Mpls. to return to state talks over charges of racist policing

·6 min read

With evidence still in dispute, attorneys for Minneapolis say they plan to return to the negotiating table with state human rights investigators after weeks of deadlock to continue working toward a court-enforceable agreement on reforms to the city's police department.

The negotiations have been on hold since last month, when the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office said staff had been unable to independently verify some of the findings in the state agency's investigation into Minneapolis police. The city asked for underlying evidence and more precise data from the state it said was necessary to continue talks.

In a letter Friday to Mayor Jacob Frey, Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero said the city already possesses the evidence to corroborate her agency's findings, and that she does not intend to release more data at this time.

The Department of Human Rights and the city "are not currently in court litigating each fact that underlies the pattern of race discrimination," wrote Lucero. "Further detailing or disclosing specific pieces of evidence at this stage could jeopardize attorney work product and privileged information, reveal confidential sources, and undermine litigation if that becomes necessary."

Late Friday, acting City Attorney Peter Ginder told the Star Tribune his office plans to show up for the next standing meeting with Lucero, breaking the stalemate.

"The City will move forward with the scheduled meeting on June 21 with MDHR, but is disappointed to not have received a substantive response and answers to our questions and concerns," Ginder said in a statement. "As stated before, we are firmly committed to working with both the [Minnesota Department of Human Rights] and [Department of Justice] to advance this work to address the discrimination issues identified in the report."

These and other exchanges between the city and Lucero in recent weeks reflect the negotiations taking an adversarial tone—starkly different from the cooperative public-facing messaging from both sides just six weeks ago, when Lucero announced her department's long-awaited charge against the Minneapolis Police Department of a pattern of illegal, race-based policing. At that time, Minneapolis City Attorney James Rowader said he was "fully committed to working with MDHR to address the issues in the report" and looked forward to meeting with Human Rights leaders.

Two weeks later, with little explanation, Rowader announced he was leaving the City Attorney's Office. Since then, Jones Day, a private law firm working with the city by contract, has taken a more prominent role in the negotiations. On Tuesday, the city missed its second biweekly meeting with human rights officials, and it's now been at least a month since the parties have met in person.

The decision to pause talks raised concerns among some city leaders over the future of what could be one their best chances of systemically reforming the police department.

"I am really concerned that we've taken more of a defensive position," said City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison last week. "I think that we're missing [Rowader's] leadership and guidance in this moment."

Rowader did not response to multiple messages.

In an interview earlier this week, Ginder said the city never backed away from its commitment to cooperate with negotiations. "I would disagree with that characterization," said Ginder. "We want to continue to work collaboratively with [human rights leaders]. We want to move these discussions forward."

The problem, according to attorneys in Ginder's office, is that Lucero has declined to provide clarity or underlying evidence on several points described in the charge. Key among those is one of the most damning findings raised in the state's investigation: that police officers used covert social media accounts to spy on Black people and Black-led organizations unrelated to criminal activity over the past decade, while not similarly surveilling white groups.

In a letter to Minneapolis elected officials last month, Deputy City Attorney Erik Nilsson said his office has reviewed "approximately 15,000 pages" of documents related to the Minneapolis Police Department's use of covert social media accounts and did not find evidence to support this claim.

Ginder said his office wanted to review the data before returning to negotiations.

"We want to do this with intentionality," said Ginder. "We want to make sure that we're doing this right and thoughtfully from the start."

In her letter Friday, Lucero, who wouldn't comment for this story, said the evidence is already contained in the city's records.

"Every finding in MDHR's probable cause determination is supported by robust evidence gathered during a thorough, two-year investigation," she wrote. "The City already has in its possession substantive evidence to support every finding of race discrimination."

Lucero also emphasized that her office charged police with a pattern and practice of systemic misconduct, saying "it is not appropriate to re-frame this case to be about only specific, individual problematic officers."

'Not dragging our feet'

The human rights investigation, prompted by the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, found that Minneapolis police engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination in violation of the state's civil rights law over a decade, actions that were enabled by several political administrations failing to hold problem officers accountable.

The city of Minneapolis is also bracing for the findings of a Justice Department investigation into whether police engaged in a pattern of illegal conduct, also started after Floyd's killing, which could result in a second round of consent decree negotiations.

City officials have been blunt about not wanting two consent decrees with possibly competing sets of standards, raising speculation that the city is intentionally slow-playing the state talks because it would prefer to sign a federal consent decree.

Ginder said the Justice Department has "far more experience" with these types of investigations, but he denied that the city is intentionally stalling.

"We're not dragging our feet," he said. "Over the last two years we've been complying as expeditiously as possible" with both the state and Justice Department's requests.

Council pushing for answers

In Minnesota, this type of negotiation over a state human rights charge against a police department is unprecedented. But the data the city is asking for is not customarily disclosed in this stage of consent decree talks with the federal government, said Christy Lopez, who previously took part in Justice Department patterns-and-practices investigations as Deputy Chief in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division.

"The way that the state agency is acting here is entirely consistent with how DOJ acts," said Lopez, now a professor at Georgetown Law.

If the city doesn't cooperate with the negotiations, the next step may be the Human Rights department filing a lawsuit and asking a judge to force the city to comply, said Lopez. In this case, both sides would go through an evidence discovery period — "a really ugly, really expensive, really time consuming" process that could take months or years.

In the meantime, the Minneapolis City Council has created a subcommittee focused on the Human Rights charge, and it plans to begin holding meetings next week. Ellison said they will ask city and state officials to report on the status of the negotiations, with a goal of "daylighting the issue."

Ellison will also take part in a city working group on this issue, along with Frey's staff, Council President Andrea Jenkins, Council Vice President Linea Palmisano and Council Member Latrisha Vetaw.

"We're just as curious to have some answers to these questions as the public," he said.