Acknowledging a lack of trust around investigations of Minnesota officers who use deadly force, the state’s new public safety commissioner is among a growing set of law enforcement leaders now studying new approaches to such cases.
“We’re not in crisis right now,” Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said. “In my mind, this is the time to have that outreach, to have that conversation, because when you’re in the middle of a crisis is the worst time to try to make friends.”
Joining Harrington is Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who said early on in his latest four-year term that reevaluating officer-involved shooting probes is a top priority. And Attorney General Keith Ellison, not long removed from speaking out at the scene of police shootings, is willing to consider using his office to help prosecute those cases.
Meanwhile, some state lawmakers are again calling for creating a special prosecution board that would take police shooting investigations out of the hands of county attorneys.
The talks are taking place less than a month before the Hennepin County murder and manslaughter trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in the shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond. He is just the second Minnesota police officer in recent memory to be tried for killing a civilian while on duty.
Harrington, a former Metro Transit and St. Paul police chief, and Ellison, a veteran congressman with a long history of civic activism, started examining the state’s approach to police shootings when both took office in January.
“This is an issue that has the potential to get better if we talk about it,” Ellison said. “I think that I’m in a good position to be part of this dialogue because I do appreciate the community perspectives, but I’m a prosecutor and so I have a prosecutor’s perspective and I’m also working with law enforcement.”
On the table for consideration would be designating the attorney general to appoint special assistant prosecutors from his office to oversee police shooting cases, something done in New York and which Freeman said he would be willing to consider.
“I think the goal of the model ought to be that the most talented prosecutors ought to be the ones to take these very difficult cases,” Freeman said. “And the public needs to have confidence in that prosecutor to do a fair job.”
Spotlight on probes
How Minnesota police shootings are investigated has also been scrutinized lately.
Freeman declined to comment on the Noor case, citing its pending status. But he was recorded in late 2017 ripping the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s (BCA) investigation at the time, complaining that agents “haven’t done their job” in gathering evidence.
Freeman apologized soon after the remarks surfaced and said recently that any “challenges early in the Noor case” have been resolved. “I think they’ve done an excellent job in the last two cases presented to us,” he said.
Since taking office, Harrington opted to keep BCA Superintendent Drew Evans, in that role since 2015, in place. The two recently appeared together at an informational church event organized by Clarence Castile, whose nephew, Philando Castile, was killed by then-St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez.
“In the east side, west metro, wherever it is, we’re often walking into very different relationships between that community and that police department, which oftentimes can thrust us in the middle of a discussion that we haven’t necessarily been a part of for many, many years,” Evans said.
The BCA investigates most of the state’s police shootings. Evans said the BCA has shifted, since the 2015 Minneapolis police shooting death of Jamar Clark, from asking police agencies to help canvass scenes or write search warrants to “pull back any appearance that they may not be documenting all the information.” Evans also set a target of sending findings to prosecutors within 60 days.
Harrington has long been active on the African American Leadership Council (AALC) in St. Paul, where the group recently convened a meeting with the FBI’s special agent in charge. Tyrone Terrill, the AALC’s president, said Harrington was among the candidates for the DPS job the council recommended to Gov. Tim Walz. Terrill has high hopes for Harrington and Ellison but is less optimistic about what he described as systemic errors in how justice is administered after police shootings.
“What’s more troubling for our community is not when the shooting takes place, it’s that the legal standard is different when it comes to shooting a black man,” said Terrill, who pointed to a Ramsey County jury’s acquittal of Yanez in Castile’s death to underline his point. “Symptoms don’t change in the three, four, eight years somebody is in power.”
Who should prosecute?
Robert Bennett, an attorney who represents the family of Damond, who was killed by Noor in 2017 after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault, points to a cultural problem among law enforcement investigating itself. In a past wrongful-death suit, Bennett deposed a BCA agent who acknowledged putting greater weight on what officers perceived than on the video evidence.
“The reason I’ve been in business doing this stuff for as long as I have — and it hasn’t abated at all, it’s increased — is due to the fact that on a basic level, law enforcement — whether it’s command and control or the union structure — does not want any civilian oversight over law enforcement,” Bennett said. “They want to be able to do whatever it is they are going to do within the ambit of their own little world.”
Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, is again sponsoring a measure to start a statewide special prosecution unit subject to both civilian and law enforcement review. He acknowledges that the bill is unlikely to gain traction this year, but he wants to start a dialogue around putting further distance between prosecutors and police in such cases.
“In order for the public to trust that an investigation and a charging decision has been carried out with total professionalism and complete objectivity, we need this independence,” Dibble said. “It’s not really even my interest to get more prosecutions of police. I also want to make sure we get to the truth and make sound decisions on the basis of law.”
Such proposals have been widely opposed by police unions and lobbyists in the state, which have also largely decried eliminating grand juries in police shooting cases. Dennis Flaherty, director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, fears that a statewide prosecutor devoted to such cases would approach them with a “predetermined” view.
“To set up a special unit on the state level to handle these cases and have a person who sits around waiting for the bell to ring for an officer-involved shooting seems totally unnecessary,” Flaherty said.
Law enforcement and community activists alike point to the need for improved training to address more systemic issues around use of force. Evans said the BCA will also be coordinating a fresh round of de-escalation training for Minnesota officers this year.
“If you give a special prosecutor crappy evidence, you’re going to have a crappy prosecution,” Bennett said. “They’ve got to be devoted to doing the same job on an officer-involved shooting and divorce themselves from the fact that it’s an officer.”