November 17, 2020

Introduction

Welcome to the first online-exclusive edition of the CURA Reporter. Learn more about the CURA Reporter and subscribe.

Abuses of power by police in Black or African American, Native, and other minority communities in Minneapolis have a long history.[1] Recent high-profile police killings of civilians by Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officers, including Jamar Clark in 2015, Justine Damond (Ruszczyk) in 2017, and George Floyd in 2020, have brought concerns about police violence to the forefront of public debates. Much of this conversation initially focused on North Minneapolis (or Northside), the site of Mr. Clark’s killing and an 18-day occupation of the local police precinct that followed his death, and a cultural and economic center for African American Minneapolis residents.

In an effort to better understand Northsiders’ experiences with the MPD and their desires for the future of policing, in 2017﹘2019 our research team interviewed 112 residents. In this report, we share key findings from our study. The North Minneapolis residents we spoke with often described feeling over-policed and under-protected, exposed both to community and police violence. Residents described frequent negative experiences with police, including racial targeting and harassment, slow or apathetic responses to calls for service, verbal and physical abuse, and trauma from high-profile cases of police killings. These concerns were greatest among Black or African American residents, with Black men in particular reporting the most pervasive negative experiences. While many participants appreciated the reforms implemented in recent years by the MPD, they saw them as inadequate to address the scope of the problem. Instead, residents wanted the city’s leadership to enact holistic and large-scale transformations that addressed both community and police violence.

We conclude with a series of policy recommendations that come out of these findings, including:

  1. Build community resources for public safety beyond policing.
  2. Accelerate efforts to reduce police misconduct and promote more justice for the victims of police violence.
  3. Create “feedback loops” to empower the most impacted residents in deciding the future of public safety.

We offer these recommendations as the city begins the process of reimagining public safety in Minneapolis. Our goal is to help create more safety and justice for all of Minneapolis.

Table of contents

A candlelight vigil for Jamar Clark at the 4th police precinct in North Minneapolis, November 20, 2015
A candlelight vigil for Jamar Clark at the 4th police precinct in North Minneapolis, November 20, 2015. Photo by Chris Juhn.

Project Background

 

Minneapolis, Minnesota, often prides itself as one of the Midwest’s most progressive cities, embracing redistributive policies in education, housing, and more. Yet the city (and state) are marked by stark racial disparities in housing, education, criminal justice, and other domains. This disjuncture is apparent in policing as well: while the MPD has been recognized as a national leader in progressive policing reform in recent years, the department has also come under stark criticism by residents, activists, and the media for racial disparities in police stops and a series of high-profile police killings of people of color.

During our study period, the MPD was in the midst of a process of police reform rocked by a series of police killings of Minneapolis residents. After the killing of Jamar Clark in 2015, activists and residents staged an 18-day occupation of the 4th Precinct. At the same time, the MPD, under Chief Janeé Harteau and her successor Medaria Arradondo, was in the process of enacting a series of police reforms, including community listening sessions, more restrictive use-of-force policies, public release of data on police stops, stricter body camera policies, procedural justice and implicit bias training, a mental health co-responder pilot, and strengthened misconduct review processes.[2]

It was in this context that our research team, led by Dr. Michelle Phelps, began a research study of police reform in Minneapolis. A team of five Black, biracial, and Latino undergraduate and graduate student research assistants conducted the interviews in 2017﹘2019. For the interviews, we recruited people who lived and/or worked in North Minneapolis, a collection of neighborhoods north of downtown. Compared to the rest of Minneapolis, the Northside has a higher percentage of Black or African American residents and low-income households; in surveys its residents also tend to report lower satisfaction with the police compared to other parts of the city.[3]

We advertised the study through flyer postings in different Northside locations (including community centers, restaurants, stores, salons, bus stops, churches, and barbershops). We also invited interviewees to share our contact information with their friends, family, and neighbors; some participants also posted our flyer to community social media groups. We conducted most interviews at local restaurants located in the heart of the Northside for participants’ convenience. On other occasions, we met at libraries, cafes, and stores. Our goal was not to generate a perfectly representative sample of residents, but, rather, to collect the narratives of a diverse group of residents of varied ages, genders, racial or ethnic backgrounds, income levels, and political affiliations.

The interviews began with a short survey asking about attitudes toward the police[4] and demographic characteristics. The other interview questions were open-ended so that residents could describe their experiences in their own words. We asked residents about safety in their communities, interactions with police, perspectives on the MPD’s reform initiatives, and what they would like to see change in policing. Interviews lasted between 30 and 75 minutes and each participant’s time was compensated with $30. Interviews were audio-recorded (with participants’ consent) and then transcribed. We assigned each participant a pseudonym that we use to refer to them in the report to protect confidentiality.

 

Table 1 summarizes the demographic characteristics of our sample. Sixty-five residents, or 58%, identified as Black or African American, 24 (21%) identified as white, 6 (5%) as Native or American Indian, and 17 (15%) from other racial groups and/or multiracial. Men represented 52% of participants, while 46% of respondents identified as female and 2% as non-binary and/or transgender. The ages of participants ranged from 18 to 76 years old, with a mean age of 43 years. Just over half of respondents (52%) were renters at the time of the study. Sixty percent of our participants reported annual household incomes of $20,000 or less. Most participants (84%) resided in either the 55411 or 55412 ZIP Codes in North Minneapolis; the remainder were frequently in the neighborhood for work, church, or visiting friends and family.

In December 2019, we hosted a community forum to report back on our findings to the community at the Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC). A lesson from that forum was that residents want more than descriptions of the problem—they want solutions. As a result, this report contains both a summary of our results and our recommendations for transforming policing in Minneapolis. One of these recommendations is that residents most impacted by community and police violence need to be at the center of all discussions about the future of public safety in Minneapolis.

People gather in front of a "Justice for Jamar" projection on side of the 4th police precinct building in North Minneapolis, November 20, 2015
People gather in front of a "Justice for Jamar" projection on side of the 4th police precinct building in North Minneapolis, November 20, 2015. Photo by Chris Juhn.

Findings

Finding #1: Many Northsiders take pride in their neighborhoods yet worry about crime and violence.

“It’s my city and I love it. You know what I mean? There are good people here. There are people that you know, want to raise their kids and they get up every day and they wake up every morning, you know what I’m saying? It’s peaceful, it’s just that certain elements do what they do. I think the media’s portraying us—and I say ‘us’ ’cause I love the Northside—hey’re portraying it that way. So I meet a lot of people that are like, ‘Oh, the Northside? You live over there? Uh, I would never go over there.’ No! Northside’s beautiful. I love it!”
-Kamela, Black woman, early-40s

“You can get robbed, you can get, you know, just randomly shot, you can get that kind of stuff happen to you. So, you have to watch, you know, where you park your car, how you parkin’ it, your driving and everything else. You have to watch the people around you.”
-Daniel, Black man, age 35

Many of the Northsiders we spoke to expressed feeling a sense of pride about their community. When asked about the positives of their neighborhoods, people described their neighbors, locally owned businesses, convenient transportation, and racial/ethnic diversity. Many respondents felt that the Northside was unfairly stigmatized by city leaders, residents of other neighborhoods, the media, and police. Residents felt these voices often diminished their community or did not present the full picture of all the wonderful people and places in the Northside.

Yet alongside this pride were consistent concerns about crime and violence. When asked to rate their perceptions of “neighborhood safety,” a third responded with “Poor” and nearly half said “Fair”; just 20% of respondents rated their neighborhood safety as “Good” or “Very Good.” Yet even when participants described feeling safe, it was often because they saw their own block as relatively safe or because they took great lengths to ensure their own safety, rather than a positive evaluation of overall neighborhood conditions. Residents described how they reduced their risk of victimization, including staying at home (especially at night) and avoiding “hot spots” and dangerous people in the community. Most interviewees described some level of concern about neighborhood crime, including gun violence, open-air drug markets, prostitution, teenage loitering and public fights, domestic disputes, high-speed traffic, and intimate partner violence. It was in this context that residents evaluated the actions of police.

Finding #2: Negative experiences produce reduced trust in the police.

Overall Trust in the Police

“The bad outweighs the good. We see that one lil’ good thing (rarely!), but you always hearing something negative or bad. And it’s not just North Minneapolis police. It’s not just Minnesota police. It’s police US-wide.”
-Dee-Dee, Black woman, age 28

“There is good cops out here and there is horrible cops...The thing that I can't stand with the police is that when the good cops see bad cops react the way they do, they don't, you know, stop 'em or, you know, help the people that need to be helped.”
-Ramando, Black man, age 35

Most residents expressed deep concerns about the MPD and its ability to serve and protect North Minneapolis (and policing in the United States more broadly). Figure 1 summarizes responses to a series of questions about police. The top half shows several procedural justice indicators, where the answer choices were “Never,” “Rarely,” “Sometimes,” “Often,” and “Almost Always.” On average, less than a third of respondents reported that police “Often” or “Almost Always” tried to do what was best, explained their decisions, gave residents voice, and made fair and neutral decisions. The bottom half of the figure shows how much people agreed or disagreed (option choices: “Strongly Disagree,” “Somewhat Disagree,” “Neither Disagree or Agree,” “Somewhat Agree,” and “Strongly Agree”) with statements about police legitimacy and bias. Only half of our respondents agreed that police were legitimate authorities and only 20% thought that the police department holds officers accountable for misconduct. A full 85% agreed that police officers judge residents based on their race or ethnicity.

 

These findings were racially divided, however, with white residents of North Minneapolis more confident in the police than Black residents and other people of color. As we show below, these more critical attitudes among Black residents were connected to negative personal and indirect experiences with police.

Only 15% of interviewees reported that they had “Quite a Lot” or a “Great Deal” of confidence in the police (compared to 54% in national samples).[5] Among this minority of our sample who had a lot of confidence in the police, residents believed the only problem in the community was the law-breakers and “assholes” preying on residents. These residents more frequently (though not always) listed their race/ethnicity as white. In contrast, most of our sample saw unjust and violent policing as part of the problem of inadequate safety in the neighborhood.

Criminalization, Racial Discrimination, and a Failure to Protect

“I’m very afraid of them [police]. I think that they’re very quick to react, as far as violence is concerned, against the citizens. I think that they don’t take the time out to listen...If they would listen, they would gain a better understanding.”
-Mabel, Multiracial woman, age 40

“You can’t go outside on the street or take your kids to the park without being harassed by the police. And when there was a serious crime, like a shooting or a murder, they wouldn’t show up...But any other day they’ll show up just to harass you and racially profile you…So, you know, I don’t really—I don’t know if they’re there to protect and serve…I don’t feel that. I wouldn’t call them for anything.”
-Darnell, Black man, mid-20s

“Sometimes—I’ma say this even though I don’t like ’em [police]—I like to see them because if anything happen to me, they around. But I see ’em a lot. I see ’em a lot.”
-Tanya, Black woman, age 54

Residents routinely described experiences where they felt criminalized by police or treated as though they “were up to no good.” Experiences of criminalization were divided along racial lines, with persons of color (and especially Black residents) reporting more policy scrutiny and disrespect than white residents. Young men of color felt particularly vulnerable to police stops and violence; reports of being stopped in cars, especially when young Black men were riding together, were common. These reports mirror police stop data that show Black residents in Minneapolis have been disproportionately likely to get arrested and ticketed for low-level offenses.[6] Such frequent stops, when residents were just going about their daily lives, were perceived by many as a sign of racial profiling and a form of injustice.

This aggressive policing of everyday behaviors outraged many respondents, especially in the context of inadequate responses to preventing and solving more serious crimes. Many saw law enforcement as spending its time harassing residents, while leaving gun violence and other serious crimes unaddressed. The criminology literature refers to this phenomenon as over-policing and under-protection, with residents wanting police to provide protection and safety in the community while knowing that police presence often came with harassment, potential violence, the threat of incarceration, and likely an inadequate response to their problems. As a result, some residents (like Tanya quoted above) described a beleaguered ambivalence toward seeing police in the neighborhood—both reassured and made anxious by their presence.

Verbal and Physical Abuse

“They don’t like dealing with us…it’s just like, ‘Fuck you! Shut up! Get in the car! You’re going to jail!’ If you get pulled over by the cops, it’s ‘Shut your fucking mouth or you’re gonna go to jail!’”
-David, Hispanic man, age 27

“I called them [police] one specific time when I had got raped…[He] was a friend, but evidently he wasn’t too much of a friend to slip a [drug] in my drink at the bar. But I remember leaving from the bar disoriented...When I woke up, I was somewhere else that I don’t remember getting there and everything, but I was raped. And called the police and they treated me like I was a disease. Like I was the suspect. I’m the one, literally like I’m defending myself and just…How you think-–you think I just ran out here in the middle of the street with hair, barely half-dressed with no shoes or something on?”
-Andrea, Multiracial woman, age 37

Residents who reported frequent police stops also often described abusive treatment from officers, from verbal threats and degradation to physical assault. Roughly a third of our sample had directly experienced verbal abuse from officers (including profanity, racialized slurs, and screamed commands), while roughly one-fourth described physical abuse from police officers. Several recalled experiencing being shoved by officers, invasive pat-downs and body searches, tight handcuffs, guns pointed in their face being held in the back of hot squad cars, and being given aggressive verbal commands such as “Shut the fuck up!” Several Black men we spoke to recounted vivid memories of having their life “flash before their eyes” as they stared down an officer’s handgun. Women of color also experienced verbal abuse, including, at times, after they called the police for help after experiencing gender-based, sexual, and intimate partner violence.

The recency of these experiences varied, with some interviewees talking about decades-old experiences while others had occurred in the past several months. Even long-ago events, however, could sharply influence how residents perceived policing today.

Impact of High-Profile Police Killings of Citizens

“I had a hard time understanding what Philando Castile did to deserve to be shot and killed. But this one this weekend [the killing of Justine Damond] is really over the top for me. I can’t even imagine a scenario that would even explain it and absolutely not justify it. It’s unbelievable to me. And I think that my skepticism has been growing.”
-Cindy, white woman, age 69

“News reports we seeing...people being actually gunned down by or shot by the police in broad daylight and the police is being let off free! That’s what’s taking a lot of the trust out from the community.”
-Harold, Black man, age 50

As we were conducting interviews in 2017, an officer from the MPD (Mohamed Noor) shot and killed Justine Damond, a 40-year-old white woman, in South Minneapolis. Her death—and the immediate international media response—prompted residents to draw comparisons between the Damond case and the 2015 killing of Jamar Clark. Participants brought up both deaths unprompted, processing their thoughts on the gendered and racialized risk of police violence and the public’s attention to such cases. Residents also brought up cases of police killings by officers in other cities and states, noting how such cases reinforced cycles of racial trauma nationwide.

These stories impacted both residents of color and white residents in distinct ways. Among white residents, the issue of police violence was more likely to come up in the context of media reports rather than personal and secondhand experiences. These high-profile cases were sometimes seen as a “turning point” for white Northsiders. While a handful of Black residents described these deaths as pivotal moments of heightened awareness of police violence, most were intimately familiar with the risk of police violence before the public spotlight.

Participants were deeply concerned about the lack of justice that seemed to follow high-profile cases of police killings of civilians. Residents were often outraged that officers could take the life of an “innocent person” without facing serious sanctions, including losing their jobs, criminal prosecutions for murder, and jail/prison time. Without that kind of “accountability,” residents worried that the police﹘community relations could not improve.

Finding #3: Many Northside residents want not just reform but policing transformation.

“We’re still dying quicker than we can affect change…I don’t wanna be dead before I experience a neighborhood where I feel safe when the police are around…We all deserve to have policing in our communities, or ways of managing things in our communities that are helpful and positive…that build rather than tear down and destroy.”
-Rudy, Black woman, age 37

“I think that they [police] are doing the best that they can at this point. Most of them… but] it seems like they're intimidated by everything and they're pulling guns really quickly. That's concerning. But...it's a tough job...I think cops really really have to be very aware of what they see in their jobs and how that affects their whole perspective of life in the community they work in. And I don't know that they get training about that.”
-Carol, white woman, age 66

“Once again, they've been doing studies, they've been doing policing training…[but] they are just changing the words…It hasn't worked then and I doubt it's going to work now.”
-Kenneth, Black man, age 60

The vast majority of Northside residents at some point expressed support for major reforms—or transformations—in policing. While residents highlighted different reforms, many of them focused on police training in procedural justice and de-escalation, body cameras, recruiting officers who lived in the community, and accountability for officers who engaged in police misconduct. Yet discussions of specific reform mechanisms often turned critical, with residents questioning how much reforms had accomplished. This critique was often divided along racial lines; while white residents more often saw the problem of police violence as isolated “bad apples,” many residents of color saw the problem as more systemic (“the rotten apple spoils the barrel”).

A frequent example of this pattern of reform critique was discussions of body cameras. Many residents were supportive of requiring officers to wear body cameras. However, several high-profile cases had showcased the limits of video footage in disciplining and/or criminally convicting officers. This meant that residents (and particularly residents of color) were frequently skeptical of the ability of police and city leaders to create accountability through body camera policies. Residents were concerned that officers would turn off cameras (or never activate them), or would fail to release (or delete) body camera footage, or that even with the footage, prosecutors would not win a conviction.

For some Black residents, police violence, and the lack of accountability that followed, seemed an unbreakable cycle and proof of the failure of police reform. They saw this cycle as fundamentally tied to endemic racism in the United States, with police violence as just one of many instances of the dehumanization and devaluation of Black people. For these residents, the solution was not more reform, but instead, to “start from scratch” to value Black life in public safety. For many of these residents, policing still played a role in their imagining of the future—but it would be a police force unrecognizable to today’s residents. For a small number of residents, the only answer was to abandon policing altogether, relying on the community instead for safety.

Police and protesters engage in a tense standoff at the 4th police precinct after the killing of Jamar Clark, November 18, 2015
Police and protesters engage in a tense standoff at the 4th police precinct after the killing of Jamar Clark, November 18, 2015. Photo by Chris Juhn.

Policy Recommendations

Most of the residents in North Minneapolis who we interviewed in 2017﹘2019 expressed deep concerns about policing practices, both locally and nationally. For residents of color, and especially Black and African American residents, their negative perceptions of police were interwoven with other systemic injustices and decades-long racial trauma. While residents had no single vision for the future of policing, residents agreed that the Northside deserved the kind of inclusion, respect, and safety that other neighborhoods in Minneapolis already experience. We offer three recommendations from residents’ interviews and the research literature:

Policy Recommendation #1: Build community resources for public safety beyond policing.

Our interviewees were nearly unanimous in wanting more safety in their neighborhoods. While increasing police presence can, at times, reduce the prevalence of certain kinds of criminal offenses, it comes with tremendous costs to the public, including unwarranted stops, racial harassment,  destabilizing incarceration, and—in the worst-case scenarios—citizen fatalities. Investments in North Minneapolis outside of policing could produce more safety from both community and police violence.[7] Evidence-based alternatives include violence interruption and prevention programs; more social, educational, and economic opportunities for young people; increased access to responsive healthcare and drug treatment programs; and reclaiming blighted lots and properties.[8]

Policy Recommendation #2: Accelerate efforts to reduce police misconduct and promote more justice for the victims of police violence.

Residents’ trust in police was shaken in the wake of each negative personal encounter with police and high-profile police shooting—and this is likely even more true today in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. When officers are not held accountable for that violence, it perpetuates trauma and lack of trust in the police. Police departments should be as transparent and swift in investigating and disciplining officers for misconduct. Many residents also wanted to see officers criminally prosecuted for citizen fatalities. Several barriers exist for this prosecution that could be remediated, including changing the state laws that structure police accountability,[9] electing progressive prosecutors committed to responding to police violence, and educating the public (and potential jury members) about police violence. Justice for the victims of police violence could also mean access to restorative justice processes and/or material compensation. Finally, accountability means preventing similar acts from occurring in the future, for example, through routine critical incident reviews, thorough internal investigations and discipline, and better oversight of training, policy, and practice.

Policy Recommendation #3: Create “feedback loops” to empower the most impacted residents in deciding the future of public safety.

Many of the people we interviewed described feeling like their voices were not included in the city’s decision-making processes. This suggests the critical need for better feedback loops between the community, city leadership, and the MPD. It is not enough for the MPD to consult with community leaders; those conversations need to include residents too—especially those most at risk of victimization by other community members and/or police officers. Possible ideas include more conversations and forums with city council members, outreach by community and faith leaders, and increasing the oversight power and community representation on the Police Conduct Oversight Commission. Notably this connection must flow both ways, with the MPD and the city getting real-time information on the needs of the community, and the community receiving regular updates from the MPD and city leaders on the changes they are proposing and implementing.

Conclusion

In June 2020, the Minneapolis City Council pledged to start a year of community engagement to design a new model of public safety. We share this report to bear witness to the many abuses of power in our city’s past and to call for deeply listening to the most-impacted residents in building structures for the future that provide safety and justice for all.


[1] MPD150 (2020) Enough Is Enough: A 150-Year Performance Review of the Minneapolis Police Department [Minneapolis, MN].

[2] For more details, see Urban Institute (2019) Impact of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice on Police Administrative Outcomes [Washington, DC].

[3] For more details, see Amherst H. Wilder Foundation (2019) City of Minneapolis Resident Survey [Minneapolis, MN].

[4] We adopted the survey question from the Urban Institute’s (2019) study (see footnote 2). You can find our interview guide at www.michellesphelps.com/research/police-reform/interview-guide.

[5] Gallup (2018) Military, Small Business, Police Still Stir Most Confidence [Washington, DC]

[6] Joseph A. Ritter and David Bael, CURA Reporter (2009) Detecting Racial Profiling in Minneapolis Traffic Stops: A New Approach [Minneapolis, MN]. ACLU (2015) Picking Up the Pieces: Policing in America, a Minneapolis Case Study [New York, NY].

[7] For an abolitionist toolkit to alternative models of safety, see MPD150 (2020) Enough Is Enough: A 150-Year Performance Review of the Minneapolis Police Department  [Minneapolis, MN].

[8] For an example of these kinds of promising approaches to public safety, see John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center (2020) Reducing Violence Without Police: A Review of Research Evidence [New York, NY].

[9] For examples of reform proposals, see the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus’ Police Reform Agenda (2020) and the final report of the Minnesota Governor's Council on Law Enforcement and Community Relations (2017).


Project Funders & Supporters

Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (Faculty Interactive Research Program)
University of Minnesota’s Grant-in-Aid of Research, Artistry, and Scholarship Program
University of Minnesota Beverly and Richard Fink Summer Fellowship Program
Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, University of Minnesota
Sociology Department, University of Minnesota
Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center

Author Biographies

Dr. Michelle S. Phelps is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her primary lines of research are on mass probation, penal change, and policing. Together with Philip Goodman and Joshua Page, she is the author of Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle Over Criminal Justice (Oxford, 2017).

Amber Joy Powell is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her current research interests include law, punishment, racialized gendered violence, and youth justice. She is also a former Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate volunteer in Milwaukee, WI. In 2020﹘2022, she will be in residence at the American Bar Foundation as a Law & Inequality and National Science Foundation Fellow.

Christopher E. Robertson is a Ph.D. Student in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on policing and community relations, mental health, race and ethnicity, and life course theory. In 2020﹘2024, he will be a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research Scholar.