The U.S. Justice Department said Thursday that it will conduct an exhaustive look into how Minneapolis police responded to the 18-day occupation and protests outside Fourth Precinct headquarters in the wake of Jamar Clark’s fatal shooting.
The department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) said the assessment — limited only to the encampment — will be modeled after the agency’s 162-page report on the Ferguson, Mo., police force and its handling of the widespread protests following the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown. That report determined in part that Ferguson police had no agencywide plan to address the protests, and the lack of a relationship between police and the African-American community led to “devastating effects.”
Like with Ferguson, the aim of the Minneapolis report is not punitive, but rather to determine the best course of action moving forward, said Justice Department spokeswoman Mary Brandenberger.
“The thing they both have in common is that they will serve as a kind of blueprint for police agencies across the country,” Brandenberger said. “The lessons learned are learned for a reason.”
The agency will look at training, policies and procedures as they relate to protests, police engagement with the media, and equipment and technology. COPS director Robert Chapman said the review will involve “dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of interviews,” with police and community members. Chapman hopes to have the report completed by early fall.
“We don’t have a specific timeline,” Chapman said. “I will say that there is urgency.”
City officials asked the Justice Department in February to investigate the city’s response to the occupation.
“These were important moments for our community,” Mayor Betsy Hodges said. “That precinct occupation was a challenge for the entire community. I am proud of our officers. I am proud of our department. I am proud of our city as a whole.”
She added that the report of how police handled the occupation will help “Minneapolis to see where we did well, and more importantly, what we could’ve done better.”
Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau said changes are already underway. As a result of feedback after the protests, the department has decided to change its SWAT uniforms from Army green to blue for a less militaristic look.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, the president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, said she is glad there will be an assessment of how the occupation of the Fourth Precinct was policed and hopes it will lead to systemic change. Still, she said, it’s not enough.
“I would be much more satisfied if the federal government looked beyond the occupation and investigated the egregious conduct of the Minneapolis Police Department over the past several years in engaging in the use of excessive force against African-Americans and other minorities,” Levy-Pounds said. “Had Mayor Hodges and Chief Harteau brought in the federal government sooner to investigate the Minneapolis Police Department, the shooting death of Jamar Clark might have never happened in the first place.”
Clark was shot in the head after officers responded to a disturbance call outside an apartment building. The police union has said Clark had his hand on one of the officer’s guns when he was shot. Activists say that’s not true and that Clark was handcuffed at the time he was shot. There has yet to be a legal finding one way or the other concerning the actions of the officers who were involved with Clark.
The protests that followed Clark’s death, which drew international attention, produced several tense standoffs between the demonstrators and police officers in riot gear who used pepper spray and batons to disperse crowds.
A photo of a heavily armed officer pointing a crowd-control weapon at one of the protesters, the son of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., was shared thousands of times on social media. A small contingent of protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails over the wall of the precinct station.
Chapman said one of the consequences of the protests, and the aim of the Justice Department’s critical response report, is better policing.
“We are confident that the lessons learned will improve how future protests are policed,” Chapman said. “It most certainly should lead to policy changes.”
Zoë Peterson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.