From George Floyd to Amir Locke, have Minneapolis police learned nothing?

Mayor Jacob Frey and the Minneapolis Police Department promised ‘transformational change’ to policing in the city after Floyd’s murder. Nearly two years later, the killing of Locke shows that hasn’t happened, Josh Marcus writes

Tuesday 01 March 2022 19:35

At the beginning of January, the rehabilitation of Jacob Frey, the embattled mayor of Minneapolis, seemed nearly complete.

Back in 2020, Mr Frey, was the mayor whose police department murdered George Floyd. He was the leader whose police officers brutalised demonstrators and journalists during a summer of protests and riots. He was the man whose constituents, captured in a video that went many times viral, chanted “Shame!” and “Go home, Jacob!” at a rally, after he wouldn’t commit to defunding the police department. The last many Americans saw of Mr Frey, at least for a time, was the boyish mayor walking catatonically away from the crowd in a mask that read, “I can’t breathe,” the final words spoken by Black men like Eric Garner and Mr Floyd before police killed them.

By 2022, things were different. High off a re-election campaign where he both defeated rivals proposing structural police change and a ballot initiative that would’ve forced him to share power over the police with a reformist city council, Mr Frey appeared a man revived.

He was the subject of a glowing Vogue article, complete with comparisons of him to another smooth-talking and telegenic Democrat, Barack Obama. Glossy photos show Mr Frey, a former pro marathon runner, looking stylish and ruddy on a winter jog.

He told his interviewer that being shouted down by that crowd was “one of the prouder moments of my career,” because he stood up to radical activists while spiriting through reforms all the same, a mandate he claimed he got in “quiet conversations that I had with Black mothers” who begged him not to listen to the people in the streets.

“I just kept thinking in my head, ‘Tell the truth, do the right thing,’” he said.

A few days later, another young Black man, Amir Locke, would be dead at the hands of the mayor’s police department. According to scholars, activists, and government officials interviewed by The Independent, Locke’s slaying indicates that Mr Frey, in many ways, had neither told the truth nor done the right thing on police reform in the years since George Floyd was killed.

It’s part of a pattern, they say. The officers involved in Mr Floyd’s killing have all been prosecuted—Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in April, and his three partners were found guilty of federal civil rights violations on Thursday—but aside from these decisions, superficial police policy tweaks have done little to touch the fundamental forces making Minneapolis such a dangerous place for communities of colour.

Early on the morning of 2 February, a Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) SWAT team silently entered an apartment in Minneapolis to carry out a no-knock search warrant in an homicide investigation.

Body camera footage of the raid shows officers encounter Locke, 22, groggy and half-asleep, on a couch underneath a blanket. As they cross the threshold into the apartment, they yell, “Search warrant!” and “Get on the f***ing ground!”

Startled awake, Locke reaches for a gun, but doesn’t point it at officers or finger the trigger. Officer Mark Hannman kills Locke less than 10 seconds after entering the apartment.

After Locke was killed, his reputation would be killed swiftly in the press. An initial police press release described Locke as a “suspect” who pointed his weapon at officers during an high-risk raid, even though he wasn’t the target of the search warrant and didn’t aim at police, video shows. Neighbouring St Paul police had requested MPD carry out the search, but hadn’t deemed it an urgent one needing a no-knock raid—Minneapolis police were the ones who insisted. Police evidence photos of Locke’s legally owned gun made it into news stories, even though he never fired it. The narrative thus became that Locke, a dangerous man with a gun, came at officers, when the facts indicate it was the reverse.

“This video raises about as many questions as it does answers,” mayor Frey said later that week, after the release of body camera footage substantially complicated the initial picture described by police.

This image taken from Minneapolis Police Department body camera video shows officers entering the apartment of 22-year-old Amir Locke on 2 February 2022

The main questions on the minds of many in Minneapolis, weary of too many Black people killed by police, and too many empty promises from the leaders tasked with stopping this onslaught, was how this could’ve happened in the first place. Hadn’t Mr Frey, the mayor who insisted on telling the truth and doing the right thing, banned no-knock warrants?

One activist, Nekima Levy Armstrong, called what happened “the anatomy of a coverup.” The Minneapolis NAACP said the killing was a “modern day lynching.”

Last fall, Jacob Frey and his surrogates had campaigned on the message that defunding the police and shifting more dollars to non-armed public safety services wasn’t necessary, because they had done things like “effectively” end no-knock warrants in the city of Minneapolis in 2020, after the practice came under scrutiny following the police killing of bystander Breonna Taylor during a similar raid earlier that year. Police, as Mr Frey described, would only use such high-risk, no-knock entries in scenarios of great public danger, like a hostage situation.

"This is about proactive policymaking and instilling accountability," the mayor said in a statement at the time. "We can’t prevent every tragedy, but we can limit the likelihood of bad outcomes.”

Despite these claims, bad outcomes would find Amir Locke and others. In truth, the practice flourished throughout Mr Frey’s time in office, regardless of his campaign claims. (Mr Frey admitted this month his words around the ban “became more casual” and “did not reflect the necessary precision or nuance” during the campaign.)

In the year after the ban on no-knock warrants took place, MPD used 90 of them, as did their partners in nearby cities. In 2021, Coon Rapids police mistakenly smashed down a door and held a woman and her 12-year-old daughter at gunpoint at the request of Minneapolis police. As of early February 2022, the Minneapolis StarTribune reported, the MPD had used more no-knock searches than regular ones.

The mayor has since implemented another moratorium on no-knock warrants, though it too contains exceptions.

Almost two years since George Floyd was murdered, setting off an international moment of racial justice uprisings, many in Minneapolis say they’ve grown cynical watching elected leaders and supposed reformers insist they’re making deep reforms to policing, only to see more people killed in predictable ways.

“There’s a lot of just like validated anger and exhaustion,” said JaNaé Bates, an organiser at ISAIAH, a faith-based racial justice group. “The anger of course is anger that again the Minneapolis Police Department killed someone. Anger that they lied about a lot of the circumstances around it. Anger at the mayor who lied about banning no-knock warrants, who also stood in the way of creating something different that was looking to try to prevent these kinds of things from continuing to happen.”

“I just have no faith in that process,” added Thursday, an activist and regular street protester who prefers to use a pseudonym for safety concerns. “Even if they change the rules, are the police going to follow it? What’s going to happen if they don’t follow the rules? They don’t follow the rules all the damn time.”

Those most responsible for police oversight in Minneapolis over the last two years—Mayor Frey, the Minneapolis Police Department, the Minneapolis police union, and former Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo—all did not respond to requests for comment from The Independent.

Unfulfilled promise of ‘transformational change’

Jacob Frey and the MPD promised “transformational change” to policing in the city after Floyd’s murder, and they have altered some policies, though justice advocates say they haven’t gone far enough.

Leaders banned officers involved in “critical incidents” from reviewing body camera footage or speaking with union officials on the scene of encounters like police shootings, allowing a more unvarnished take on what actually occurred. They limited the use of riot control weapons like foam rounds by SWAT officers, which blinded a photographer and wounded many others during the 2020 uprising. They required officers to "use the lowest level of force needed,” consider "all reasonable alternatives before resorting to deadly force,” and intervene when their colleagues were using excessive violence, though one wonders whether such considerations were made in the 10 or so seconds before police killed Amir Locke. They became the first city in the nation to ban “warrior-style” training. And, perhaps most significantly, in October the city accepted $500,000 from an outside foundation to implement an early warning system to catch and correct officers with records of abuse before they killed someone, rather than after. Derek Chauvin, the former MPD officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, had a lengthy record of misconduct complaints against him long before the pair’s encounter.

Still, even with all these changes, the fundamentals of policing haven’t changed in Minneapolis, according to University of Minnesota sociologist Michelle Phelps, who has studied the MPD and its long history of misconduct. Deeper reforms of funding and tactics have been taken off the table, she says, while even promised changes have failed to materialise on issues like no-knock warrants.

“From my vantage point, not much has changed since the murder of George Floyd. Despite it being nearly two years later, we’re still trying to figure out as a city what were the lessons we agreed to learn as a community,” she told The Independent. “It’s such a poignant example of how the department made reforms that didn’t ultimately mean a lot.”

That’s because the police department has pushed back against deeper questions like allowing more citizen oversight, or strengthening disciplinary actions against problem officers, according to Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB), an advocacy group.

“Nothing has changed of any significance that will change any deaths,” said CUAPB’s Dave Bicking. “They aren’t the big ones. The city was dragging their feet on a number of things before George Floyd was killed, and to a large extent they’re dragging their feet now.”

The biggest potential change to the MPD came last fall, when Minneapolis voters decided on two ballot initiatives: Question 1, supported by the mayor, which would enhance his control over the city government; and Question 2, opposed by Mr Frey and then-MPD chief Medaria Arradondo, a ballot initiative that would’ve removed constitutional minimums on the number of police in the city, and created a new Department of Public Safety overseen jointly by the mayor and the more activist-minded city council. The question was seen, both by backers and opponents, as a prelude to more fully defunding the police and shifting its emphasis to non-violent public safety responses.

The mayor, the MPD, and their allies mobilised all of their political capital to stop the new defunding initiative. The mayor promised a “both/and” approach—that reforms could make the MPD less violent without changing the fundamental nature of the department and how it is governed.

Mr Frey’s ally Steve Cramer, CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, warned that public safety concerns could mean 10,000 jobs leaving the city.

“What we also saw was a group of folks who voted no, but in the belief, believing what the mayor told them, that the department of public safety was possible, that all these good things are possible, all of these reforms and changes can be made without structurally changing the police department,” Ms Bates, the ISAIAH organiser, said. “That sounds like a good deal, we get all the goodies and with none of the hard work. Let’s do it.”

Chief Arradondo, appearing in his official uniform in front of a backdrop of city logos, held a press conference tearing into the initiative less than a week before the November election that would decide the fate of the ballot initiatives.

"We are down a third of our sworn officers…To vote on a measure of reimagining of public safety without a solid plan and an implementation or direction of work, this is too critical of a time to wish and hope for that help that we need so desperately right now,” he said. "I was not expecting some sort of robust, detailed, word-for-word plan, but at this point quite frankly, I would take a drawing on a napkin. And I have not seen either.”

These words, from Minneapolis’s first Black police chief, a trusted figure who had grown up a few blocks away from where George Floyd was pressed into the pavement by the MPD, carried great weight. They were also a violation of city ethics rules on campaigning in uniform and using city resources for politics, but Mr Arradondo was only disciplined after the election was over.

According to city council member Robin Wonsley Worlobah, the mayor and the chief were leveraging a spike in gun violence that began during the pandemic, as well as the chief’s aura of respectability and community trust, to convince communities of colour they shouldn’t ask for something different.

“Black and brown folks, they wanted to believe we can have accountability of the police, we can still have the police, but what other options have they been given?” said Ms Worlobah, who is Black. “They leveraged increasing gun violence and also the fact that they had this well respected African-American chief of police, they really threw their eggs in that basket. That was sufficient to quell any dissent around George Floyd towards the Minneapolis Police Department. It worked. As soon as the election happened, it all fell apart.”

Question 2 was voted down decisively, with 56 per cent of voters, many from the city’s richest neighbourhoods, opting to stick with the current police structure. To Ms Worlobah, the vote was “the status quo striking back.” Chief Arradondo announced in December he would retire at the beginning of 2022.

In January, a long-delayed city study concluded that the MPD on average spends less time on emergencies requiring an armed response by state law than on nonviolent, administrative functions, and that most calls involve “no immediate threat of harm.” But such considerations haven’t made their way into the budget process yet. For 2022, the mayor succeeded in winning a $192 million police budget, nearly equaling the sum from before George Floyd was killed, without any major shifts toward non-violent responses.

"It seems this budget is intended to send a heartbreaking political message that nothing has changed in Minneapolis since the murder of George Floyd," said outgoing Council President Lisa Bender at the time.

Outside of the ballot wars, changing the MPD was proving hellaciously difficult in other areas, too.

All those clarified search and use-of-force policies seemed to mean little to the life of Amir Locke and kids like him, or to those who advanced through the department. Mark Hanneman, the officer who shot him, now on administrative leave, was a field training officer, meaning he was an expert in MPD policy and taught others. So was Derek Chauvin. So was former Brooklyn Center police department officer Kimberly Potter, who shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright in the Minneapolis suburbs last April. The new Minneapolis interim police chief has promoted a once-fired officer named David Garman as head of the department’s training, despite a record of allegedly being part of multiple illegal searches and seizures, including a no-knock raid that led to a now-settled federal lawsuit.

Civilian groups have been calling for more oversight of the department for years to root out problem officers before they become lethal ones, but the structure of police oversight in Minneapolis leaves discipline in the hands of the mayor, the police chief, and the police union, with little room for outside concerns. The city now has three different overlapping police oversight commissions, though none are able to do more than offer discipline recommendations which largely go ignored.

Despite promises of accountability for the scores of officers who beat up protesters throughout the 2020 uprising, just two appear to have been disciplined, one of whom was a female whistleblower who spoke with the press about the department’s “toxic” culture. And because of the city’s arbitration process with the police union, in the rare instances where an officer is fired, they get their job back about half the time, according to the mayor. Other cities like Austin have filed nearly 10 times more cases against officers for misconduct during the 2020 uprisings. Any major changes in discipline policy would come via a new union contract, but a new deal hasn’t been approved since 2019, and the city appears to have little leverage to get MPD to agree to a new one.

The most recent oversight effort, a highly touted “team of rivals” Public Safety Working Group, bringing together both proponents of defunding MPD like former mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad and downtown businessmen like Mr Cramer, has already disintegrated into controversy. Ms Nezhad resigned in January because the commission wouldn’t agree to broadcast its meetings to the public, as other cities like nearby St Paul do.

In fact, when it comes to officer discipline, things seem to have regressed since George Floyd, according to Thursday, the street activist. All four officers involved in the Floyd arrest were fired almost instantly. No one has been fired for the Locke killing, or any other high-profile abuse cases, for years, Thursday says.

“This happened, and the officer hasn’t been fired yet. No officer has been fired for anything since 2020,” he said. “It just hasn’t happened. Nothing that has happened has ever seen any officer, as far as I know, receive any serious discipline. I can’t think of a single case. They’ve hurt a lot of people. They’ve done a lot of egregious sh**. But I can’t think of a single example of an officer who has been disciplined for everything.”

Derek Chauvin was the second on-duty Minneapolis police officer in the department’s over 150-year history to be convicted of murder, and may very well be the last for some time.

The urgency of 2020 seems to have given way, in the halls of power, to a quieter tone, of a grinding reinforcement of the status quo, where protests and new policies do little to stop police violence and a system that insulates them from scrutiny.

Take, for instance, 3 June, 2021. On that day, in downtown Minneapolis, US Marshals on a fugitive task force shot and killed a Black man named Winston Smith, at first claiming there was no video of the shooting, only to later reveal deputies had body cameras but were told not to use them, despite a Justice Department directive from 2020 allowing their use.

Across town, a community group awarded a no-bid contract under the mayor’s pandemic powers began to dismantle George Floyd Square, an autonomous protest zone and memorial that sprung up in memorial after Floyd was murdered.

Later, after a driver plowed an SUV into Winston Smith protesters, killing Deona Marie Erickson, mayor Frey called the incident a “car accident,” and police armed with silenced assault rifles and long wooden clubs were used to clear out the protesters’ downtown barricades.

More recently, during last week’s sentencing of Kim Potter, the Brooklyn Center officer who shot and killed 20-year-old Black man Daunte Wright during a traffic stop, mistaking her gun for a Taser, county judge Regina Chu appeared near tears as she offered a paean to the valor of police work, before sentencing Ms Potter to two years in prison, well below sentencing guidelines.

Katie Wright, Daunte’s mother, said the decision “murdered him all over again.”

Perhaps most tellingly, even though Jacob Frey has said confronting the George Floyd protesters was one of his proudest moments, he hasn’t yet appeared at the similar demonstrations that have kicked off since Amir Locke was killed, including a student sit-in that occurred not far from his office in city hall.

“You asked the public to reelect you to do your job,” says council member Worlobah. “If you cannot stand before your constituents and hear how they would like for you to do better so that they don’t have to watch another black man be killed, then maybe you should not be in this position. We all signed up to be public servants, that means we all signed up to be accountable to the public.”

Still, despite the stagnation of meaningful reform in Minneapolis, activists say they still have hope things can get better. Though not at the scale of 2020’s uprising, the continued protests against the Locke killing, especially by students, as well as a grassroots-led drive to file ethics complaints against Mr Frey, shows that the community hasn’t given up asking for something more, they say.

Pending investigations of the MPD by the Department of Justice and Minnesota Department of Human Rights may yet yield new, deeper policy changes.

And even without doing something like amending the city charter, organisers like Ms Bates say there are changes the city can make that would make a big difference, such as directing more funding to the city’s community-focused Office of Violence Prevention, as well as non-armed emergency medical services.

“These are things that actually can be fixed,” she says. “We don’t have to wait on MPD to get themselves together to fix these issues.”

Ms Worlobah said activists in the city are now taking this moment to recalibrate, but they should remember it’s always been an uphill fight for reform.

“Those of us on the left are constantly failing forward,” she said. “We’re in a capitalist society. We don’t have money. We don’t have the chamber of commerce backing our decisions. We don’t have those who control the socioeconomic conditions of our world behind us or side by side with us. We’re always going to be up a hill, but as long as we recognize, we are way more powerful, there’s many more of us who are committed to make our vision happen. We don’t have to have a public safety agency that kills us in our sleep.”

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