One year after George Floyd’s murder, the question of what happens next on police reforms in Minneapolis remains largely unresolved.
Tom Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney for Minnesota who served from 1991-93 and again from 2001-06, has followed the legal maneuverings arising from Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020.
Floyd’s death under the knee of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin sparked global protests and a call for reforms combating misconduct, excessive force, and racial bias in policing.
Those efforts include the proposed federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, winding its way through Congress.
“It’s been an interesting year and horribly sad,” said Heffelfinger, the former longtime Eden Prairie resident who moved to Edina 10 years ago. “A lot of things were done wrong, and a lot of people were hurt, and there will be changes in the future. I can almost guarantee that.”
Heffelfinger, of the firm Best & Flanagan in Minneapolis, said changes are needed in how police use force, precisely what is acceptable or not.
He references the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Floyd and Daunte Wright, killed April 11 in Brooklyn Park by a police officer during a traffic stop.
“I wonder, for example, why in the name of heaven people are pulling guns or even tasers when they’re trying to enforce a misdemeanor warrant?” he said. “Or they’re trying to enforce expired tabs? Or they’re trying to enforce an alleged passing of a counterfeit bill?”
Police simply showing up in uniform is a use-of-force, he said. But, he stressed, pulling a weapon is much more significant.
“It seems to me that the term that is in vogue for police work on this is escalation,” he said. “The one thing I think is absolutely essential is stronger policies regarding escalation and de-escalation of police conduct and police contact with the public.”
Dept. of Justice investigation
Heffelfinger said the community has been demanding police reform in Minneapolis “literally” every day since Floyd was killed.
“You’ve heard that at a high level,” he said. “It’s part of the basis for the protests.”
Though some reforms were made to its police department’s use of force policy, Minneapolis leaders are still grappling to find consensus on more changes.
Minneapolis is nearing the year-long time frame spelled out in a June 2020 resolution to “create a transformative new model for cultivating safety in our city.”
“Police reform is a difficult issue. There are a lot of people with a lot of different positions. Sometimes it takes a third party such as the (U.S.) Dept. of Justice to come in and say, ‘We think we need to do this differently. And here’s what we’re going to require you to do.'”Tom Heffelfinger
Proposed police reform legislation is bogged down along party lines in the Minnesota Legislature. However, he thinks something will get done. Those could center on fees for minor violations.
“Police reform is a difficult issue,” he said. “There are a lot of people with a lot of different positions. Sometimes it takes a third party such as the (U.S.) Dept. of Justice to come in and say, ‘We think we need to do this differently. And here’s what we’re going to require you to do.'”
Last month, the Dept. of Justice announced an investigation on whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of illegal conduct. That includes whether its officers routinely use excessive force during protests.
He believes the investigation started last summer and will take another year to complete.
“It is not limited solely to the conduct that led to Mr. Floyd’s death, rather it looks at everything, including basic alleged deprivation of civil rights by Minneapolis Police Department,” he said.
After investigations like this, he said the Dept. of Justice usually seeks a consent decree from the agency and the city involved.
That consent decree, he said, then becomes a burden on the police department and city to make any changes deemed necessary by the investigation.
“That consent decree requires, and it gets negotiated, but ultimately whatever is agreed upon or whatever court orders are imposed upon a city and its police department,” he said. “And, it can involve a broad-ranging series of changes to how the police department does its business.”
Whatever happens on police reforms in Minneapolis could affect suburban police departments such as Eden Prairie.
Heffelfinger said there are mutual-aid agreements between police departments. During protests after Wright’s death, an Eden Prairie squad car was seen in Brooklyn Park.
“It’s not uncommon to see suburban departments responding to a (Minneapolis) request for assistance if there’s a major fire, a major criminal activity, a riot, or protest,” he said.
Whatever policing changes the Dept. of Justice tells Minneapolis to make will have to be followed by suburban departments when responding to mutual-aid calls.
“When you have changes to practice in a major police department in the Twin Cities, and that is Minneapolis,” he said, “it has a trickle-down effect on everybody else.”
“When you have changes to practice in a major police department in the Twin Cities, and that is Minneapolis, it has a trickle-down effect on everybody else.”Tom Heffelfinger