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Because of the conduct of its Police Department, the city of Minneapolis in the not-too-distant future will be subject to one (and very likely two) consent decree(s) or court order(s).

A "consent decree" is really nothing more than a plea bargain. The city is the defendant, accused by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights of racial discrimination. Rather than go through lengthy litigation, the city will "cop a plea" and is negotiating its sentence — that is what it will be required to do as a result. Shortly the city expects to do much the same thing with the U.S. Justice Department.

Consent decrees as they are usually structured mostly don't work. That's because they don't require the right things of the right people for a long enough time to really make a difference. The courts and the parties could and should demand more. They should not only attack racial discrimination but also forge an agreement among all the key actors that will reduce crime, increase safety for all and result in greater trust throughout our community.

As in all plea deals, the city — as the defendant — will admit to as little wrongdoing as possible and try to get the lightest sentence that it can. The state and federal governments (the plaintiffs) will push back. The ultimate result will most likely be some version of probation in which the city will be required to complete a bunch of tasks and be supervised by probation officers called "monitors."

Unlike most probations, these will have no definite end point. The city will then spend years trying to prove to its probation officers and the courts that it has done enough so that it can be released from supervision. In the meantime, the city police will be accountable to two monitors from two different governments, plus the mayor and City Council. All of that supervision will most likely lead to lots of box-checking, report-writing, hearings, second-guessing and frustration — but not necessarily much change. Why?

First, most plea agreements target only one thing — in the case of Minneapolis, ending racist and abusive police behavior — but not the larger system of which it is a symptom. A plea deal that addresses illegal police behavior without also addressing the critical need to reduce crime, increase safety for all, and foster trust is not a good deal. If we are going to consent to anything, we should aggressively pursue all of these outcomes. They should be tracked, reported and be at the heart of accountability for all of the relevant players.

Second, most plea agreements involve only the defendant (the city) and the plaintiffs (Minnesota Department of Human Rights and U.S. Justice Department) leaving the many, many other stakeholders who are part of the larger safety system and critical to success on the sidelines. If we are going to get the results we want and desperately need, we must have all the relevant parties on the hook:

  • From the city, that means the mayor, City Council, city attorney, the Department of Public Safety and Finance, and the Office of Violence Prevention.
  • From Hennepin County, it's the County Board, the sheriff, the county attorney, the public defender, and Health, Mental Health and Human Services.
  • From the state, it's the Department of Human Rights, joined by Corrections, the Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, the attorney general, Human Services, Health, K-12 and Higher Education, Employment and Economic Development, and Management and Budget.
  • From the federal government, it's the U.S. Attorney, the U.S. Marshals Service and others in the Justice Department, along with Health and Human Services, Education, Housing, and Homeland Security.
  • And, finally, our neighborhoods, businesses, nonprofits and community organizations need to be both included and accountable. Every one of these players has a stake in the outcomes, control of resources essential to success, and an obligation to one another and all of us to use them effectively. Leaving them out means letting them off the hook.

Third, most plea agreements use only a limited set of tools. We can expect that training, hiring and policy change will be the featured tools in the Minneapolis consent decrees, as they have been in most others. The heroic assumption behind using these tools is that they will lead to the behavior changes that we want. But these tools alone won't do the job. Too often they turn into just a list of boxes to be checked when tasks have been completed without any measure of their effect. Beyond that they don't effectively address changes in the underlying culture that can be sustained for years and not just until the next change in leadership.

To get the kinds of sustained changes that will lead to the results we want — the end of racist and abusive policing, reduced crime, increased safety for all and greater trust — we need to change not just the tools of our organizations but their very DNA. That will take mechanisms that 1) make achieving these outcomes the core purpose for these organizations and everyone in them, 2) make accountability for achieving these outcomes personal and immediate, 3) reward behaviors that move in the right direction and discourage or prohibit those that don't, 4) trust and delegate to those on the front line to get the job done but not whether, who for or how well, and 5) create a culture that perpetually asks for and gets that best from all those involved. The mechanisms for ensuring this type of DNA won't get into these plea deals on their own.

That is where the courts come in. Rather than bless the kind of deal that puts the city alone on probation until it checks a bunch of boxes, the courts could order the city, state, county, federal government and community to enter into a compact that makes them mutually accountable for success. They would be required to return to the court with a design for how they, together, will achieve racial justice and equity, reduce crime, increase safety for all and foster trust throughout our community. Such a design would include mechanisms for openly reporting on progress or the lack of it as a basis for assuring mutual accountability for success.

Creating such a compact would not be easy. It would require people, organizations and systems to surrender some of their authority, end policies and practices that undermine and deny opportunities to live and work safely, and accept greater accountability for doing so, all in return for greater trust and safety for themselves and the whole community. That would be a deal worth bargaining for, rather than a cop-out.

Peter Hutchinson is a former state commissioner of finance, former deputy in the Minneapolis mayor's office, and former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools.