Digging deeper: the Justice Department investigation of Minneapolis police

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On April 16, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced an investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department. The investigation will focus on patterns and practices of policing, not on an individual case.

This is the first “pattern and practice” investigation ordered by the Biden administration. Garland also revoked the Trump administration’s near-ban of these investigations.

The DOJ press release announcing the investigation said in part:

“The investigation will assess all types of force used by MPD officers, including uses of force involving individuals with behavioral health disabilities and uses of force against individuals engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment. The investigation will also assess whether MPD engages in discriminatory policing. As part of the investigation the Justice Department will conduct a comprehensive review of MPD policies, training and supervision. The department will also examine MPD’s systems of accountability, including complaint intake, investigation, review, disposition and discipline. The Department of Justice will also reach out to community groups and members of the public to learn about their experiences with MPD.

“’The investigation I am announcing today will assess whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force, including during protests,’ said Attorney General Garland. ‘Building trust between community and law enforcement will take time and effort by all of us, but we undertake this task with determination and urgency, knowing that change cannot wait.’…”

Pattern and practice investigations usually take more than a year. They begin with meetings with law enforcement, political leadership, and community groups. Investigations include review of supervision procedures, police training, and complaint processes. Heavy-duty data analysis includes arrest reports, disciplinary records, and complaints. Investigators interview victims and community members as well as past and present police officials.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) describes pattern and practice investigation as “a comprehensive analysis of the policies and practices of policing in a particular community.” That could include use of force, stops, searches, arrests, and charges. The focus is on racial discrimination and other violations of civil rights.

If the DOJ finds systemic police misconduct, it issues public findings. Then it tries to negotiate a reform agreement. That usually means a “consent decree.”

The consent decree sets out institutional reforms that must be made. The decree allows a federal court to oversee those changes. The court appoints a monitoring team to assist. Oversight usually lasts several years.

Congress passed the law authorizing pattern and practice investigations in 1994. That was after the 1991 Rodney King beating. A California criminal court acquitted the police who beat him in 1991. Two of the officers were later convicted on federal civil rights charges. The law—42 USC 14141—allows investigation of “a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers.”

The first pattern and practice investigation began in April 1996. It focused on the Pittsburgh Police Bureau. In January 1997, the DOJ “identified a pattern or practice of excessive force; unlawful stops, searches and arrests.” In April 1997, the DOJ and the city entered into a consent decree. Court supervision lasted until September 2002. Additional monitoring continued into 2005.

That’s a lot of time and resources for a single investigation in a single city. While each investigation is different, all take years to complete. After the investigation is complete, arriving at an agreement takes more time. If no agreement is reached, the Department of Justice can sue to enforce changes. If an agreement is reached, supervision and monitoring follow, usually for several years.

Since 1994, 70 pattern and practice investigations have been conducted. Out of these, 41 ended in consent decrees or other agreements for police department reforms.

The Obama administration opened 25 pattern and practice investigations. That was more, by far, than any other administration. By January 2017, 18 of those investigations ended with reform agreements. Five cases were still under investigation in January 2017. One case was in active litigation.

The Trump administration almost ended pattern and practice investigations. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued orders aimed at shutting down pattern and practice investigations. During four years, they opened only one investigation.

The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice runs pattern and practice investigations.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who was confirmed on April 21, will oversee the Civil Rights Division. Gupta is the first woman of color and the first civil rights attorney to serve in that position. 

The U.S. Attorney also works on pattern and practice investigations. Minnesota currently has only an acting U.S. attorney. The Biden administration will nominate someone for that job. The Department of Justice also hires experts to assist in investigations. 

Some in Minnesota have questioned why the investigation does not include Brooklyn Center or even the whole state.

Each investigation focuses on a single police department. The United States has more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies. Pattern and practice investigations require massive amounts of time and resources. The Department of Justice prioritizes which cases it takes.

The pattern and practice law (42 U.S.C. 14141) authorizes the investigation of pattern or practice of violations in law enforcement. That means focusing on a law enforcement agency, not on Minnesota’s racial disparities in education, housing, employment, or health care.

A pattern and practice investigation is a civil investigation. It aims at identifying systemic misconduct. Such investigations bring no criminal charges. Instead, they reach agreements for reform.

The Department of Justice has a separate, ongoing criminal investigation into the George Floyd murder. That investigation focuses on whether police violated Floyd’s civil rights.

If you want to have input into this investigation, you can contact the Department of Justice via email at Community.Minneapolis@usdoj.gov or by phone at 866-432-0268.


About Mary Turck

Mary Turck has published extensively as a journalist and has edited the Connection to the Americas and of the TC Daily Planet. Her website, http://maryturck.com, includes her literary and political blogs.

View all posts by Mary Turck →

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