Human Rights, Justice, Racism, Radical extremism, Violence

Police Reform Doesn’t Work

Apr 26 2021

By Michael Brenes * – Boston Review 

A century of failed liberal attempts at policing reform in Minneapolis supports the view that none of the city council’s current proposals will prevent there from being another George Floyd

The trial of Derek Chauvin has concluded with a guilty verdict. But the police killing of Daunte Wright in a Minneapolis suburb only weeks ago drives home that one guilty verdict doesn’t go nearly far enough. Building on the weeks-long protests that galvanized Minneapolis and the country in the summer of 2020, the demand to transform U.S. policing, not just convict so-called “bad apples,” continues to gather momentum.

Unfortunately, the popular notion of what would constitute ideal police reform has its roots in the same postwar liberalism that created modern policing in the first place, in which private responsibility and collective securitization remain the ultimate goods that are sought.

The exhausting depravity of Floyd’s death—the indelible image of Chauvin’s knee pinched into Floyd’s neck as fellow officers looked on with indifference—served as a vivid illustration of a fact Black activists have long known: that police brutality is not only endemic in the United States, but in Minneapolis specifically. The Minneapolis City Council seemed to recognize this last summer, when city officials announced a commitment to substantive police reform—up to and including the possibility of replacing the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). Such bold action was unthinkable prior to 2020.

In the weeks prior to Wright’s death, city legislators approved, or at least considered, a series of specific reforms of the MPD. In March, legislators put forward a ballot measure (to be voted on in November) to amend the Minneapolis city charter to deputize the city council with the authority to make significant changes to the city’s policing: once this has been approved, actions being considering include putting the MPD under the supervision of both the mayor and the city council (the MPD currently answers only to the mayor), in some way curtailing the growth of the Minneapolis police force, and even outright replacing the police department with an “office of public safety.” Piecemeal yet long overdue changes such as banning chokeholds and mandating that officers document when they unholster their firearm already preceded this effort to reform the police via charter amendment.

While these reforms appear ambitious, they are far from the coordinated effort to “defund” the MPD that they were initially billed as being. Indeed, in many senses they coopt the language of defunding, made popular by young activists, to attempt to sneak through the exact opposite: though they would reduce the growth of the police force, they would not in any obvious way address the militarization that has made the MPD into one of the most violent police forces in the country.

The violence of the MPD is, of course, part of a national story. As scholars such as Elizabeth Hinton, Stuart Schrader, and Naomi Murakawa have shown, modern, militarized U.S. policing arose collectively out of postwar liberalism: though its precise manifestation has varied regionally, all U.S. policing relies on a rationale of “security” as a pretext for regulating the behavior of poor people and communities of color that were the intended recipients of social reforms since the 1960s. Out of this has arisen everything from punitive “tough-on-crime” policies—historically popular across the political spectrum—to “preemptive” policing initiatives such as Broken Windows and Stop and Frisk.

Unfortunately, our collective notion of what would constitute ideal police reform has its roots in this same context of postwar liberalism, in which private responsibility and collective securitization remain the ultimate goods that are sought. Since World War II, liberals have emphasized regulating individual behavior to correct the inequalities that police often reinforce—the sanctity of Black communities contingent on the ability of the police to “restore peace.”

In the specific case of Minneapolis, for example, the failure to curtail police brutality—despite numerous waves of well-intentioned liberal reform efforts beginning as early as the 1920s—derives precisely from the limitations of those who sought transformative racial justice, not because of the efforts of reactionaries to undermine those reforms. At many points in the postwar history of Minneapolis, police reform efforts were led by the very progressives who had helped militarize the MPD in the first place.

This was in no small part a result of progressive ideological commitments about the origins of racist policing. Believing that racist policing was mainly caused by what we’d now call implicit bias, Minneapolis progressives sought to remake the psychology of white police officers, compelling cops to interrogate their biases—all while encouraging greater presences of police officers in Black communities and while downplaying systemic and overt racism. Minneapolis progressives thus approached police reform with the premise that policing could be made more effective, more precise—and that better, not less, policing was essential to racial justice and improved race relations.

This legacy still overshadows police reform in Minneapolis, and the recounting of this history that follows—of how so many good-faith efforts failed catastrophically—should leave us deeply skeptical about the enterprise of police reform in its entirety. If Minneapolis and the nation are to escape the shadow of failed decades of police reform, they must reckon with this history. And they likely need to jettison the rubric of police reform and seek out more promising ways of conceptualizing the path toward racial justice and a society free from violence.

At many points in the postwar history of Minneapolis, police reform efforts were led by the very progressives who had also helped militarize the MPD.

Historically, Minneapolis was a very white city: during the Civil War, its Black residents totaled fewer than 300. By 1940 the city’s population was still less than 1 percent Black, and most were segregated in Northeast Minneapolis, confined by racial covenants placed on real estate. The percentage of the city that was Black remained below 5 percent into the 1970s, at which time it began increasing dramatically during the same period that saw whites abandoning urban centers nationwide. The city is now nearly 20 percent Black.

Despite its relatively small number of Black residents, in the 1920s Minnesota became a Midwestern hub of the Ku Klux Klan. The 1920 lynching of three Black men in Duluth spurred the passage of a state anti-lynching law in 1921 (led by Black activist and women’s rights advocate Nellie Griswold Francis), but it also stoked recruitment efforts for the Klan. The state became home to fifty-one chapters of the KKK, with ten in Minneapolis alone. Klan parades enveloped streets in Minnesota on weekends and Labor Days. Minneapolis Klan chapters counted a number of police officers as members—a fact which certainly continued to be true even after police affiliation with the Klan was officially forbidden by 1923.

Despite this, the same era saw some of the first efforts to professionalize the MPD and address issues of racial bias within the force. In 1929 the MPD hosted its first training session for police, which sought to make police “the foremost experts on crime prevention in the community.” However, professionalization as the route to police reform obscured the racial contours of policing in the city. As Black residents sought to integrate the city’s neighborhoods, incidents of indiscriminate police violence made headlines in Black newspapers, including the assault of 2 Black men and one Black woman by two drunk off-duty police detectives in July 1937. The beatings launched an investigation by the Minneapolis NAACP and the demand for the officers “to be immediately dismissed from the force,” but at least one of the accused detectives, Arthur Uglem, remained an MPD detective years beyond the event.

In Minneapolis, as in many parts of the North and Midwest, World War II would bring greater employment to Blacks, with African American workers integrating industries—for example, the Minneapolis garment industry. The war also ignited progressives’ attention to racial inequality in U.S. cities. Near the war’s conclusion, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal published his era-defining text, An American Dilemma (1944), which argued that racism was an aberration within democracy and a betrayed of U.S. ideals. For U.S. democracy to be actualized in global terms, racial inequality would have to be vanquished at home.

Midcentury’s attempts to reform the MPD emerged from this context. Lyndon B. Johnson’s future vice-president, Hubert Humphrey—then a young, relentlessly energetic left-liberal—would lead the charge to overhaul the department. Elected mayor in 1945, Humphrey was acutely aware of Minneapolis’s history of racism and actively pursued policies to rectify past injustices.

Humphrey also saw civil rights—and particularly police reform—could be a coalition-building issue for moderates against the state’s more radical left, which was calling for more dramatic forms of racial redress. The creation of a Minneapolis Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to report issues of discrimination in employment; a “Mayor’s Council on Human Relations” to document public acts of prejudice against Black people; and other anti-racist measures sought to outflank the left by drawing voters to Humphrey’s coalition.

Humphrey’s ambition was tempered, however, by the limits of his office. Mayoral powers in Minneapolis were—and remain—restricted; power lies mainly with the city council. The mayor has no budgetary authority and has little say in governmental appointees. Still he did have important control over one appointee: the police chief. For Humphrey, “the quality of law enforcement is as good or bad as [the mayor] decides,” he would write in his memoir. Shortly after taking office, he appointed Ed Ryan, known for his hostility to MPD corruption, as chief of police.

As mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey assumed that the solution to policing reform lay in more efficient bureaucracy, not less policing. Indeed, Humphrey enlarged the size of the MPD, in part to guarantee more complete coverage of Black neighborhoods.

Under Humphrey’s orders, Ryan sought to rid the department of racism. Ryan supervised a series of training seminars for MPD officers so that they could “be prepared for any disturbances resulting from racial prejudices.” Some of these seminars, held in 1946, were led by Joseph Kluchesky, a former Milwaukee police chief and pioneer in anti-bias training. Kluchesky encouraged officers to give anti-racism talks at elementary schools and in general recommended greater police liaising with Black community ambassadors—clergy and other members of the Black middle class—who together could work toward a vision of “impartial law enforcement.” The seminars thus put the partial onus for improved policing on African Americans themselves, and suggested that the solution must include Blacks being willing to welcome greater police surveillance in their communities. As historian Will Tchakirides has argued, Kluchesky’s seminars “emphasized fixing Black behavior ahead of addressing the economic underpinnings of racial inequality.”

Humphrey’s police reform efforts assumed that the solution lay in more efficient bureaucracy, not less policing. Indeed, Humphrey enlarged the size of the MPD force, in part to guarantee more complete coverage of Black neighborhoods. Convinced of his faith that racism could be educated out of the body politic, Humphrey’s attitudes reflected Myrdal’s view of racialized policing and racial “discrimination to be an anomaly, something practiced by a few bad people.” Humphrey’s approach to police reform thus encapsulated a project of racial uplift through a preponderance of police: mandating greater communication between police officers and the public, and ingratiating police officers into the community to rectify inner biases that manifested in police assaults.

Police reform also took on the broader aims of Cold War liberalism—an effort to ensure personal beliefs did not hamper the country’s teleological march toward its democratic providence. In a pamphlet distributed to all members of the MPD, Kluchesky argued that it was the “Nazi technique to pit race against race,” and it was the responsibility of all police officers to reject such methods and “to preserve for posterity the splendid heritage of democracy.” Police reform in Cold War Minneapolis thus entailed a mission of aligning policing with an idealized image of U.S. democracy.

The overt antiracism of the Humphrey administration—the mayor’s principled dedication to extirpate racial discrimination from the minds of Minnesotans, the passage of the Minneapolis FEPC, attempts to eliminate racial covenants in housing—left many with the impression of Minneapolis as an enlightened city.

Yet despite this hype, police brutality regularly resurfaced within the MPD. After the police beating of Black Minneapolis resident Raymond Wells by two MPD officers on May 19, 1963, Mayor Arthur Naftalin—a liberal progressive like his mentor, Humphrey—called for a larger role for the Mayor’s Council on Human Relations, where he hoped civic leaders could “broaden . . . our discussions” of race. But Naftalin rejected the idea that racism ran rampant in the MPD. While the beating of Wells was “unfortunate and deeply distressing,” it was “essentially an isolated incident,” he reasoned. The mayor had no intention of drastically shaking up the MPD’s structure.

In the aftermath of the 1967 uprising, Mayor Arthur Naftalin, a liberal progressive, said the idea that police brutality had anything to do with the riot was “preposterous” and said roving gangs of Black youths had exacerbated the riot.

Nonetheless, calls for change were overwhelming among Minneapolis activists, which led to the creation of the first Minneapolis Civilian Review Board soon after Wells’s beating. But the review board disbanded after only a few months over legal concerns, leaving Black residents once again without recourse if they wanted to file a complaint against police.

The 1967 Minneapolis riot tested Naftalin’s conclusion that racism did not pervade the MPD. Accusations of police brutality following a parade on Plymouth Avenue led to violence between Blacks and police on July 19, which brought more police into Northeast Minneapolis armed with shotguns. Violence then escalated to a three-day riot that led to looting, arson, and Naftalin calling up the National Guard to quell tensions. The head of the Minneapolis police union, Charles Stenvig, also wanted to deploy massive numbers of officers to the Northside, looking to take “a harder line against black militants” who he felt were responsible for the riots. But Stenvig was restrained by Naftalin, who discouraged the use of overwhelming police force. As police looked to suppress the riots, chants of “We want Black Power” echoed through the streets. The riot eventually faded out by July 23, leaving property damage but no deaths in its wake.

In the aftermath of the 1967 uprising, Naftalin said the idea that police brutality had anything to do with the riot was “preposterous” and said roving gangs of Black youths had exacerbated the riot. Naftalin would go on to create a Hennepin County grand jury (consisting of all whites) that found “no police brutality” during the riot. In fact, it recommended increasing the police force, putting more patrols into the streets to “re-establish the rapport between the people and the authorities.” The jury also blamed the Northside Black community center The Way for encouraging “hoodlums.” Even when proffering ideas on what city government could do to prevent future riots, white elites leaned into the stereotype that the economic disenfranchisement of Blacks had its roots in a culture of poverty and fractured, fatherless families.

Black residents took matters into their own hands following the grand jury’s report. In 1968, Black leaders from The Way formed Soul Force, which, along with the American Indian Movement (AIM), enlisted Black and Native men to patrol Northside streets to intervene between “potential law-breakers and law-enforcers.” The AIM/Soul Force (or “Soul Patrol”) collaboration had shattering success in preventing arrests—which coincided with expanded welfare and criminal justices services offered by The Way—before being disbanded in 1975, partly due to harassment from MPD officers.

Naftalin declined to run for mayor in 1969. He was replaced by Stenvig, leader of the police union during the 1967 riot, who ran on a George Wallace–style platform of “law and order.” Stenvig would be mayor 1969–1973 and then again 1976–1977. During his time in office, Stenvig demonized welfare recipients, castigated taxes and government spending, touted increased prison sentences for criminals, and solidified renewed and enduring ties between the MPD and the mayor’s office.

Stenvig also helped lay the groundwork for the militarization of the MPD we now see. By 1980 the MPD had overstaffed its police force beyond its own expectations and aggressively supported vice squads against LGBTQ residents, raiding bathhouses and arresting gay men en masse. Throughout MPD maintained its reputation for corruption.

Despite so many reform efforts over the decades, nothing ever really changed.

Don Fraser (another Humphrey mentee, known for reforming the Democratic Party and tackling human rights issues as a Minnesota congressman in the 1970s) hoped to, once again, change this reputation. Fraser assumed the mayoralty in 1980 and held the office for fourteen years. Like Humphrey and Naftalin, he aimed to reform the MPD by imposing external oversight of its conduct. He created a police review board in the early 1980s that was entrusted with the mission of fielding complaints of police brutality. But the review board had no enforcement power, and the police chief was under no obligation to heed its demands. Despite his rhetoric of reform, Fraser supervised the MPD’s “aggressive operation” of drug raids as part of the escalating War on Drugs. The MPD became increasingly dependent on SWAT teams and saw increased arrest rates. The force earned a reputation of being “damn brutal,” according to its own police chief. MPD leadership also made “fighting the crack-cocaine trade a priority,” leading to the deaths of many innocent victims, including an African American elderly couple mistaken for drug traders.

By the mid-1980s, with incidents of police brutality unabated and unaddressed, the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) encouraged Congress to investigate the MPD. Though a congressional investigation never materialized, a reimagined Civilian Review Board would emerge in January 1990. But despite so many reform efforts over the decades, nothing ever really changed.

The serial failures of police reform efforts in Minneapolis are indicative of larger failures within contemporary liberalism, and of progressives to articulate a comprehensive vision of how cities could still be safe—indeed, safer—without militarized policing. In the case of Minneapolis, it is clear that decades of militarized policing have failed to generate prosperity for all. Minneapolis ranks last among metro areas in the country in Black homeownership and has one of the nation’s worst racial education gap between Blacks and whites. Minnesota as a whole is next to last among states for income inequality between whites and Blacks.

Minneapolis reformers can begin by rejecting the premise that policing as we know it can align with the principles of U.S. democracy—that policing can be perfected.

A liberal concept of police reform, however ambitious it might be conceived, cannot rectify these metrics of injustice. The city council’s current plans are disconnected from the racialized order that will be maintained even if an Office of Public Safety patrols Minneapolis’s streets.

Minneapolis reformers can begin by rejecting the premise that policing as we know it can align with the principles of U.S. democracy—that policing can be perfected. For decades it was thought that more interaction between Blacks and whites was the cure for police violence and that the greater “visibility” of police in Black communities would ease crime rates. This has proven false. Historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor uses the term “predatory inclusion” to describe postwar efforts to encourage Black homeownership. The concept also applies to the history of police reform in Minneapolis: the various movement to encourage Black cooperation with police have persistently allowed the MPD to deflect attention from its own criminality, and put the onus on Blacks to rectify systemic injustices that the police are inevitably tasked with enforcing.

Seventies-era experimental programs such as AIM/Soul Force offer a possible route to reimagining police in Minneapolis: community-based, they sought harm reduction and tension de-escalation, and prioritized disarming suspects with firearms. But community policing must take place alongside municipal and federal investments that echo Hubert Humphrey’s vision of a “Marshall Plan for the cities.” Only massive expenditures on comprehensive programs of employment, health care, housing, and infrastructure can succeed in depriving racialized policing of its rationale.

Today, we must emphatically reject the central conceit of police reform that acts of police brutality are aberrations, and that they can be addressed with more and better policing. Those interested in genuine change must refuse to accept reform as the way forward, and work to build a city that brings greater justice to the families of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, and to all of Minneapolis.

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*Michael Brenes teaches history at Yale University. He is the author of For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy.

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