Leading a massive investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department is a small state agency with a contentious history: threatened budget cuts, backlogs of complaints and a growing portfolio that has left investigators stretched thin.

Now, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights is embarking on its biggest task yet, digging into a decade’s worth of the city’s police procedures, policies and practices to determine if the department has engaged in systemic practices that discriminate against communities of color.

With fewer than 50 employees and a budget of $5 million a year, the agency will be a focal point of the state’s response to George Floyd’s death in police custody on Memorial Day, which sparked protests across the country and abroad.

“We have a small and mighty team,” said Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero, who Gov. Tim Walz appointed to the job last year. “This is a big deal. Not only is it the first time the state is launching a civil rights investigation into the largest police department in the state, but also this feels like a real moment in time where there’s political will and alignment from community to leadership at every level.”

Investigating complaints is part of the core function of the agency, created 53 years ago to enforce civil rights laws. But the scale of the task ahead is unusual for a state-level agency to take on, especially one with limited resources. In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting by Ferguson, Mo., police in 2014, the U.S. Justice Department launched civil rights investigations into the department that resulted in years of mandated changes under court supervision.

“I have never, never heard of a state agency taking on a local municipality for human rights or civil rights violations. It’s practically unheard of,” said DeWitt Lacy, an attorney in the Los Angeles John Burris Law Offices, which won Rodney King v. LAPD in 1993. “It’s really a herculean endeavor. The state knows they can’t fumble this, they know this is serious and the eyes of the world are upon them.”

The state has changed dramatically in the five decades since the department was created.

In 1980, 1% of Minnesota’s total population was black or African-American, compared to 7% in 2018. And over the years, lawmakers have expanded the responsibilities of the department.

The Minnesota Legislature passed the state’s human rights act in 1973, making it illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of race, religion and sex. They tasked the Human Rights Department to enforce it. Since then the number of protected classes has grown to include things such as sexual orientation and familial status. The state now has 13 protected classes in all.

The department also now enforces minority hiring standards for any contract with the state, as well as a 2013 law that prevents private employers from asking about criminal history in job applications and interviews, known as “ban the box.”

The growing mandates have sometimes left investigators struggling to keep up with demands. A February report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor found the agency received an average of 675 complaints in each of the last three years and closed an average of 575 cases. At the end of the 2019 fiscal year, some 800 cases were awaiting determination, according to the report. That was the largest number since 2013.

Investigators in the department, which totaled 13 in 2019, reported having roughly 60 cases per person. The auditor’s office recommended the department try to triage complaints to act on the most urgent matters as quickly as possible.

“It takes them a long time to conduct their investigations, longer than it should,” said Judy Randall, deputy legislative auditor. “They are overwhelmed with the number of complaints, and because they treat each one equally, it’s this huge backlog.”

Kevin Lindsey, who served as commissioner of the department under Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration, said one of his missions when he started was to address the department’s history of “docket and dismiss” — only addressing or replying to a small fraction of complaints.

But within months of starting the job in 2011, during a budget deficit, he was sitting in front of state legislators pleading against proposed cuts to the department that ranged from 50 to 65% of its overall budget. Similar cuts were proposed again in 2018, despite a budget surplus. Those cuts ultimately weren’t enacted, and the department’s budget has increased in recent years, but staffing is still down from a historic high mark of roughly 70 employees.

“There’s no way you can look at the current Department of Human Rights, knowing they’ve added ‘ban the box,’ knowing that you want them to ensure that contractors are really providing equal employment opportunity, and you want them to investigate complex cases?” Lindsey said. “They’re underfunded.”

Lucero said the federal government could get involved in the case, but she doesn’t believe they are “looking to create long-term change.” She adds that the Minnesota Human Rights Act is one of the strongest civil rights laws in the country.

“There are still 26 states where you can be fired for being gay,” she said. “Not in Minnesota.”

Since coming to the department, Lucero has settled a rape case against Ramsey County and a sexual harassment case against West Lutheran High School in Plymouth, among others. She’s sued a plasma collection company for banning donations by transgender persons.

Even as her department takes on the Minneapolis Police Department inquiry, she said she does not plan to drop any ongoing cases.

But Lucero is not dismissive of the challenge ahead, which will take two tracks: more immediate changes to the department, and potentially long-term changes backed by a court-imposed consent decree.

On the shorter timeline, Lucero negotiated an agreement that Minneapolis City Council members passed Friday to ban officers from using neck restraints and choke holds. Officers also would be required to intervene when they determine that inappropriate force is used. Any short-term agreement will require approval from a judge.

The larger investigation could take a year or longer, depending on what investigators find and the level of city and police cooperation.

“The community already knows what the solutions are, we just need to put some teeth behind them,” Lucero said. But she’s optimistic. “This is a unique moment in history, where you’ve heard the mayor, city leadership and certainly from the community for a very long time that this kind of big change needs to happen. There’s such alignment that simply did not exist in Ferguson and Baltimore.”


Twitter: @bbierschbach