Officers on the line during the 18-day Fourth Precinct occupation in 2015. File photo

Communication breakdowns plagued response to occupation

Updated: March 30, 2017 – 9:25 am

While praising “measured” response, federal report finds room for improvement in city’s handling of 2015 protest

A federal review of the 2015 occupation of the Fourth Precinct credited the city’s “measured response” with preventing the situation from escalating, but it also found that multiple communications breakdowns hampered efforts to bring the 18-day protest to a peaceful conclusion.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s review came at the request of Minneapolis Police Chief Janée Harteau and Mayor Betsy Hodges, who described the protests that followed the officer-involved shooting of Jamar Clark in November 2015 “one of the most searing events in recent memory in Minneapolis.”

The 100-page report released March 20 by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, sets out a range of recommendations for the city and its police department, many addressing communication strategies and command and control structures. As the occupation dragged on, Hodges pressed for ending the occupation through negotiations with protest leaders — but that strategy wasn’t clearly communicated to all officers, including those on the line at the Fourth Precinct.

Hodges, who apologized for her role in the confusion, said the “sharing of information internally was inconsistent and sometimes deliberately thwarted.”

Harteau said the report — which is intended to serve as a case study for other law enforcement agencies and cities — identified “leadership challenges” for her department, including a lack of checks “to ensure the messages I’m giving move through the rank-and-file.”

“It wasn’t necessarily so much the ‘what’ we were doing but the ‘why’ we were doing it, and everybody likes to hear the ‘why,’” Harteau said. “And then there was another component of, ‘I don’t agree with the “why,” so therefore this is what I hear.’”

Despite the problems that stymied the implementation of a clear and concerted response, the report’s authors credited city leaders with preventing the occupation from “escalating into violent riots.”

Mayor Betsy Hodges and Minneapolis Police Chief Janée Harteau responded to the federal report Monday. Photo by Dylan Thomas

“In other words,” Hodges said, “in one of the hardest and most challenging moments that we have lived through in recent decades, when people were in great pain, we succeeded overall in balancing people’s First Amendment right to peaceful protest with the need to keep people safe and our city safe.”

The protest began within hours of Clark’s death in a confrontation with two police officers early on the morning of Nov. 15 and lasted through Dec. 3. Community members who witnessed or heard about the shooting marched from the scene of the incident, outside a Plymouth Avenue apartment building, to the Fourth Precinct, located just a few blocks away. There, a growing crowd of protesters set up camp, calling for better police-community relations and demanding the release of videos that showed what happened between Clark and the officers.

Just over a week into the occupation, five protesters were shot and injured by Allen “Lance” Scarsella, a 24-year-old man who drove to the protest with three friends. The jury that convicted Scarsella of first-degree assault and riot charges in February watched videos and read text messages in which he made racist comments about the protesters.

Costs to the city tallied $1.15 million after the 18 days. That total includes approximately $50,000 in property damage, but the majority of the costs were associated with overtime pay for officers.

Harteau said she was proud of her officers’ “professional and restrained response” to the occupation.

“What the officers endured with verbal attacks … would challenge any one of us on our best days,” she said. “What I was most disturbed by is the treatment our officers of color received. The folks out at the occupation were beyond words (regarding) how the officers of color were treated, and it was increasingly worse than other officers.”

The report found officers used less-lethal and nonlethal weapons “without clear authorization from an incident commander,” a violation of department policy. Officers also violated department policy when they used chemical irritants on the crowd without authorization.

Protesters alleged police hit them with nightsticks when they were trying to hold up tarps to protect themselves from the chemical irritants sprayed on the crowd. Such incidents were hard to track and could have been underreported, the report’s authors added, because of how the department lumps multiple use-of-force incidents into one report.

The reported noted 10 use-of-force complaints against officers stemming from the incident. While there is an ongoing lawsuit in one case, Harteau said, the others were reviewed and found to be consistent with department policy.

Hodges said the occupation was both a test for the city and a “catalytic” moment, speeding the implementation of police reforms, including a new system for tracking misconduct complaints and training for officers in procedural justice, implicit bias and crisis intervention. The department recently completed its rollout of body cameras to all officers.

Minneapolis NAACP President Jason Sole, who attended a press conference held on the day the report was released, said the time for rhetoric had passed and that he was still waiting to see real change in the police department.

“It’s time,” Sole said. “We’re dying. I want you to know that. We’re dying. Does that report show we’re dying out here?”

“This report wasn’t talking about how we police, it was talking about how did we respond to an occupation,” Hodges said. “But these issues of building trust in the community, that’s what we’re working toward.”

“You’ve got to stop the behavior that leads to the occupation,” Sole responded, adding that police interactions with African-American youth often amounted to harassment.

“It might happen again,” he said.

To read the report, click here.