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Minneapolis Confidential: It’s Not Just the Cop, It’s the Culture

The Minneapolis Police Department’s long and bigoted legacy.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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A Minneapolis police officer stands guard outside the 3rd Precinct Police Station during clashes with protesters on May 26, 2020. Photo: Stephen Maturen / Stringer.

When Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, sent a letter Monday morning to his members calling the unrest in his city a “terrorist movement,” it wasn’t the first time he’d invoked the word “terrorist” as code for “black.” In 2007, the 31-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department made similar remarks about Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison after he was elected to Congress, and in 2016 labeled Black Lives Matter with the same epithet. But this week might be the first time the entire country took notice.

Kroll’s letter, shared on Twitter by former Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, went on to cite “the criminal history of George Floyd” as relevant in the investigation of the 46-year-old Floyd’s death under Derek Chauvin’s knee on May 25. By the end of the day, the letter had given rise to a new hashtag on social media: #FireBobKroll.
 


Lt. Bob Kroll, head of Minneapolis’s police union, sent a letter Monday calling the unrest in his city a “terrorist movement.”


 
Kroll has a long history of offending Minneapolis citizens’ liberal sensibilities. (Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and its suburbs, went for Clinton in 2016 by 35 points, the highest margin anywhere in the state.) In 2015 he was reportedly seen sporting a white power patch on his motorcycle jacket; he has marketed “Cops for Trump” T-shirts and taken the stage at Trump rallies to deride “the left.” (“When their facts don’t hold up for their debate,” he said, “wait to be called ‘racist.’”)

Last week, as protests sparked by Floyd’s killing spread throughout the country, former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak took to the local airwaves to call the union leader “a cancer” within the police department. “He is the number one person perpetuating a culture that keeps the good cops who are the majority from opening their mouths,” Rybak said on WCCO’s Chad Hartman radio show. “They need to recognize that they’ve got a North Star [in Police Chief Medaria Arradondo] and then they’ve got the wrong star whose star needs to be taken away.”

But it’s not clear to everyone in the city that firing Bob Kroll, even if it were possible, would fix the Minneapolis Police Department, which was founded in 1867, less than 30 years after Dred Scott was enslaved at nearby Fort Snelling. “Bob Kroll is certainly not the problem,” says Tony Williams, a member of MPD150, a horizontally organized effort of community organizers, researchers and artists launched in 2017 on the department’s 150th anniversary. “He’s a symptom. The real problem is the culture.” You can tell a lot about a police department’s culture by its union head, Williams says. Last year, federation members re-elected Kroll to his third-year term by a margin of four to one. “It’s very clear that the culture of the Minneapolis police department is unrepentantly white supremacist.”
 


Community organizers are making the case that the only way to save the Minneapolis Police Department is to defund it.


 
MPD150 members “want to live in a police-free future,” Williams says, “and to talk about what that looks like and how to make our way there.” The group’s first move was to put together a report documenting the department’s history. “We had just been through the murder of Jamar Clark,” an unarmed 24-year-old black man who was shot and killed by police in 2015, allegedly after he was handcuffed, according to some eyewitness accounts. (Kroll says Clark was reaching for the officer’s gun.) The police reforms of the past had yet to have their desired effect, Williams says; reviewing the department’s history had revealed that police violence was “deeply cyclical.” The participants in the history project ultimately made the case that “reform is not possible.” The only way to save the Minneapolis Police Department is to defund it.

 *   *   *

I grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, just outside the part of town we used to call the “Near North Side,” then as now, a mostly black community owing to racial covenants that held until 1953. On July 15, 1967, as I was riding the bus home from downtown, where my mom, sister and I had gone to see the midsummer Aquatennial parade, a brick came through the window and hit a young white man in the head. As the white, working-class bus riders rushed to attend to the man’s bleeding forehead, I looked outside to see large groups of black people shouting and throwing objects at the bus. The driver sped away down Olson Memorial Highway, blowing past several stops where people were waiting.

Civil rights protests were spreading throughout the country that summer, and I understood that what I’d seen through the bus window was part of that larger movement. What I didn’t know was that bus drivers were refusing to allow black people to board buses back to their homes after the parade that night. The police did not intervene, nor did they stop other violent acts by white people against black people, according to MPD150’s report. Police racism had triggered the unrest I’d witnessed as a child, just as it did in 2020.
 


Former Police Chief Tony Bouza, who came from New York in the 1980s, called the Minneapolis police “brutal and racist.”


 
Kroll has vowed to step down in 2021, but there’s no guarantee that even after he leaves any mayor or police chief can rid the force of its longstanding racism, which runs too deep for another implicit bias training to root out. Rybak told Hartman that he’d tried hard but failed; former Police Chief Tony Bouza, who came from New York in the 1980s, called the Minneapolis police “brutal and racist” in his 2010 book Police Unbound. Even then, the department was run by the police union – an entity civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson has argued should be regarded not as a labor union but as a lobbying organization like the National Rifle Association.

A better idea than reform, Williams says, is radical downsizing. “It’s quite impossible for any real change to happen until we go to an abolitionist framework,” he says, “and start talking about how we can extract money and power out of the department for other [services].” Mental health is a good place to start. Hennepin County has a mental-health agency called COPE that could be effective were it properly funded and wired into 911 dispatch. Sex work and substance use could be decriminalized. “There are a lot of possibilities for what a police-free future looks like,” Williams says. “We don’t have all the answers yet, but we will.”


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