Minnesota Opens Civil Rights Probe of Minneapolis Police Department

A protester carries the carries a U.S. flag upside down, a sign of distress, last week in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Minnesota Governor Tim Walz announced a state civil rights investigation Tuesday into the Minneapolis Police Department after the police killing of George Floyd sparked a week of nationwide protests.

The investigation, which stems from a civil rights charge against the department, will look into its policies and practices over the last decade in an attempt to address any systemic discrimination it finds against people of color, according to a statement from Walz’s office.

Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero will lead the investigation.

“George Floyd should be alive. He deserved to live a life full of dignity and joy,” Lucero said in the statement. “Community leaders have been asking for structural change for decades. They have fought for this and it is essential that we acknowledge the work and commitment of those who have paved the path to make today’s announcement possible.”

Walz promised that his administration would “use every tool at our disposal to deconstruct generations of systemic racism in our state.”

“As we move forward, we ask the community to watch what we do, not what we say,” he said.

The department requested that those with information to further the investigation call or visit its website. Lucero told reporters that the investigation would focus on state law, and was unsure whether there will also be a federal civil rights investigation into the department. It would also be looking into possible state-level legislation to fix issues with the department, she said.

The investigation comes on the heels of three nights of curfews and nighttime police crackdowns in Minneapolis and its neighboring city, the state capital, St. Paul. Protesters have marched and held vigils in the cities almost nonstop since videos of since-fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck as the black 46-year-old pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” went viral online. 

Rioting, theft and arson that began Wednesday night eventually led Walz to call in thousands of National Guard troops, and Friday and Saturday nights saw widespread police violence against protesters, journalists and civilians in an effort to enforce an 8 p.m. curfew

In one widely publicized video, police could be heard shouting, “light ‘em up,” before firing nonlethal ammunition at a woman on her porch. A reporter also filmed police pepper-spraying him while he lay, compliant and with his press pass out, on the ground. Media were supposed to be allowed outside under the terms of the curfew.

In the wake of the week’s turmoil, elected officials and community members organized neighborhood watch squads and began calling for reform, defunding and even the elimination of the Minneapolis police. Walz asked that an already planned special session of the Legislature focus heavily on police reform, a task that leaders in the state’s Democratic-majority legislature quickly took up.  

Jeremiah Ellison, who represents the largely black Ward 5 on the Minneapolis City Council, tweeted all weekend about community efforts to defend his neighborhood from white supremacist agitators. In between spats with those who decried another of his tweets — in which he declared his support for the loose, decentralized collection of leftists known as “Antifa,” short for “anti-fascists”— Ellison, son of Attorney General Keith Ellison, wrote, “Minneapolis is ground zero for us collectively learning policing in its current form simply *does* *not* *work.*” 

Council Member Steve Fletcher, whose ward encompasses parts of northeast Minneapolis and much of downtown, called for the disbandment of the Minneapolis Police Department in the wake of a letter to police officers from police union chief Bob Kroll, in which Kroll appeared to decry the fact that officers had only been able to use gas and less-lethal munitions on protesters. 

Kroll also said he had been working with Minnesota Senate majority leader Paul Gazelka to attempt to take over control of the National Guard from Walz, and suggested that media and officials were ignoring “the violent criminal history of George Floyd.” Gazelka said that Kroll had exaggerated or misunderstood their conversations. 

Minnesota political figures including former Minneapolis police chiefs and mayors and the Minnesota president of the AFL-CIO have called for Kroll’s resignation. Fletcher, however, sought to move the conversation away from Kroll. “He’s a symptom of a much deeper problem in the Minneapolis Police Department,” Fletcher wrote in a series of tweets.

After years of inching towards reform with resistance from other city leaders, Fletcher said, “the people they used to mobilize to come yell at us about how we needed more cops? They’re either calling for structural change, or they’re staying extremely quiet hoping things will go back to normal. Things aren’t going back to normal.”

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