Citizens of Minneapolis employed former MPD officer Derek Chauvin, and we granted him broad powers, including authority to use deadly force when absolutely necessary.
Last week, we witnessed the killing of an innocent black man, George Floyd, thereby abusing our trust and the power we had conferred on him.
As a citizen, I bear some responsibility for Chauvin's actions — to some degree, we all do. But I can't help thinking that I may be more responsible than others.
In late 2007, I along with attorney John Klassen filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of five high-ranking, African-American officers against Minneapolis and former Police Chief Timothy Dolan. Never before had five such accomplished, currently employed police officers stepped up to call out discrimination by the MPD.
These brave souls included Medaria Arradondo. He is now chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, a position he would not hold if he had previously refused to stand up against the powers that be.
The widely publicized discrimination suit drew attention to systemic problems within the MPD, including overt and covert racism inflicted upon the citizens of Minneapolis. By the end of July 2008, we had spent countless hours working toward a comprehensive resolution of the case with former Assistant City Attorney James Moore, former members of the City Council, and U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson.
Late in the night on July 28, 2008, we had a settlement on the table, and it included the most sweeping changes to any major police department in the United States. For example: The creation of a deputy-chief position to monitor and combat racism within the MPD, including illegal use of force against people of color; mandatory adherence to the terms of a federal consent decree, with continuing federal oversight; and robust data collection and public reporting on incidents of racism within the MPD and the community.
That night, we were on the one-yard line of making history.
The next morning, details of our negotiations leaked to the media, and certain segments of the public vehemently opposed such a sweeping settlement. The mayor at the time and others on the City Council got cold feet. They refused to sign off on the would-be-historic deal, worrying it would be far too expensive and, I believe, fearing political fallout. As a result, the deal we had fought so hard to make died, taking much-needed reform with it to the grave.
By early fall 2009, the public had lost interest in the case. It continued, and our clients became the target of unfair personal and professional attacks. So in September 2009, we reached a settlement that was in our client's best interests. It provided them significant relief for the discrimination they had suffered, but it contained no sweeping changes on a department-wide level.
Given the nature of the suit, alleging intentional discrimination against our clients, the city of Minneapolis would have had to voluntarily agree to sweeping reforms; we likely could not obtain them otherwise. And, at that time, the political will to change just didn't exist.
Last week, I along with others in Minneapolis cried watching Floyd's death. And in the back of mind, I wondered what might have been if 12 years ago politics had not gotten in the way of making history. Were we wrong to have settled the case in the best interest of our clients? Would the reforms we thought the city had agreed to in 2008 have changed the course of history? We will never know.
A few things I do know: Half-measures are worthless; they will not save lives. Chief Arradondo, my former client and friend, is absolutely the perfect person to lead the MPD in reform. He has staked his career on fighting institutional racism multiple times in the past, including in our federal lawsuit.
If the current mayor and council members learn from the mistakes of prior leaders — that is to say, if they put their money where their mouths are — reform will happen. If they fail to make good on their current promises, George Floyd will have died in vain. Nothing is more expensive, both in terms of innocent lives lost and dollars wasted, than inaction. We must all stand up.
Andrew P. Muller is a Minneapolis attorney.