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How Have DOJ Probes Impacted Other Cities' Police Departments?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The United States Department of Justice opened an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department in April, following the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. It will look at use of force, and determine if the department engages in discriminatory policing.

Other cities have been there before Minneapolis. Newark and Baltimore police shared insight into the DOJ process, and what worked, with WCCO.

The DOJ began investigating Newark police in 2010. Director of Public Safety Brian O'Hara says there was a decades-long history of police brutality accusations, with people advocating for change.

"Four years later they released their findings report, which essentially found, you know, a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing by Newark police officers historically in the city," O'Hara said.

Findings covered a range of issues, from disparity in policing, to use of force, lack of civilian oversight and community engagement, to stop, search and arrest practices.

"No, there was definitely not buy-in in the beginning. It was certainly disheartening," O'Hara said.

The DOJ initiated an investigation in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in 2015. People protested and rioted in the streets. The report more than a year later also found similar issues there, said Baltimore Police Consent Decree Implementation Unit Director Shannon Sullivan.

"It was tough. There are a lot of members of our department who do really good work, and it's hard to hear that the department wasn't as good as we wanted it to be," Sullivan said.

After investigative findings are released, the parties come to terms with a Consent Decree. It's a court order that mandates a department reform what the DOJ determined was wrong. This includes policy changes, which leads to public comments, training and then implementation. It's a lengthy process that continues with audits, compliance reviews and outcome assessments.

"Any processes that we put in place to improve policy and training and supervision and accountability systems take time, take time to do it right, and they need to be sustainable, which means they are not a quick fix," said Sullivan.

That's a significant takeaway from the process, Sullivan said: Change takes time.

"We just kind of kept accepting the status quo and being resistant to change when really we should have been embracing it," Sullivan said.

Sullivan says that happened over time, with education, and once officers saw how extra training and system upgrades would also benefit them. Anecdotally, they've seen a reduction in use of force numbers, and an increase in de-escalation tactics used.

"We are a completely different department than we were in 2015, for all the right reasons," Sullivan said.

O'Hara said community input and gaining trust during the process is crucial. Like many cities across the country, Newark also saw protests following the murder of George Floyd. O'Hara said community members stepped in when situations escalated.

"People from the community said you're not going to do that here. You're not going to burn this down," O'Hara said. "Those folks were willing to, you know, see our good graces and put their bodies on the line to ensure that things didn't get out hand."

And O'Hara pointed to another measure he said shows how things have changed following the DOJ investigation.

"We got through all of 2020 without one single police officer firing his gun at a person, and that literally has never happened in modern history in the city of Newark," O'Hara said.

No federal funding comes with the mandate to make changes. Police departments and cities must do that on their own. There is no timeline for when the DOJ will release its findings for Minneapolis police.

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