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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Scathing report on police leaves Minneapolis reeling 3 years after Floyd murder

Mook Thomas, of Minneapolis, on June 16, 2023. The Justice Department’s devastating findings on the city’s police force left Minneapolis searching for next steps. Some residents found little closure. Thomas said she has never seen a Black police officer in her part of the city, where many residents are African Americans.

By Ernesto Londoño and Dan Simmons

The wounds of Minneapolis are far from healed.

T.J. Johnson, a resident of south Minneapolis for 40 years, says he is applying for a gun permit, having long ago given up on the police keeping him safe.

Veterans of the city’s Police Department, which has lost more than 300 officers, say they are running on fumes, weary from patrolling under a cloud of suspicion.

Elected officials are grasping for glimmers of optimism.

Three years after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, a Department of Justice report released Friday concluded that the city’s Police Department was plagued by unlawful conduct, discrimination and mismanagement. In some ways, it was meant as an answer to the death of Floyd and to years of complaints about policing in this city of 425,000. But the devastating report seemed to bring little closure in Minneapolis, where many remain traumatized and riven by mistrust.

The report — which found that Minneapolis police officers for years used excessive force, disproportionately targeted Black and Native American residents, and repressed the rights of protesters and journalists — likely landed differently in different parts of the city, said Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat who has lived in Minneapolis since 1984.

“There are probably a lot of people reading this report, especially people who live in Black and brown communities, who are saying, ‘This is terrible, but it’s not news to me,’” she said. “I think there probably are also people who live in more affluent parts of the city who may be surprised to see how pervasive the violations have been.”

Johnson said his brother spent his career working for the Chicago Police Department, so his views on the police are nuanced.

But Johnson said his faith in the Minneapolis police was irrevocably shaken after watching footage of Floyd’s death, images that in the spring of 2020 set forth outrage and protests nationwide. The video showed Floyd, a Black man, gasping for air as Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for nearly 9 1/2 minutes while fellow officers stood by. Johnson, who, like 18% of residents in Minneapolis, is Black, said he has concluded that the city’s Police Department is beyond reform.

“I stay away from them as far as I can,” said Johnson, 63, who runs an electronics recycling business and has attended the same church for 28 years. “White men and women, they don’t worry like we do.”

Johnson said he inherited a gun after his brother died, and recently filed paperwork to get a firearms permit. To him, he said, this was the best safety measure in Minneapolis, a city where carjackings and car thefts have been a major concern and where he worries about interactions with police.

“I’m planning on never going outside without my gun again,” he said.

Many Minneapolis police officers saw the report as a searing indictment that deals yet another blow to a department beleaguered by low morale and a staffing shortage. The officers’ union, the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, said in a statement that the federal report had glossed over vital and heroic work.

“The report will merely be used by those who are inclined to have an anti-police bias to justify their beliefs while those who are more pro-police will question the report’s findings,” the union said. “As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.”

In interviews, longtime police officers said that they welcomed calls for sweeping changes in training and accountability. But they also said that many of the most egregious incidents in the report involved officers who have left the force, including Chauvin, who was convicted in Floyd’s murder.

“The cops are tired of being called racist,” said Sgt. Andrew Schroeder, who works in the department’s firearms unit and has been an officer in Minneapolis since 2014. “The cops who are still here in the department are good officers, they want to do a good job and legitimately want to make the community better.”

Schroeder said that officers “don’t focus on color,” noting that city statistics from 2022 show that a vast majority of gunshot victims in Minneapolis are Black men, as are shooting suspects in cases where police are given descriptions. “We focus on crime.”

Mook Thomas, 27, sees things differently. Soon after moving to the north side of Minneapolis in December 2022 with her husband and five young children, she first encountered officers one night around midnight as she and her husband were driving home. She said they spotted a police car behind them on West Broadway Avenue, a major thoroughfare, and were eventually pulled over. They were told they were stopped for a broken headlight, she said, although she said both headlights worked.

“He’s harassing us, telling us we don’t belong over here,” said Thomas, who is Black and said the officer used racial slurs.

After that, Thomas said she resolved to avoid Minneapolis police officers. She would not call them, she said, even if her life was in danger. Should they ever try to pull her over again, she said, “I would keep going.”

Thomas said she has never seen a Black police officer in her part of the city, where many residents are African Americans.

The burden of rebuilding trust with people like Thomas will fall heavily on Cmdr. Yolanda Wilks, one of six Black female officers in the Minneapolis Police Department. She was recently tasked with overseeing sweeping changes the city agreed to make as part of a court-ordered agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. Following the Department of Justice report’s release, the city and the federal government have begun negotiating a court-enforced overhaul of policies and procedures, similar to the one already launched with the state.

In an interview, Wilks acknowledged that rebuilding trust and fixing long-standing institutional problems will take years. But she said she hoped residents also will recognize how hard recent years have been for officers who remained on the force.

“We forget that there are bighearted, passionate humans that work every day for the community they signed up to serve,” she said.

Wilks said that she came close to quitting in the tumultuous and painful days after Floyd’s death. She stayed, she said, because she had a sense that the city could recover.

“It will be a while,” she said. “An open wound takes time internally for it to heal.”

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