Minneapolis Bans Police Chokeholds in First Step of Reforms

A Minneapolis police vehicle passes a building Tuesday on East Lake Street that was destroyed during protests two days prior. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The Minneapolis City Council voted Friday to ban city police officers from using chokeholds and neck restraints and put heavier restrictions on the use of chemical irritants as part of a temporary restraining order.

Council members stressed Friday it was a small step in the long-neglected area of police reform, which they said had been stymied by statewide legal roadblocks and pushback from Minneapolis’ police union.

The restraining order, part of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights’ recently announced investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, was approved 12-0 early Friday afternoon. Councilmember Kevin Reich of the city’s first ward in northeast Minneapolis was not present for the vote.

In addition to preventing officers from using chokeholds of any kind, including the one used in the now internationally infamous video of fired officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, the restraining order underlined the department’s existing policies requiring officers to report and intervene in their fellow officers’ unauthorized uses of force.

These policies, the order emphasized, apply “regardless of tenure or rank.” On Thursday, attorneys for two of the three officers charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin at the scene of Floyd’s arrest said their clients had simply followed the lead of Chauvin, who had 19 years of seniority in the department.

Those two officers, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, had worked fewer than five full-time shifts at the time of Floyd’s death.

This combination of photos shows former Minneapolis police officers Derek Chauvin, Alexander Kueng, Kiernan Lane and Tou Thao. (Hennepin County Sheriff via AP)

The order approved Friday also gave the city’s Office of Police Conduct Review authority to “proactively and strategically audit” body camera footage and required the department to catch up on a backlog of disciplinary decisions.

It also placed the power to authorize the use of chemical agents, rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, batons and tracer rounds for crowd-control purposes firmly in the hands of Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, or a designated deputy chief in the event Arradondo is not available.

Authority to make those calls previously rested in the hands of any on-duty supervisor, city human rights commissioner Velma Korbel said. On several days over the last two weeks, police have carpeted Minneapolis with the “less-lethal” munitions, injuring protesters, reporters and civilians. One reporter permanently lost use of her left eye after being shot with a tracer May 29.  

“It doesn’t get any better. You don’t get used to it,” protester Dakota Fuller said Thursday night of his own exposures to tear gas. He said he’d been exposed to the chemical on multiple occasions during the protests. “It sucks every time.”

The Department of Human Rights investigation was first announced Tuesday. Led by Commissioner Rebecca Lucero, it will focus on state-law concerns related to Minneapolis police. A federal civil rights investigation into Floyd’s death was also announced by Attorney General William Barr last week.

“I have never seen this done this way before,” Korbel said. “I have heard Commissioner Lucero say in the days leading up to this meeting that she knows that the city has attempted to make changes over the years, but that there have been circumstances that have prevented the city from making the necessary changes for police reform.”

She added, “It will feel and be invasive. And it should be.”

City council members praised the investigation, but many stressed that effort alone would not be the end of the city’s work toward police reform.

“As a council member I will tell you that I am not interested in any more reforms,” said Phillipe Cunningham, who represents Ward 4 on the city’s predominantly black north side.

“I am overwhelmingly hearing from constituents who want a totally new system of public safety,” he said, referring to the proposed creation of neighborhood patrols across the city to protect homes and businesses in the absence of police during a week of riots.

“We as a city cannot simply give lip service about building these new systems,” Cunningham said. “It’s time for us to get serious about this work alongside community members who have been doing this work for decades– and not getting paid for it.”

Cunningham was not alone. Steve Fletcher, who represents portions of northeast Minneapolis and much of the city’s downtown, emphasized the liability the police department incurred on the city.

“We are being sued. We’re being sued by many victims of police violence, and now we’re being sued by all of Minnesota for a pattern of civil rights violations,” Fletcher said. “We are being given a great deal of collaboration in [the investigation], and that’s not how this always works.”

Fletcher, an outspoken critic of MPD who has called for disbanding and replacing the department, said bigger changes needed to come from community input and careful consideration.

“What do we like about our current system, what can we not tolerate about our current system, what can we envision as a future?” he said at Friday’s meeting.

Meanwhile, Alondra Cano, whose ward includes the neighborhood where Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, focused on the future of MPD’s 3rd Precinct building on Lake Street, also in her ward.

Protesters burned the precinct building, where Chauvin was stationed, on the night of May 28 after police evacuated it.

“People are talking about the future of the 3rd Precinct, and as council member for that area I want to say that I do not support rebuilding that precinct for police reasons,” Cano said. “I want to work with you all to put together a community process that helps us arrive at a future for that site.”

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, whose position did not grant him a vote on the issue, dropped into the meeting to make his own comment.

“This is a moment in time where we can totally change the way our police department operates. We can quite literally lead the way in the nation,” he said.

“I’m very pleased to see the direct accountability of the chief in crowd-control situations,” Frey added. “When the chief makes a call, he is responsible, and when I appoint the chief, I am accountable for those decisions too.”

The mayor said city officials “need to seize this moment to channel our collective pain into collective action, and that begins right now.”

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