Policing the Blue: Interactions between community and officers crucial to DOJ investigation of Minneapolis Police

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Investigators with the United States Department of Justice will pull from the experiences of community members and will examine past incidents to determine if systemic issues exist within the Minneapolis Police Department, according to families and community members who are familiar with the process.

In April, the DOJ launched a "pattern and practice" investigation into MPD. Attorney General, Merrick Garland, said the feds would look into use of force incidents, as well as other discriminatory policing. The announcement came the day after a jury found ex-MPD officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the death of George Floyd.

In a virtual community meeting Wednesday, staff from the Justice Department stressed that community input is crucial to the investigation, saying those "voices and experiences are critical to get to the truth of policing in Minneapolis."

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Stephen and Renetta Torres were two of the loudest voices during a similar DOJ investigation into the Albuquerque Police Department in early 2010s. They were part of a group of families who lost loved ones to police that begged the federal government to investigate and intervene.

"DOJ I think was our last resort," Stephen Torres said.

Stephen and Renetta’s youngest son Christopher was shot and killed in 2011, when two plain clothes detectives went to the family’s northwest Albuquerque home to arrest Christopher on a warrant related to a road rage incident.

The 27-year-old, who struggled with schizophrenia, was in the backyard when the officers jumped the fence, tackled him and pinned him face down to the ground.

"Christopher, of course, was struggling… very confused, hollering out, ‘What’s going on? This is my house. I’m a good guy,’" Stephen Torres said.

The officers said Christopher resisted arrest and had grabbed one of their guns. Detective CJ Brown then pulled out his gun and fired three rounds into Christopher’s back, killing him.

"And all of that occurred in less than five minutes," Renetta Torres said.

An internal investigation concluded the officers were justified in their actions, but there was no body-camera or bystander video of the incident to corroborate their version of events.

Stephen and Renetta filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the department and the officers involved. In 2014, the court sided with the Torres family, whose attorneys argued that the officers did not follow proper training protocols since Christopher had a diagnosed mental illness.

"Ultimately, we were able to prove in court that the two officers that were here that day violated several, not just one or two, but several of their own established SOP, standard operating procedures," Stephen Torres said.

After their son’s death, the Torres family also began hearing from other families who questioned APD’s response to situations involving their loved ones.

"It was just the tip of the iceberg," Stephen Torres said.

With the help of the ACLU of New Mexico, the families approached Albuquerque’s then-mayor, city leaders, and the state attorney general, and asked for an investigation into the department. They say they were met with silence.

"I think people got up there to bear their souls in the hope that there would be some response to change. And there wasn’t," Renetta Torres said.

"We were sort of at our wit’s end trying to figure out what we could do to try to influence the situation," said Peter Simonsen, executive director of ACLU-NM. "We basically begged for [the DOJ] to come out and intervene somehow."

"The Wild, Wild West"

In 2012, the Justice Department launched a pattern and practice investigation into Albuquerque police, looking into officer’s use of force practices and examining how police in the city treated individuals with mental illness.

Between 2010 and 2014, Albuquerque police shot and killed more people per capita than any other city in the United States.

"This was like the wild, wild west," Renetta Torres said. "It wasn’t just like, once a year, it was… several every time you turned around."

"There were police-involved shootings multiple times a week," said Tessa Mentus, the main anchor at KOB Eyewitness News 4. In her time at the TV station in Albuquerque, she has extensively covered the DOJ investigation and reform efforts.

Mentus said the catalyst event came in March 2014, when Albuquerque police shot and killed James Boyd. A homeless man, who struggled with mental illness, who had been camping illegally in the city’s foothills.

Officers negotiated with Boyd for more than two hours to come down from the mountain. As he gathered his items, a helmet camera video showed members of APD’s SWAT team releasing first a flashbang, then a police K-9. When Boyd pulled two small knives from his pockets, officers opened fire.

"That was the first shooting that the Albuquerque Police Department had ever captured on tape," said Laura Schaer Ives, a civil rights attorney who represented the Boyd family in a civil lawsuit filed after his death.

After the shooting, the video shows Boyd lying face down on the ground, as officers order him to drop the knives. After several minutes, Boyd stopped moving, but police continued to fire less-lethal rounds at his body and released the police K-9 one more time.

"The chief of police came out and did a press conference and presented this video and said, ‘See, this is a totally justified shooting,’" Ives said. "And the entire community… was like, ‘No, it didn’t look justified at all. It did not look like he needed to kill this man. I can’t believe he killed this man.’"

"[James Boyd] was our Floyd case," said Michael Geier, who served as APD’s chief from 2017 to 2020. "It was one bad shooting that kind of put it over the edge."

"We kind of went through a version of what Minneapolis did," Mentus said, describing the protests and riots that followed in the days and weeks after the fatal encounter. "It was chaos. That’s not a word I throw around lightly."

The hope for real reform

A month later, in April 2014, the Justice Department announced that it had found that Albuquerque police engaged in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including the use of "unreasonable, deadly force," according to the final public report.

The Torres family felt relief after hearing the findings.

"All of this hollering that we had been doing in the wilderness had merit," Stephen Torres said. "There was a significant problem here that needed to be addressed."

After the findings, it took the city another year to agree to a set of court-ordered reforms and enter into a settlement that laid out hundreds of changes for the department. The settlement, commonly known as a "consent decree" included intense oversight by the feds.

"Yes, our loved ones were killed, but they will not die in vain," Renetta Torres said. "We are going to do something, to try to make a difference, to make a change, and hopefully see some real reform."

Individuals with relevant information are encouraged to contact the Department of Justice via email at Community.Minneapolis@usdoj.gov or by phone at 866-432-0268. Individuals can also report civil rights violations regarding this or other matters using the Civil Rights Division’s new reporting portal, available at civilrights.justice.gov. Additional information about the Civil Rights Division is available on its website at www.justice.gov/crt. Additional information about the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota is available on its website at https://www.justice.gov/usao-mn.

Note: This story is the second in a series that will air on 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that looks at the federal investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department through the eyes of the people of Albuquerque. Click here to watch the previous story.