Minneapolis: Sadly, My Beloved City

by David C. Couper

I grew up in Minneapolis. I am a graduate of the University of Minnesota and erstwhile Vikings fan. I love Minneapolis. It is a vibrant, educated, progressive American city. It should have a police reflective of its character. Unfortunately, for many reasons I will state below, it does not.

[On May 25] I was interviewed by Wisconsin Public Radio as they noted the anniversary of the death of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and a recent memorandum by the US Attorney General requiring federal police to report abuse by other officers. 

As I have said before, most of the changes proposed to improve American policing since the tragic video account of his death in which millions of Americans saw, have been in effect in most progressive police departments since the 1970s. For example, banning choke holds, not shooting at or from moving vehicles, calling off high-speed chases that endanger others, integrating and balancing police negotiators into SWAT operations, hiring college graduates, running the training academy like a college classroom rather than as a military boot camp, and requiring officers to report misconduct of colleagues. 

In Madison, Wisc., we implemented these kind of improvements (including to continuously improve all that we do and strongly connect with the community) during my tenure as Chief of Police (1972-1993). Why haven’t other’s followed? What’s up? Why haven’t police maintained the support and trust of those whom they have sworn to “protect and serve?”

A decade after I retired, I identified four obstacles in my book, “Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off…” They were, in summary, 

— Anti-intellectualism (the failure to respect higher education, research and experimentation), 

— Violence (using force or threat of force as a primary enforcement tool), 

— Corruption (not following the law while enforcing it or lying in preparing reports and testifying in court), and 

— Discourtesy (not being fair and respectful to others).

A good example of why transformation of our nation’s police along lines that parallel our nation’s founding values is what happened in Minneapolis, Minn. throughout the years after I left and especially after the death of Mr. Floyd. I served as a patrol officer, trainer, and detective in that department for seven years (1962-1969) and have kept on eye on it over the years. It has been painful.

The following piece from the New York Times captures much of the problem. It is a police department run by the police union and unable to build trust in a wealthy urban city among the poor and those of color.

“Minneapolis is the most scrutinized city to try to rein in policing after Mr. Floyd’s death, but far from the only one. States have passed laws that require de-escalation training, body-worn cameras or early warning systems to identify problem officers. At least six states and four cities have limited the use of no-knock warrants. Dozens of police departments have adopted limits on chokeholds and neck restraints — dangerous subdual tactics that have resulted in fatalities. But police unions and some law enforcement leaders have resisted changes that they say would weaken their ability to retain officers and fight crime. Rising violence across the country has increased their leverage…” [Read the entire news story HERE.]

I have frequently been asked about whether our nation’s 600,000 police officers who serve in 18,000 police agencies (and the majority of them consisting of 10 officers or lesss) can make the transformation that is needed. For it is a transformation many of us are talking about — not just cosmetic changes!

My faith tells me to hope that we can and will do better, but another part of me says it is impossible to do this, that the subculture of the “warrior cop” in our divided nation will continue to drive the work of police and we will continue to have very episodic bad police behavior on the streets. Each event will cause a national crisis as the death of George Floyd did (and as did the deaths of hundreds of young black men before and after him). 

The death by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, led to another call for restraint in the use of deadly force by police in America. His death caused an important question to be raised – how many citizens are killed by police each year? After exhaustive research by journalists the number of deaths by police were found to be far greater than the number police officially reported — approximately 1,000 per year. 

That number has not been significantly reduced over the years in spite of much talk and promise to reduce those numbers which impact people of color more than those of us who are white. It is the primary reason police are struggling to hire new officers and build trust and support in the communities they serve. They have been unable to effectively answer the cry from our nation’s streets — “When are you going to stop killing us?”

I will close with this: 

Members of the European Union are required to sign the following and it is the primary reason police in Europe kill far, far fewer citizens than we do in America.

“The use of lethal force remains governed by the strict rules of ‘absolute necessity.’”

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This piece has been republished from Improving Police.

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