Minneapolis did everything Barack Obama asked it to.
Its mayor and City Council appointed a reform-minded police chief who emphasized a guardian mentality instead of a warrior one. They held listening sessions with the community and updated policies to create more transparency and accountability. They promoted officer wellness by offering yoga and meditation classes.
Yet none of this stopped officer Derek Chauvin from pinning his knee on the neck of George Floyd until he lost consciousness and died.
Minneapolis is a case study in a city that embraced the pillars of the final report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a signature blueprint from the Obama era on how to reform American law enforcement. After five years, the city is no closer to achieving the primary objective of creating trust between police and the communities they serve.
After the killing of Floyd and the uprising against police that followed, culminating in the torching of the Third Precinct station, Minneapolis is at a crossroads. It can continue on the path of slow cultural change, or it can opt for a blank slate — to “end the current policing system as we know it,” as City Council Member Alondra Cano, who heads the council’s committee on public safety, said recently.
The 21st Century Policing model for reform came out of a moment similar to the one Minneapolis faces now. In August 2014, a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a young black man, in Ferguson, Mo. The shooting and decision not to indict the officer laid bare long-standing civil unrest over racial disparities in policing and use of force. It led to protests and riots throughout the suburban St. Louis city and a federal investigation that determined the Ferguson Police Department engaged in a pattern of unlawful and racist policing.
In May 2015, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing released a report of recommendations for cities to move into a new era of law enforcement. The document emphasized the need for a cultural revolution in American police departments, which the authors said would come through more transparency and accountability. Police would have to reset their philosophy to focus on community policing rather than the militarized, warrior-minded tactics embraced by so many officers. The trust of skeptical citizens — key to a functioning democracy, according to the report — would come from police forces reflecting the values of the communities in which they work.
One barrier that has prevented Minneapolis from achieving these goals has been pushback from the police union and its president, Lt. Bob Kroll, against policy and culture change, said Michelle Phelps, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. Last year, when Mayor Jacob Frey announced Minneapolis would become the first city to ban warrior-style training, Kroll countered by publicly announcing free warrior training for rank-and-file officers.
“Cultural change is really hard,” Phelps said. “We can see the resistance to this change in the election and re-election of Bob Kroll. And the union exerts its own independent push against reform.”
There is also a bureaucracy that complicates the very idea of ground-level change. Phelps points out that Minneapolis is under jurisdiction of not only Minneapolis police, but also University of Minnesota police, park police, Metro Transit police and state and federal law enforcement, all of whom answer to different leadership hierarchies.
The Minneapolis Police Department has made some progress toward more accountability over the past five years. In 2016, following the police killing of Jamar Clark, a black man, the department updated its use-of-force policy with greater emphasis on “sanctity of life.” The new language made it possible for the city to take swift action against Chauvin and the other three officers who stood by and watched as Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, Phelps said.
“The fact that all four officers got fired immediately means something,” she said. “And yet it’s woefully inadequate.”
It’s too early to say whether Minneapolis is giving up entirely on the Obama model. A majority of the City Council has publicly committed to dismantling the police department, but they have yet to come to a clearly defined consensus of what that means. Phelps said even radical changes could end up looking more like a “21st Century Policing-plus” model than an entirely new playbook.
The death of Floyd has moved the Overton window — the range of ideas deemed politically acceptable — “insanely quickly,” Phelps said. “I think everybody’s catching their breath and trying to figure out what that means.”
The measure of success of a functional police department is also in the eye of the beholder, said Sandra Susan Smith, a sociology professor at University of California-Berkeley.
Communities of color in particular have historically seen the role of police as about “confinement and control” vs. “protect and serve,” Smith said. Through that lens, many Americans view efforts to make police more accountable as “nibbling around the edges,” rather than addressing the fundamental problems of policing head on.
“Some people argue that police are doing exactly what they’re intended to do,” she said.
The 21st Century Policing model is predicated on the philosophy that police are an important resource in communities, Smith said. Making dramatic changes — including better training, more accountability and redirecting some police duties to other city departments — could still be compatible with the Obama-era reform model.
“What is incompatible is the abolition of the police,” she said.
Earlier this month, the City Council approved a resolution for “intent to create a transformative new model for cultivating safety in our city.” Mayor Frey, who signed the resolution, is pushing for change within the current department, rather than starting over. What exactly changes will likely come down to Minneapolis voters in the form of a referendum, which some council members say could appear on the ballot this year.
In the meantime, unrest over American policing continues to generate protests across the country in the name of Floyd and other victims of police brutality. Many look to Minneapolis for what comes next.