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‘Rudderless’ city government faulted for Minneapolis protest response after George Floyd’s murder

<i>Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images</i><br/>Protesters hold up their fists as flames rise behind them in front of the Third Police Precinct on May 28
AFP via Getty Images
Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images
Protesters hold up their fists as flames rise behind them in front of the Third Police Precinct on May 28

By Peter Nickeas, CNN

An outside review of Minneapolis’ response to protests in the spring of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by a city police officer, found widespread chaos and poor communication among city leaders that contributed to an unorganized police response to violent unrest that later spread across the country.

The mayor’s office failed to follow its own “well written, comprehensive” emergency operations plan, the city’s Office of Emergency Management “minimally engaged in its coordination role,” and the city’s police and fire departments didn’t use the plan to guide their response, according to the report, produced by Hillard Heintze, a security risk management firm.

Distrust that existed before the murder of George Floyd, the report added, exacerbated already fractured relationships between police and the community.

Cities across the country saw protests after Floyd’s death, ranging from peaceful marches to rampant property destruction and violent street fights between officers and rioters. Several cities launched after-action reviews of some sort, through inspectors general or other government review systems, or by outside law or security firms.

“I had never seen that kind of raw emotion as we saw in the streets, in Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Ferguson, St. Louis, all over the place, all over the world,” Andrea Jenkins, Minneapolis city council president, told CNN. “So, had we followed plans to the letter, I don’t think we would have necessarily had a better outcome. We would’ve definitely been able to feel confident we did all we can do. Right now, clearly, the report shows we weren’t able to do everything we should have done.”

The Minneapolis report mirrors others in noting that cities were surprised by the tenor of unrest, and that senior law enforcement and elected officials were wholly unprepared for protests, property damage and violence.

In Philadelphia, a review found that the city was “simply not prepared to address unanticipated mass protests coupled with civil unrest occurring in multiple locations throughout the city.”

Police in Chicago resorted to forming ad hoc groups to get downtown using public transit buses, and senior leadership said they didn’t have any reason to suspect protests because the Chicago Police Department “had not received any intelligence in advance which might have predicted them.”

In Los Angeles, a review found the city unprepared for “small groups” responsible for violence among larger groups of protesters, and the police department’s “lack of adequate planning and preparation” left police in a reactive position.

But the Minneapolis review went further. It faulted government officials at all levels — and the structure of the Minneapolis government itself — for the disjointed and chaotic response to protests that overtook the city after Floyd’s death, including a police precinct that was overrun by rioters and torched.

The review found a “concerning” lack of documentation for patrol ranks who were using less lethal rounds on protesters. Poor management of the protests, the review added, contributed to the traumatization of residents, business owners, city workers and elected officials. Meanwhile, the report said residents felt abandoned by the city and had to resort to forming their own patrols to protect property.

“After more than 18 months, community members are still deeply shaken, and emotions are still high about Floyd’s death and the events that followed,” the report stated. “Many community members and government officials, including members of the MPD, are awaiting answers to understand what went wrong with aspects of the City’s response to the protests and unrest and how to prevent violent unrest from occurring again.”

‘Inconsistent’ messaging

The report highlighted public disagreements between Minneapolis’ mayor and Minnesota’s governor. Some interviewed by investigators thought city council members created “more issues than necessary” by counteracting police actions and talking about abolishing the police. And some said city council members fed into rumors that created stress and fear among residents.

The mayor has “already directed staff to implement a plan for improving our emergency response process,” a spokesperson for Mayor Jacob Frey told CNN. “Trainings are underway, new structures are being put in place, and we are in routine contact with multi-jurisdictional partners to enhance communications and operational preparedness.”

Lisa Bender, city council president at the time of the unrest, and Medaria Arradondo, chief of police during the unrest, weren’t immediately available to comment.

Nine city councilors gathered in Powderhorn Park after the unrest and stood near an “Abolish the Police” sign. Then Bender said the group was committed to “dismantling policing as we know it in Minneapolis.” With nine votes the city council would have a veto-proof supermajority of the council’s 13 members, Bender said.

Some of those interviewed said city council members “were feeding into rumors and creating stress and fear in people,” and that “political differences played a part in slowing down the crisis management responses.”

The report also faulted Minneapolis’ style of government as contributing to “inconsistent” messaging and “a lack of information that the publicly desperately sought.” The city had a unique structure that gave the city council and mayor shared oversight of most departments and the mayor command of the police department.

“We had mutual aid groups come up, neighborhood watch groups, we had neighbors and small business owners sitting in front of businesses with rifles and guns,” said Jenkins, the city council president. “It was a mess. Do I think that the report accurately depicts the challenges with our gov’t structure? I think it does.”

That structure became the subject of 18 months of political debate that resulted in voters having a chance to restructure government. In the days after the unrest, some elected officials began a campaign to split the police department from the mayor’s control, do away with a requirement to employ a minimum number of officers, and put control of any remaining police officers under a broader public safety department.

Opponents waged a counter campaign, asking voters to give the mayor control of all city departments that were overseen by the city council and to reject the plan to reorganize the police department.

Voters sided with the mayor, in what was locally seen as a referendum on the “defund the police” movement that came into national prominence because of the image of city councilors in Powderhorn Park.

“It is all the mayor’s problem now. But how do I tell that to my constituents? ‘Call the mayor?’ I can’t say that,” Jenkins said. “They’re not trying to hear that. They want to know what I’m going to do. But in reality it’s all the mayor, all on his plate now.”

‘No direction, objectives or rules of engagement’

The report describes the Minneapolis Police Department as lacking consistent leadership, with morale affected by uneven rules enforcement and leadership capability among supervisors. It also depicts the department as lacking consistent standards, and hampered by Covid-19 in its ability to continue training for large-scale events.

This contributed to “angst among personnel in the field” who “desperately sought information, guidance and approvals … and found those calls went unanswered or delayed.” The report noted that some officers “operated effectively in the chaos, despite — and seemingly because of — the lack of guidance they received.”

A meeting of police leaders occurred the day after the first violence, according to the report, but it didn’t result in a command structure or plan for future protests. Some interviewed for the report thought the 2015 occupation of a police station by protesters, following a different fatal shooting by police officers, should have given police commanders reason to anticipate some civil unrest. But “many supervisors and command-level MPD officers stated that generally, the (police department) does not plan and rather just hopes for the best outcome.)”

“We should know who all had chemical weapons, who had less-than-lethal munitions, and even who used them,” Jenkins said. “There was no real command centers, even on incidents, that first day of not having a plan snowballed.”

The fire department’s attempt to bring in extra staffing was initially slowed by a “password issue” that didn’t allow them access to an internal mass communication tool to reach fire department members, according to the report. Beyond that, the system wasn’t kept up to date. This prevented leaders from bringing extra firefighters to work. They tried a phone tree, according to the report, but it took so long that it was abandoned as shift-change time approached.

At times, different city departments were monitoring city cameras, and in some cases a person would move one camera only to have it moved by someone else across the city. Additionally, some officers were outfitted with protective gear police found leftover from the 2008 Republican National Convention, and officers often were working without.

The lack of coordination and supervision contributed to confusion among lower-ranking officers and a breakdown in accountability, particularly pertaining to so-called 40-millimeter less-lethal rounds fired by police during the unrest, according to the review. It found that the less-lethal rounds were widely used, but there wasn’t good documentation for their use, which sometimes wasn’t compliant with policy. The degree to which officers complied with policy seemed to differ depending on whether they were with the SWAT team or patrol, though the review found violations with both.

The report found that some field-level supervisors “received no direction, objectives or rules of engagement” and absent some commander, “chain of command is lost. This “exponentially increase(d) the level of stress of officers standing on the line as they face angry crowds throwing objects at them and can lead to less desirable outcomes with those protesting … it creates situations wherein officers act independently. Those independent actions may not align with any department policies or desired command-level objectives communicated to the field.”

When the time came to request the National Guard, investigators found that those making requests were “unfamiliar with the process,” and that caused a delay in the eventual approval. Mayor Frey, according to the report, made a “verbal request to the governor” followed by a written request, but it lacked specific information germane to deploying guardsmen.

Residents were left to news reports, group chats and “informal ad hoc neighborhood meetings” to get information about what was happening. Investigators heard from residents who saw rioters setting fires but had no guidance from the city about whether they should flee or stay sheltered in place.

And through it all, the police department’s ability to respond to normal calls for service was severely hampered.

The report describes an instance where a woman was stabbed in a Target parking lot. When officers arrived, they had to form a perimeter around the victim, use gas and non-lethal rounds to keep a crowd back, and carried her to a police van on a flatbed cart. Officers took her to the hospital in the back of the van.

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