Police in protective gear stood guard on May 27, 2020 at the Third Police Precinct station in Minneapolis. Credit: Carlos Gonzalez | Star Tribune

This story comes to you from the Star Tribune through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

A Hennepin County judge on Thursday signed a court order approving a settlement agreement between Minneapolis and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, setting in motion a sweeping slate of police reforms the city is legally required to implement.

Judge Karen Janisch agreed from the bench to order approval of the 144-page agreement after officials from the city and the human rights department (MDHR) urged her to do so. Minneapolis must now move forward with changes that it negotiated with MDHR over several months, department spokesman Taylor Putz said.

“This comes after we spent months with the city negotiating and engaging with and hearing from community members and police officers and bringing their ideas right to the negotiating table to then implement into the consent decree,” Putz said.

MDHR accused the city in April 2022 of a pattern of discriminatory policing for over a decade preceding the murder of George Floyd in 2020. The state and city then negotiated a settlement agreement, which was finalized by the city and MDHR in March. The agreement seeks to rectify the root causes of police misconduct by restricting aggressive tactics, bolstering police accountability systems and supporting officers’ wellness.

The state engaged many community members before the creation of the settlement agreement, and families of individuals killed by police said they could see their contributions in the document.

“We want the city to be successful. We want the Police Department to be successful,” said MDHR lawyer Megan McKenzie, promising that the state will provide ongoing feedback and support to the city as it implements reforms over the next several years. “We were careful not to impose any obligations that couldn’t be met.”

But as the city and MDHR neared court approval of their settlement agreement, community groups asked the judge not to accept the document without amending details they view as impediments to real reform.

Also considered at the hearing were the concerns of the Twin Cities police watchdog group Communities United Against Police Brutality and government accountability groups Minnesota Coalition on Government Information and the Transparency Institute, which filed amicus briefs weighing in with their analysis of the agreement.

The police watchdog group praised the bulk of the proposed consent decree but sounded an alarm over select clauses that ostensibly permit the police union contract to supersede promises of reforms. These include statements that police disciplinary decisions will be documented and reported only in a way “consistent with any collective bargaining agreements” and that “nothing in this agreement will be interpreted as obligating the city or any unions to violate and/or waive any rights or obligations under the terms of the collective bargaining agreements.”

“That means cops can sidestep anything in this consent decree by putting it in their union contract,” group volunteer Andrew Kluis said in June at a community review of the settlement agreement.

The government information coalition also asked the court not to approve the settlement agreement as written, for fear the document would interfere with the state Government Data Practices Act. The nonprofit is suing the city for information on the “coaching” of police officers for sustained instances of misconduct—a softer personnel action that falls short of official discipline, which is subject to public disclosure.

The group opposes the settlement agreement’s explicit definition of “discipline” as excluding routine supervision or coaching because that issue remains unresolved in their pending lawsuit.

The city dismissed the community groups’ concerns in a written response, saying the settlement agreement must conform with state laws, including the Data Practices Act and Public Employment Labor Relations Act. If there are changes in those laws, the settlement agreement would have the flexibility to be adjusted as needed, said City Attorney Kristyn Anderson. MDHR lawyers agreed.

“The city also had Police Department leadership on our negotiating team and consulted throughout with affected departments to ensure that the terms that we were agreeing to were not only reform-minded but also practical,” Anderson said.

Janisch concluded the hearing by stating her intention to issue an order determining the final consent decree between the city and MDHR without changes, per the parties’ joint request. She signed the order shortly after.

“This is a huge framework. There is going to be a lot of work that the city is going to be doing in the near future,” Janisch said. “I hope that the city is up to that task and that you can find good people to be able to carry this forward.”

An independent evaluator will be appointed to ensure the city enforces the agreement. MDHR is in the process of choosing finalists from among six companies that applied for the work.

That evaluator will likely also double as the federal monitor of the coming U.S. Department of Justice consent decree. Community listening sessions will follow, with dates to be posted on MDHR’s website.

From left to right: Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke, U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, and Attorney General Merrick Garland at a June 16, 2023, news conference announcing the results of a federal investigation into Minneapolis police. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Brian O’Hara stand behind Garland. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Susan Du covers the city of Minneapolis for the Star Tribune.