
“At the very least,” said Bicking, “once the settlement agreement has been written and presented to the council in closed session, the vote must not be taken in the same meeting. The text of the tentative agreement must be presented to the public, with adequate time for the public to analyze it in all its complexity. There should be public hearings.”
Bicking is not as concerned with what the agreement is called. “The city’s term, court enforceable settlement agreement, means precisely the same as consent decree,” he said. “I suspect this is purely public relations by the mayor, perhaps so we are not singled out as the first city with two simultaneous consent decrees.”
Jordan Kushner, a local attorney who has represented many people in court cases involving the Minneapolis police, agrees. “But whether it is a settlement agreement or consent decree, it is more important that there are specific meaningful requirements for the city to follow and that the terms make it easy to get back to court to enforce, and that there is an opportunity for private citizens to enforce the terms through court actions and not just particular government officials or organizations that might not be motivated,” he said.
“I am hoping for two consent decrees,” said D.A. Bullock, a long-term critic of the police department. “I think the extensive systemic problems of our police department require robust and enforceable federal oversight from a judge. Take the police department into receivership if need be.”
Whether it is called a consent decree or a settlement agreement, there is little doubt that many Minneapolis residents have invested a great deal in this process and will want to review the document and provide input on it before their elected representatives approve it. “This is just too important,” said Bicking, “because this is one of our few realistic hopes for reform that benefits all residents.”