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Long before former officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, the Third Precinct in south Minneapolis had a reputation for being home to police officers who played by their own rules.

One officer kicked a handcuffed suspect in the face, leaving his jaw in pieces. Officers beat and pistol-whipped a suspect in a parking lot on suspicion of low-level drug charges. Others harassed residents of a south Minneapolis housing project as they headed to work, and allowed prostitution suspects to touch their genitals for several minutes before arresting them in vice stings.

These and more substantiated incidents, detailed in court records and police reports, help explain a saying often used by fellow cops to describe the style of policing practiced in the Third: There’s the way that the Minneapolis Police Department does things, and then there’s the way they do it “in Threes.”

Between 2007 and 2017, the city paid out $2.1 million to settle misconduct lawsuits involving Third Precinct officers. Judges have thrown out cases for “outrageous” conduct of the officers, and prosecutors have been forced to drop charges for searches found to be illegal, according to court records.

The brand of aggressive policing on display in the Floyd video has long been standard practice for some Third Precinct officers when dealing with suspects of nonviolent, low-level crimes, often involving people of color, said Abigail Cerra, a commissioner for Minneapolis’ Police Conduct Oversight Commission.

“My clients were constantly getting anal searches,” said Cerra, who also has been a public defender. “Not at the hospital. At the Third Precinct.”

Chauvin and the other three officers who assisted in Floyd’s arrest — all of whom worked at the Third Precinct — have been fired and now face criminal charges. That has not satisfied protesters, who continue to call for more action from city officials, ranging from drastically overhauling to dismantling the police force.

The officers who participated in Floyd’s killing, they say, are a reflection of broader issues that have shadowed the Minneapolis Police Department for decades. Its strained relations with minority communities, reflected in part by the troubling disparities in its use of force and the deaths of other unarmed black men, are now drawing unprecedented national scrutiny.

While 40% of the city’s residents are people of color, 74% of all Minneapolis police cases with force involve them. Black people are on the receiving end of officers’ force 63% of the time, according to the most recent department data available. And, despite the implementation of de-escalation training and body cameras, complaints against officers continue to rise, according to a 2019 annual report.

Public defender Jordan Deckenbach said the Floyd footage “is 100% consistent with the hours and hours and hours of body camera footage I’ve watched over the years.”

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights announced it would investigate the past decade of the Police Department’s policies and procedures to determine if officers have engaged in systemic discrimination against minorities. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has asked the Department of Justice for a similar review at the federal level, and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar is calling for a new federal agency focused on criminal misconduct of police.

In a statement, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said that after taking over the department he released a “vision statement” outlining his expectations for every officer on the force.

“There is no precinct, shift or staff member that is exempt from these expectations,” Arradondo said. “Staff that deviates from these expectations shall be subjected to corrective action to bring them into compliance with expectations.”

Combustible mix

Cerra believes the Third Precinct’s culture dates to the infamous Metro Gang Strike Force. The state shut down the task force in 2009 after an investigation revealed officers stole money, cars and other evidence, and routinely beat suspects, including, in one case, an officer kicking a 2-year-old child in the head. The state has paid out more than $3.6 million to victims of the strike force’s misconduct.

Some task force officers ended up in the Third Precinct.

Greg Hestness, a retired Minneapolis deputy chief, thinks the precinct’s cocky, swaggering culture dates to the 1980s, when a flood of transfers from downtown’s First Precinct and the then-recently shuttered Sixth Precinct brought a combustible mix of “old timers” and “young Vietnam vets.”

“The Third Precinct was kind of sleepy until then,” said Hestness. Almost overnight, the precinct’s culture changed, he said, suddenly overrun with a new brand of “go-getters and hard chargers.”

The third covers Minneapolis’ largest geographic area, bound by Interstate 35W, I-94 and the Mississippi River. It includes some of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in Minneapolis such as Little Earth, a housing project that has long been the heart of the region’s urban American Indian population.

While department data show that officers in the First and Fourth precincts use force more often, officers in the Third are more likely to use it when responding to a call. Years of overaggressive policing had driven a wedge between nearby communities and the precinct.

“It was kind of like a playground for rogue cops,” said Paul Applebaum, an attorney who specializes in civil police misconduct cases. He said he had a hard time producing witnesses to come forward when he filed suits involving residents of Little Earth, because many feared retaliation from officers.

Jeff Jindra, a former supervisor for the Metro Gang Strike Force, served as sergeant for the Third Precinct’s community response team, a task force that specialized in drugs, prostitution and other quality-of-life issues. Jindra, who has since retired, racked up several complaints and lawsuits for excessive use of force over the years. In one highly publicized case, the city paid out $110,000 to a murder suspect who sued Jindra for brutality, alleging the veteran officer kicked him while handcuffed and broke his jaw in several places, requiring metal plates to put it back together.

It was the community response team that arrested Victor Gaten, a black man, in 2015 on E. Lake Street, just blocks from the Third Precinct, on suspicion of drug possession. After tackling him, one officer hit him with the sight on the top of his pistol. Another, Christopher Reiter, punched Gaten so hard that he threw his back out and needed an ambulance, according to court records.

“They could have killed me right there,” Gaten later told Hennepin County Judge Toddrick Barnette.

The officers recovered drugs, but Barnette dismissed the charges due to the officers’ “outrageous” conduct, saying he didn’t believe some of the officers’ testimony.

“This is one of the reasons why some citizens in Minneapolis have problems with Minneapolis police,” Barnette, now the county’s chief judge, said of the officers in a 2015 court hearing.

Reiter was eventually fired from the department and convicted in 2017 of kicking a handcuffed suspect in the face, breaking the man’s jaw and teeth and leaving him with a traumatic brain injury.

In January, officers from the Third Precinct stopped Troy Carlton Donicht after seeing him driving a car that had been reported stolen. One officer shouted, “I’m going to shoot you right in the head!” as another ripped him from the car, according to a transcript of body camera video. Last Monday, in the aftermath of the Floyd protests, prosecutors dropped the charges.

A few problem cops?

Defenders of the Third say that the problem lies with a few problem cops, not with the entire precinct.

Al Berryman, a past president of the police union, says that it’s easy for the department’s critics to point fingers after the Floyd controversy.

“If this guy was doing it all along, then why was he out there?” Berryman said of Chauvin, who racked up at least 17 civilian complaints, only one of which led to discipline. “It always bothered me that there’s so much chatter about what has not been done, and yet the mayor’s the head of the department: Why has the mayor not done anything about some of these people?”

Margarita Ortega, a community organizer at Little Earth, said that the precinct’s officers have made more of an effort in recent years to reach out to residents, including two Police Athletics League officers who coach a youth girls softball team called the PAL Red Bears.

But because of countless bad police run-ins over the years, “Our community tends to not call the police as often because they don’t know what the reaction is going to be,” she says.

The simmering resentment over police conduct exploded into widespread protests and rioting after Floyd’s death. The South Side police headquarters at 3000 Minnehaha Av. quickly became a focal point of protesters’ rage.

Demonstrators laid siege to the building on May 28 and stormed it after police abandoned their post. After looting the building, they set it ablaze.

Staff writers Liz Navratil and Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.