It’s been four years since I first called for radical, systemic change in Minnesota law enforcement in this forum. George Floyd’s horrific death in police custody shows little has changed.
I’m calling again to overhaul policing in Minnesota, starting with the state’s Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), a toothless tiger. As this paper showed in 2017, hundreds of Minnesota peace officers have been convicted of criminal offenses, but most were never disciplined by the state because the POST Board, by design, has little say in such matters, and no say whatsoever when it comes to good-old-fashioned police misconduct.
No truly independent office of police accountability exists in Minnesota. We need one. The POST Board is flush with cops. Individual agencies investigate themselves and individual chiefs discipline (or not) their officers. There are more than 400 agencies in the state and no standardization. That’s 400 different ways of doing things. Four hundred internal policies governing police use of force. Four hundred ways to reshuffle the deck and transfer rogue cops, regardless of their rap sheet. And when 80% of those agencies have 25 employees or fewer, police are very much policing themselves.
The POST Board’s primary duty is licensing and training, but here, too, it falls short. The POST Board sets pre-service learning objectives, but refuses to disclose which programs deliver them best, even when most programs are housed in higher-education institutions paid for by Minnesota tax dollars. There’s no league table or seal of approval, even though quality is variable and some programs are markedly better than others.
What many Minnesotans don’t realize is pre-service training for police is the purview of colleges and universities, not police academies. This is unique to Minnesota and on its face it makes sense (Minnesota’s cops are very well credentialed). But Minnesota’s colleges and universities are so badly underfunded that future cops are training on antiquated equipment. They also are training on antiquated ideas — POST learning objectives skewed heavily toward technical skills and in some cases, irrelevant.
Take “excited delirium,” a diagnosis not recognized by the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association nor World Health Organization, yet somehow still endorsed by POST. The criminal complaint against Derek Chauvin in connection with Floyd’s death states that Officer Thomas Lane was “worried about excited delirium or whatever.” I’m worried about it, too, but for different reasons — the fact that outdated learning objectives are disproportionately taught by outdated rank-and-file cops, long retired and far removed both from the field and evidence-based policing.
Tuition dollars bridge the funding gap in Minnesota’s police education programs, the net result being programs that are not nearly as selective as they should be when admitting aspiring cops. There is little prospective screening, which explains why bad apples are always replenished. Students also pay for their classes out of pocket, which dissuades good apples who are low-income or thinking about changing careers from entering the profession and shaking the tree. The system is designed to repopulate in its own image.
After cops get licensed, the POST Board oversees all in-service training requirements, but again decisions about who gets trained and how is devolved to the agency level. Small agencies can’t afford quality training or to send their officers away to receive it. Large agencies rely on train-the-trainer models that get lost in translation. And the POST Broad tracks neither in detail, even though the agency level is where the problems in policing are magnified.
Take the ongoing battle for the soul of Minneapolis Police Department. The department has embraced all the right reforms recommended by the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, including body cameras; procedural justice, implicit bias and crisis intervention training; community dialogues; enhanced early warning systems to identify problem officers; and even a revised use-of-force policy focused on a duty to intervene and sanctity of life (two things notably absent in the killing of George Floyd).
But nothing works because MPD still worships at the church of Bob Kroll, the union chief who knows only law-and-order policing and subscribes fully to President Donald Trump’s “righteous,” militarized attack on democracy and peaceful protest. The fact Kroll was elected and re-elected by half (half!) of MPD’s rank and file speaks volumes about how broken the department is. It’s the union contracts, negotiated by the likes of Kroll, that protect bad cops and dictate how and when departments can purge misconduct records or reinstate fired officers.
Policing is hard. Cops work unsociable hours and unfathomable shift patters and are exposed to death, disease and destruction at every turn. There are far too many guns on the streets (legal and illegal) and far too much anger and animosity, which means officers are on edge all the time. When stressors are always present and cops constantly feel under attack, high alert becomes normal and, over time, officers’ bodies and brains wear down. This is why cops make catastrophic mistakes, why they experience such high rates of divorce and deaths of despair.
And for 40 years, fearful officers have been given each and every vexing social problem to clean up. Cops now police schools, mental illness, drug addiction and poverty. Much of the anger aimed at police today stems from this massive expansion of the policing role and the inevitable failures that occur when these problems fail to follow police commands. These were never problems that needed policing, but they were problems rooted in structural racism and inequality, problems that disproportionately affected black and brown people, so cops, using a hatchet when we needed a scalpel, became de facto enforcers of white supremacy and injustice whether they were individually racist or not (oh, and everyone’s a little bit racist).
So, in addition to changes to the POST Board and related mechanisms of accountably, oversight, education and training, including a more restrictive state policy governing police use of force (all recommendations of the Attorney General Keith Ellison’s and Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington’s task force on policing), we need to scale back the role of police entirely. This means rethinking police localism, reducing the number of municipal law enforcement agencies in Minnesota, and rehousing agencies that have lost or never really earned public trust, like MPD, under county sheriffs, who are at least held accountable at the ballot box.
It definitely means funding schools and social-service providers and uplifting the people and communities worst affected by structural racism and inequality. Establishing non-police alternatives to 911 calls involving people experiencing a mental health crisis. Investing in alternatives to police for crime prevention — technology and infrastructure solutions, restorative justice and community organizations. Taking police out of schools and into investigations to solve real crimes like shootings and murders. Eliminating bad cops from the profession, giving good cops the support they need to thrive, and incentivizing (financially or otherwise) entry into the field for nontraditional candidates.
It means radical, systemic change in Minnesota policing. We can’t wait four more years.
James Densley is a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University (opinions are his own) and co-founder of the Violence Project (@theviolencepro).