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Federal authorities pursuing their civil rights probe of the Minneapolis Police Department bring with them a deep familiarity with the MPD's inner workings and procedures after years of concern about the department's performance.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether MPD officers engaged in a "pattern and practice" of violating citizens' rights, including during mental health-related calls and at last summer's protests over the murder of George Floyd. Leaders of the city's police force, which is down dozens of officers amid rising violent crime and calls for its disbandment, have said the department will cooperate with the federal probe. A separate state human rights investigation has been proceeding for months.

It's not entirely unfamiliar: The Justice Department has launched inquiries into MPD practices dating back decades, ranging from misconduct of specific officers for excessive force or corruption to mediation agreements and pledges of ­departmentwide reform in areas like reducing racial bias and use of force.

Late last month, city officials began issuing letters directing MPD and city department heads not to destroy any electronic data that might be relevant to the federal investigation.

In a memo obtained by the Star Tribune, Assistant City Attorney Sara Lathrop instructed officials to preserve documents "that may relate to MPD's uses of force generally and specifically as it involves individuals with behavioral health disabilities or individuals engaged in peaceful expressive activities," along with any files relating to training, supervision and investigations, complaints and discipline, among others.

Lathrop's memo asked that the department preserve documents dating to at least Jan. 1, 2010.

Some longtime MPD critics question why federal authorities didn't intervene sooner in Minneapolis.

"There's no question that the feds have been paying attention to Minneapolis for many years, and maybe some of this inertia had to do with who was in office for the past 20 years," said attorney Paul Applebaum, who over the years has filed numerous brutality lawsuits against Minneapolis officers.

In one case, a cop he sued for allegedly punching or kicking people while he was off-duty at downtown bars was eventually indicted in federal court. A jury later cleared him of most of the charges.

"It's such a boulder to roll up a hill," Applebaum said. "Just the DOJ finding the get-up-and-go to investigate MPD requires an enormous amount of institutional energy, and it takes a special climate and a special point and time for them to launch something like they did."

Lengthy history

Over the decades, federal authorities have opened cases on a succession of Minneapolis officers, with allegations ranging from excessive force and bribery to ties to a prostitution ring.

Some cases have resulted in federal grand jury indictments, but only one officer has ever gone to prison after he pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2009.

Other times, federal authorities have made discreet inquiries about MPD officers accused of excessive force but did not open a formal investigation, according to sources familiar with those cases.

Sometimes, federal authorities have come to Minneapolis at the behest of local officials, such as in 2014 when then-chief Janeé Harteau invited the DOJ's Office of Justice Programs to review her department.

The office released a 35-page report a year later urging a series of reforms, including overhauling the department's coaching program for officers, expanding racial sensitivity training and fixing the internal system for flagging potential problem officers and getting them help before any misconduct.

Two years later, the city again approached the DOJ, this time asking authorities to conduct an "after action review" of the city's response to the protests that followed the police killing of Jamar Clark.

Around the same time, Minneapolis was selected as one of six U.S. cities chosen for a federal pilot program aimed at reducing racial bias and improving relationships between law enforcement and communities.

Back in 2003, the Police Department entered into a federal mediation agreement with the DOJ aimed at addressing a host of police issues such as use of force, diversity and race relations. After some critics argued that few of the promises of reform have been kept in the years since, Chief Medaria Arradondo said he was open to revisiting the agreement.

But the department is facing its most serious challenge yet with DOJ's latest investigation, announced last month following the conviction of ex-officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of Floyd, whose death set off waves of protests over police brutality and racial inequality.

These federal inquiries can lead to court-approved agreements, known as consent decrees, between the Justice Department and local governments that are closely monitored by judges to ensure that police departments follow through on promised reforms. But, they can also be costly and time-consuming and have a mixed record of success.

Such oversight took off under the Obama administration, which launched 25 pattern and practice investigations against troubled departments in places like Ferguson, Mo. — the site of the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement — that led to 14 consent decrees. But the practice was curtailed under President Donald Trump, whose first attorney general argued that such inquiries hampered police departments' efforts to fight crime.

A week after announcing the Minneapolis probe, DOJ officials opened a similar investigation of the police department in Louisville, Ky., which came under heavy scrutiny last year after the shooting of Breonna Taylor during an unannounced raid of her apartment.

Ben Feist, chief programs officer of the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU, said that the Justice Department under President Joe Biden has signaled it will take a more aggressive approach to police reform.

He said they haven't been approached yet by the DOJ, but that he expects federal investigators to inquire about an often-cited 2015 ACLU report that found Black Minneapolitans were nearly nine times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for a low-level offense, often after a traffic stop.

"We will certainly see that they have a copy of our Minneapolis report, because we think it's sort of relevant in establishing a pattern," he said.

Department culture

The federal probe will likely focus on the department's actions over the past decade. A parallel DOJ investigation this month led to the indictment of Chauvin and his three former police colleagues in Floyd's death.

As part of that probe, federal investigators already gained some insight into the MPD's culture, having spent the past year interviewing various police officials, including Arradondo and most of his command staff. For instance, deputy chief Henry Halvorson was interviewed last July by agents from the FBI and federal prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office in downtown Minneapolis.

Civil rights attorney Al Goins, whose clients have often been victims of police abuse, said several of his cases seemed ripe for federal intervention.

He represented the family of Abu Jeilani, a mentally ill man who was shot and killed by police in 2002 after he refused to drop the machete and crowbar he was carrying. The death was followed by angry protests that paved the way for the federal mediation the following year.

Goins says he was also approached by federal authorities after the killing of Clark, the unarmed Black man whose death in 2015 led to a weekslong occupation of a North Side police station. Goins said that then-U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger opened an investigation into the case but ultimately decided not to indict the officers involved — a move that has been cited recently by critics who opposed Luger's potential reappointment to the job.

He added that he thinks the federal probe is shortsighted, in that the issues with policing don't start and end with Minneapolis.

"If they're looking at excessive force in the metro area, it's bigger than the Minneapolis Police Department. Much bigger," Goins said. "This is structural, and the structure also includes the prosecutors; it's also, to some degree, the judges. And I don't know if the Department of Justice can change all that."

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.