How Minneapolis has changed three years after the murder of George Floyd

“I Can’t Breathe” Silent March for Justice
A protester holds a sign calling for justice for George Floyd as demonstrators march during the “I Can’t Breathe” Silent March for Justice in downtown Minneapolis on March 7.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News 2021

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer three years ago led to what’s often referred to as a national reckoning on race and policing.

Despite initial optimism as protests bloomed across the country and people from across the political spectrum acknowledged the need for change, progress has often felt fitful, even in the city of Minneapolis itself. But there are some indications that, for better or worse, Minneapolis has been transformed by Floyd’s killing.

Here are some major changes in the works in the city where Floyd lived, worked and lost his life.

Rethinking what cops do 

For the first time since Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, Floyd’s killing in 2020 forced the broader public to take a deeper look at how American policing functioned in practice, according to criminologist David Squier Jones.

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Floyd’s killing, and other high-profile police abuses recorded on people’s phones, led many people who hadn’t been directly impacted by discrimination to question the status quo. 

“For a long time, the police have just been given a break to do their jobs, because it’s a hard job and we can kind of turn the other way. I don’t see that happening anymore,” Jones said. “We’re much more aware of what policing looks like, including use of force, which is never pretty. But [we’re] really asking, ‘Why is that happening?’ Versus, that it is perhaps an inevitable outcome of police work.”  

Some of those changes in Minneapolis have come in the form of initiatives like the behavioral health crisis response team, which aims to limit the role armed police officers have in dealing with people experiencing mental or behavioral crisis. The team includes mental health professionals or social workers, who are trained in de-escalation and intervention.

The loss of hundreds of uniformed officers in Minneapolis in the years since Floyd’s death has also forced city officials to consider whether they want to focus more on these sorts of alternatives, which can allow officers to spend more time responding to crime or unsafe driving.

Policing in the United States hadn’t fundamentally changed since the advent of the patrol car and radio a century ago, Jones said, adding that he’ll be watching as Minneapolis police rebuild their ranks.

“Historically police departments were staffed and recruiting individuals who had that more militaristic background or interest versus what our society is asking for out of police, which is an interest in what we call harm-focused policing,” Jones said. “There’s a philosophy of policing emerging, instead of focusing on crime and disorder, they have to balance with the community harm that can result from certain types of policing practices.” 

Reducing unnecessary law enforcement interactions

There have been a raft of policy changes to Minneapolis police since Floyd’s killing, both proactively by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and mandated by a court-enforceable agreement between the state Department of Human Rights and Minneapolis. Those changes have included policies like a ban on no-knock warrants.

“That’s a potentially meaningful policy change that will reduce the likelihood of really dangerous encounters that the MPD was historically using almost entirely against communities of color and particularly Black people,” said University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Rachel Moran.

New limits on what are called pretextual traffic stops also limit the ability of officers to make traffic stops for minor reasons, including the claim that they smell marijuana in a vehicle.  

“Expired tabs, inoperable license plate lights, items dangling from the mirror — they’re pretty minor limitations but I do think they’re important,” Moran said. “I call them pretextual because they’re not important in and of themselves, they’re just a way for police to have an encounter.” 

Creating more officer accountability 

One of the findings of last year’s report on Minneapolis police by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights was that officers routinely used abusive, sexist or racist language to everyone from suspects to witnesses.

Since then, the city has revised its disciplinary matrix. Using discriminatory language now could lead to termination.

“That matrix speaks to taking misconduct more seriously, and not only serious conduct like uses of force and failure to report uses of force, but things that Minneapolis has been criticized for for many many years, like disrespectful language toward people in the community, racist language,” Moran said. “That now appears more explicitly in the discipline matrix.”

The matrix also seemingly curtails the use of “coaching,” which Moran said was a “nondisciplinary way of keeping misconduct in house and inaccessible to the public.” 

The court-enforceable agreement with the state Department of Human Rights also requires the city to release more data, including demographics of the people they use force on. 

That’s the sort of information people familiar with federal consent decrees say that members of the public, elected officials and the agreement’s court-appointed monitor can use in order to establish whether the department has actually made the changes required in the agreement.

The city has also revamped civilian oversight of the police department by creating a new 15-member Community Commission on Police Oversight to recommend changes in police practices, policies, collective bargaining agreements with the police union and training. Members will also revolve through review panels that recommend discipline to the chief on specific cases of misconduct.

Reorganizing public safety and the city

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced plans last year to set up a new Office of Community Safety to oversee police, firefighters, 911 response and the Office of Violence Prevention.

He appointed Cedric Alexander, formerly head of public safety in DeKalb County, GA., who said at his confirmation hearing that you have to be willing to take risks to make change, and vowed to not be “part of the status quo.” 

Frey also appointed former Newark, NJ., Deputy Mayor Brian O’Hara to serve as new police chief, replacing Medaria Arradondo, who chose to not seek reappointment and left the department in 2022. O’Hara previously oversaw the implementation of a federal consent decree with the Newark Police Department.

That could be one advantage for Minneapolis, which is also expected to come under a federal consent decree following a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, Jones said. 

“Organizational leadership definitely has an effect, particularly if it’s something where it’s combined with a mandate like these consent decrees,” Jones said. 

But the changes were controversial at Minneapolis City Hall, which was shaken up by voters’ approval of a strong mayor system, said political strategist and self-described progressive lawyer Abou Amar. Tensions have often boiled over this term at the Minneapolis City Council over differences on issues of policing and public safety.

“Everybody at City Hall is acting in good faith,” Amar said. “But I just think there’s very strong opinions about how to resolve some of the foundational problems that people feel the city has. That’s the tension.”

Standing on a Powderhorn Park stage that had the words “defund police” on it made council members a political target in the previous election, Amar said. Whether the so-called strong mayor system is a success is still not clear, but Amar said it also clarifies the line of responsibility.

“It makes it clear that the office of the mayor has more authority and because of that it has more accountability,” Amar said. “That will be clearer for voters in the future.”  

Amar, who is not consulting for any of the campaigns, expects this year’s council elections to be a re-litigation of the election after Floyd’s killing where distinct visions of public safety competed.

More political will to prosecute the police

All four former officers involved in Floyd’s killing — from Derek Chauvin who kneeled on Floyd’s neck to Tou Thao who kept bystanders at bay — have all been convicted in both state and federal courts and are currently in federal prison.

A lot of how the courts treat killings by police officers didn’t change much after Floyd’s killing, said Angi Porter, an assistant professor of law at American University Washington College of Law who has roots in the Twin Cities. But public expectations have shifted.

“It was just unheard of that police were being prosecuted prior to George Floyd,” Porter said. “I think in general, there's just sort of this sense from the community's citizenry that if there's a shooting, we will expect some sort of legal process.”

The federal prosecutions of officers for violating Floyd’s civil rights seem to serve as an incentive for police departments to change their policies and a deterrent for individual officers to act with excessive force, Porter said. However, even with more prosecutions, the number of fatal shootings by police officers has continued to increase, according to a database maintained by the Washington Post.

“They're not throwing a whole department in jail. But it is major, it can make them move, it can make them change their policies,” Porter said. “It creates a public expectation there that something is happening and something will change.”

Porter said the state prosecutions of the officers involved in Floyd’s killing may not have been so successful without the support of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office, which led the prosecutions.

She said the public won’t always be able to rely on Ellison serving as attorney general to bolster prosecutions of police officers who illegally take someone’s life, but that the public has got to keep their focus on electing good county attorneys who forcefully prosecute the cases. 

“With public attention, I think these things are getting better,” Porter said. “I think one general development is there's an expectation that if you decide to charge, it's going to be a good charge and it's gonna be a good case.”

Questions remain

After the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, it took about two decades for the department to start demonstrating that it had really changed, said criminologist Jones. He said “any incremental change is better than no change.” 

“One thing that Minneapolis has that’s unique to the department, they’ve had the focus of the nation and the world on them for the last couple of years because of what happened with George Floyd and their officers,” Jones said. “So it’s going to be a wait and see.”

Many of the provisions in the state agreement with Minneapolis on the police aim to change the culture of the department. Other examples show that change can be a generational effort, law professor Moran said.

“Real change takes a long time. That’s immensely and understandably dissatisfying to the people who are in the most need of change to happen quickly,” Moran said. “When you have a police department of 600-800 people and a very lengthy history of problematic behavior, you don’t change that in a year or two or three years.”

Mayor Frey said they’re not asking city residents to be patient, who he said are right in pushing elected officials for change, but he believes they’ve acted with urgency over the last three years and that officers have signed on. 

“From what we’re hearing, yeah, people are starting to feel change. Are we there yet? No. We’ve got a long way to go,” Frey said. “But the pieces that we’ve put in place are really sending us on the right trajectory.”

Frey said he envisions a world where Minneapolis provides an example to other cities in how to reform public safety.

“We’re not shying away from the murder of George Floyd,” Frey said. “We’re leaning into recognizing that things need to change and change with urgency.”

Civil rights attorney and Wayfinder Foundation Executive Director Nekima Levy Armstrong said the state agreement in particular seems to be a step in the right direction. She’s hopeful but wary.

“We’ve been bamboozled and hoodwinked so many times, people are simply fed up,” Armstrong said. “We can’t just believe the rhetoric that comes out of city hall, we have to follow through and be vigilant, and ensure and demand that they make good on their promises.”