The Minneapolis City Attorney's Office says it's been unable to independently verify some of the most damning findings in a recent Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigation into Minneapolis police, prompting city leaders to halt negotiations with state officials on the next steps toward a potential legal agreement.
In an e-mail to Mayor Jacob Frey and City Council members Friday afternoon, Deputy City Attorney Erik Nilsson said his office has reviewed "approximately 15,000 pages" of documents related to the Minneapolis Police Department's (MPD) use of covert social media accounts and "did not find any material proving that MPD systematically targeted ... Black leaders, Black organizations, and elected officials without a public safety objective," as stated in the April 27 human rights report.
"The City has asked MDHR (Minnesota Department of Human Rights) repeatedly for the specific documents it is relying upon — a reasonable request for one party's attorneys to make of another's to support its conclusions relating to covert social media," Nilsson wrote. "The MDHR has repeatedly refused to share this vital information.
"Right now, our team is re-reviewing 15,000 pages of material to see whether improper use occurred within the covert social media accounts."
The 72-page human rights report, prompted by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, concluded that city police engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination in violation of the state's civil rights law over the past decade, actions that were enabled by several political administrations failing to hold problem officers accountable.
The report said police created covert social media accounts — sometimes with no authorization — to spy on Black people and Black-led organizations unrelated to criminal activity.
"Specifically, MPD officers sent friend requests, commented on posts, sent private messages, and contributed to discussions," the report says. "When doing so, officers posed as like-minded individuals and claimed, for example, that they met the targeted person at a prior demonstration or protest. In social media posts and messages, MPD officers used language to further racial stereotypes associated with Black people, especially Black women."
Frey initially called the findings "repugnant, at times horrific" and pledged to pursue meaningful reforms. The city was working with human rights officials on a court-enforceable consent decree. But in his e-mail Friday, Nilsson said he canceled a meeting with state investigators next week and negotiations will not resume until the human rights office agrees to share evidence supporting its findings.
"Our team was shocked by the allegations in the report regarding covert social media, and if in fact this occurred, it needs to be addressed immediately," he wrote. "To adequately advise you (our clients) and fulfill our professional obligations as your legal counsel, we must have accurate and complete information about this issue."
Human rights department spokesman Taylor Putz said in a statement Friday that the office planned to move the negotiations forward, but he did not address the records in question.
"As we approach the second year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, the city has an opportunity to address unlawful discriminatory policing and strengthen public safety," Putz said. "The next meeting is on Tuesday. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights will be there, and we hope the city will be there as well."
The Star Tribune also requested records of allegations of social media spying, but Putz said the data were "nonpublic" and his office would not provide them.
However, the law allows human rights leaders to release the records, said Matt Ehling, interim chair for the Minnesota Coalition on Open Government Information, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency from public officials.
Unlike law enforcement agencies, the human rights department operates under special data laws that give the commissioner discretion over what records are made available to the public. Ehling said Commissioner Rebecca Lucero has the power to release the information — and he believes that doing so is critical if the report is to lead to meaningful reform.
The Minneapolis police probe "is probably one of the most significant investigations that department has ever undertaken," Ehling said. "In order to make the kind of global changes the department has advocated for, it's going to require a lot of buy-in from the city and the community. I think there's a real strong case that people should be able to see the underlying data."
Targets of the alleged spying have also expressed frustration over the human rights department's lack of transparency.
Urban League Twin Cities President Steven Belton, whose organization is cited in the report as the target of social media spying, said he met with Lucero after it was published but that she was "clear as mud" when he asked for more information about the surveillance.
Belton said Urban League staff fear for their safety and that he's been inundated with worried calls from community members.
"We want to know more about it," he said. "The fact that the information is out there and we don't know creates a sense of concern."