MINNEAPOLIS – Terrance Jackson remembers driving down Lake Street in 2002 when he saw police arresting his cousin for driving with an invalid license. When he pulled over and offered to take his cousin's car home to keep it from being towed, things went badly.
One officer grabbed his hand and bent it back “to try to get me to react,” Jackson said. When his shoe came off as he was being restrained, another officer threw it across the parking lot.
Jackson, 63, is one of more than a thousand people who have recounted their run-ins with Minneapolis police to activist groups that plan to share their stories with U.S. Justice Department officials conducting a civil rights investigation into the police force. The effort is aimed at making sure community members have a say in the probe launched the day after former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd.
Investigators are looking into whether Minneapolis police have shown a “pattern or practice” of policing that is unlawful or unconstitutional. They are also examining the police department's use of force, including against protesters, its treatment of people suffering from behavioral health issues, its systems of accountability and whether officers have engaged in discriminatory policing.
The inquiry could lead to a consent decree under which the department would be legally required to make certain changes.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the civil rights probe's progress or say how much weight investigators might place on the civilian accounts that groups provide them, because the probe is ongoing.
But a former Justice Department official, Christy Lopez, said such accounts can help steer investigations. And those helping gather the civilian accounts say they think the stories will make it hard for investigators to ignore the abuse.
“It’s one thing to see things in a document. It’s another thing for someone to tell you, ‘This is what happened to me,’ or ’This is what the police did to me,’” said Michelle Gross, a member of one of the groups, Communities United Against Police Brutality.
“That kind of information puts a face to the problem and it also shows the pattern,” she said.
The Associated Press submitted a records request to the police department seeking information on Jackson’s 2002 encounter with officers, but a spokesman said the department had no record of the event.
The Justice Department investigation wasn’t affected by the campaign for a ballot initiative that Minneapolis voters rejected in early November to replace the city's police department with a reimagined public safety agency that would have relied less on armed officers. And a state investigation remains ongoing.
Pattern-or-practice investigations became a tool to combat police misconduct in the 1990s, when the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King sparked riots in the city and protests across the country. After an independent commission determined King’s assault was ultimately due to institutional failure within the Los Angeles Police Department, Congress authorized the attorney general to investigate whether “a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers” was violating people’s civil rights.
From the first such investigation in Pittsburgh in 1997, through 2016, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division conducted nearly 70 formal probes of police departments nationwide resulting in 40 reform agreements, according to agency data.
The Minneapolis probe was the first of three Justice Department investigations of local law enforcement launched during the Biden administration. It is also investigating policing in Louisville, Kentucky, following the death of Breonna Taylor and in Phoenix over excessive force allegations.
If investigators find a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing in Minneapolis, federal and city officials will negotiate required changes, or a consent decree. A federally appointed monitor oversees progress and reports to a federal judge. Insufficient progress or failure to follow the decree could result in the federal government taking control of the department.
It could look similar to the agreement between the Justice Department and the city of Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, a Black teenager, by a white police officer. The agreement changed the Ferguson police force's policies on the use of force, body-worn cameras, searches and seizures, and responses to protests.
Lopez, who led the group within the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division that conducted pattern-or-practice investigations from 2010 to 2017, said stories from community members can help direct investigators toward particular officers, units, tactics or types of interactions. The number of complaints and consistency between them can alert investigators to patterns of unlawful policing that only community members would experience, and they can then go verify those accounts with documentation from the city such as arrest records and police bodycam footage, she said.
That proved true in Ferguson when accounts from members of the public helped Lopez's team identify issues within the municipal court system, which was also part of the ensuing agreement.
“In Ferguson, if you had gone in there and just looked at lethal shootings and use of force, because that was what happened to Michael Brown, you would have focused on that,” she said. “But in talking with people, that’s where we really learned about the depth of the concern about fines and fees, and how they were using the courts to violate people’s rights. We would have missed that entirely if we hadn’t talked to people and heard their stories.”
Iris Roley, a founder of the Cincinnati Black United Front, said her community played a significant role in crafting the agreement between their city and federal officials after the killings of Jeffrey Irons and Roger Ownesby Jr. by Cincinnati officers in 2000. Roley said her group collected more than 400 accounts of police brutality and misconduct from members of the community who were brave enough to come forward despite fearing retaliation.
“What we did when we listened to our community — the Black community — we took complaints and turned complaints into training, and we took training and turned that into policy," she said.
Roley said the agreement brought changes to police department policies, including on its officers’ use of force. But she said the document hasn't been a cure-all, and that policing continues to evolve and requires constant oversight.
Lopez said investigators aim to complete inquiries and issue findings within a year, but that it varies from case to case, with Ferguson taking six months but others taking years. Though it may take another year to negotiate the consent decree with Minneapolis and get it entered into court, Lopez said investigators are always aware of the urgency to deliver their findings and kickstart the improvement process.
“There's always tension between the fierce urgency of now — which is a very, very real thing — and wanting to use this opportunity you have to learn everything you can about a department because you know that's how you develop the best remedy to fix the problem,” she said.
Gross' group in Minneapolis has gathered more than 1,400 citizen accounts. In some cases, activists are asking people to share their stories directly with investigators.
Jackson said he hopes his story and others will help bring much-needed change to the city's police force.
“When I was growing up in north Minneapolis, we had officers in our community and we played with their kids, they got nothing but respect. They knew everybody's family, they were from the neighborhood,” he said. “It's a whole different thing now.”
Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.