New police officers raise their hands to take an oath at a Minneapolis Police Academy graduation ceremony at the Minneapolis Convention Center on on July 17, 2020. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.

Sahan Journal publishes deep, reported news for and with immigrants and communities of color—the kind of stories you won’t find anywhere else.

Unlock our in-depth reporting by signing up for our free newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Two days after the guilty verdict against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the federal Justice Department quietly held community meetings at New Beginnings Baptist Tabernacle church in south Minneapolis. 

These closed-door, invitation-only sessions marked the beginning of the most strenuous oversight attempt yet to reform a Minneapolis Police Department that many critics describe as being immune to accountability. 

Mohamed Ibrahim, deputy director at the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, attended one of the meetings. 

He watched a presentation hosted by two people with the Justice Department, including Angie LaTour, the director of community affairs at Minnesota’s U.S. Attorney’s Office. Two themes remained constant throughout the meeting, Mohamed said. 

First, he and others expressed concerns about how rigorous the Justice Department’s pattern or practice investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department will actually be. Specifically, Mohamed cited a 2015 Justice Department investigation into the department’s “early intervention system” that he says didn’t result in needed changes. 

“We just want to know, how is it going to be different this time?” Mohamed said. 

Second, activists also want investigations into other Twin Cities police departments like those in St. Paul and Brooklyn Center.

So how is this current investigation different from others the Justice Department conducted in the past? Will the Justice Department look into other police departments?

To answer these questions and more, Sahan Journal spoke with Minnesota interim U.S. Attorney W. Anders Folk, whose office is co-leading the pattern or practice investigation with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division Special Litigation Section.

We asked what the investigation will consist of, what people should expect, and how people can participate. A summary of that conversation follows.  

What is the Department of Justice investigating?

A pattern or practice investigation looks into a police department’s alleged misconduct to see whether it forms a pattern over time.

Pattern or practice investigations are more comprehensive than the 2015 Justice Department investigation into MPD. That investigation came at the request of then-MPD Chief Janeé Harteau. It looked at the police department’s internal accountability mechanisms and offered recommendations. The pattern or practice investigation is more sweeping in scale, examining potential systemic practices that may have violated the public’s constitutional rights over the last several years. 

The pattern or practice investigation can result in a consent decree: This would essentially amount to a federal court forcing the police department to make reforms. It came not at the request of police brass, but through community members, advocacy groups, and elected leaders like Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. 

The investigation will look into three areas where the Minneapolis Police Department may be violating the public’s constitutional rights. 

  • The first is whether Minneapolis police are routinely using excessive force. This will include police responses to First Amendment–protected activities like protesting and newsgathering by members of the press. 
  • The second area is whether Minneapolis police are consistently discriminating against the public in their policing activities, including on the basis of race, which would violate the public’s 14th Amendment rights. 
  • The third area is whether Minneapolis police responses to people experiencing mental health crises comply with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

The pattern or practice investigation is a civil investigation, which means it will not result in criminal penalties against individual officers. If investigators come across evidence of criminal actions from individual police officers, however, “They have the ability to forward it to investigators on the criminal side” within the Justice Department, Folk said. 

Who is leading the investigation?

For now, four Justice Department lawyers lead the pattern or practice investigation. Two are from Washington D.C. and two are from Minnesota. Attorneys Cynthia Coe and Megan Marks, who both work in the Special Litigation Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, are in charge. They are joined by Bahram Samie and Kristen Rau, both Assistant U.S. Attorneys for the District of Minnesota. 

The team also includes paralegals and “external experts who will provide various subject matter expertise who will provide various subject matter expertise and data analytics,” Folk said.

This team will likely grow bigger as the investigation deepens, Folk added.

Minnesota interim U.S. Attorney W. Anders Folk. Credit: U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Minnesota

How long will the pattern or practice investigation take?

Expect the investigation to last anywhere between six months to a year, if not longer. Part of this depends on the volume of evidence investigators need from MPD, and how quickly MPD can provide it to them, Folk said.

“The most honest answer is we don’t know, but it’s going to take a number of months,” Folk said. 

What about requests for the Justice Department to investigate police departments in cities like St. Paul and Brooklyn Center?

This is perhaps the most common refrain from the coalition of activists who originally called for a federal investigation into Minnesota policing. Mohamed, for example, cites cases of people killed by police from departments outside Minneapolis: Daunte Wright, in Brooklyn Center; and Justin Teigen, in St. Paul.

“It’s really hard to investigate Minneapolis without investigating St. Paul,” Mohamed said. 

By statute, pattern or practice investigations cannot investigate more than one police department at a time. But that doesn’t mean the Justice Department can’t in the future open separate pattern or practice investigations into other Minnesota police departments. 

Before deciding to open a pattern or practice investigation, Folk emphasized, the Justice Department reviews the number allegations made against a police department, the seriousness of these allegations, and whether this particular police department is taking steps to address the allegations.

Based on these factors, the Justice Department made the decision to open an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, Folk said. 

“I don’t think it necessarily means that people should assume there won’t ever be another one of these in Minnesota,” Folk said. “If part of this investigation provides information that’s relevant to other departments, then the Special Litigation Section will be able to look at that and weigh whether it makes sense to look at other departments, too. But for right now, the mission here is Minneapolis police.”

What stage is the pattern or practice investigation currently in?

The investigation is still in its early stages. For now, expect the Justice Department to hold more closed-door community meetings like the one Mohamed attended. The first few community meetings were held with “people who are very active in the anti-police brutality space,” said Tasha Zerna, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Minnesota. Apart from CAIR, this also included organizations like the local chapter of the NAACP, Reclaim the Block, the Legal Rights Center, the Minnesota Justice Coalition, and Justice for Jamar Clark, Folk said. 

These meetings are held for Justice Department officials to explain what the pattern or practice investigation is, lay out expectations for the public, and encourage engagement from people who have something to report about Minneapolis police. 

“Our strategy is to cast as wide a net as possible and reach out to community leaders and stakeholders,” Zerna said. 

Besides this, Justice Department investigators have also met with the city’s executive leadership, including Mayor Jacob Frey, Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, and MPD command staff.

Soon, investigators will begin the “formal interview process” of the investigation by interviewing and collecting information from police officers and community members. 

I have something to report about Minneapolis police misconduct for this investigation. Whom do I contact?

Spokesperson Zerna said anyone with information that they feel is relevant to the pattern or practice investigation of Minneapolis police can call the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section at (866) 432-0268, email them at Community.minneapolis@usdoj.gov, or mail them at: 

Ethan Trinh

Special Litigation Section

U.S. Department of Justice

50 M. Street, NE

Washington, DC 20001

President Joe Biden is currently in the process of selecting a new U.S. Attorney for Minnesota to replace Anders Folk. Will this impact the investigation?

Folk, who has been interim U.S. Attorney since March, said he doesn’t expect anything to veer off course whenever a permanent replacement takes his place. Both his office and the Special Litigation Section in Washington D.C. “have staffed this with people that we know are experienced, that are dedicated to this kind of work, and have a commitment to doing civil rights work.”

“Whether new leadership ever wants to reassess this, that will be their prerogative,” he added. “But these folks are assigned to the case and I have expectation that they’ll see it through to the end.”

Do local activists believe this investigation will be different from previous DOJ reviews of Minneapolis policing?

Civil rights Leaders like Mohamed express both hope and skepticism about the whole process so far.

“They told us to judge them by their actions and investigation,” Mohamed said of Justice Department leaders. “They said they had every intention to do a really deep dive. We’re going to have to see.”

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...