“Warrior Mindset” Persists Among Minneapolis Police After Training Reforms, Report Says

The city tried to ban so-called warrior training, but a state investigation finds that a toxic approach still pervades the Minneapolis Police Department.

Caleb Brennan   |    June 23, 2022

Minneapolis Police Department officers outside the Third Precinct in South Minneapolis during the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020. (Chad Davis/Flickr creative commons)

After almost two years of inquiry, state officials in Minnesota released a blistering assessment of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) in late April, documenting what it called “a culture of unquestionable compliance and aggression” within the city’s police force. 

The investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) documented rampant racism, unwarranted searches and seizures, reckless and inappropriate use of force, and outright belligerence toward the public. The findings were simultaneously shocking and unsurprising given the long history of abuses by Minneapolis police, the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and last year’s trial of the officer who killed him. 

They underscore the failures of the training reforms implemented by Minneapolis officials to change the toxic culture of its police department. In 2019, Mayor Jacob Frey announced the city would ban so-called warrior cop training, which paints neighborhoods as battlefields and police as front-line soldiers saving society from lawlessness. At the time, Frey said the city had already eliminated such fear-based, warrior training from its own police academy, and that he aimed to ban officers from attending similar outside training off-duty—a ban that the local police union said it would immediately defy. ​​ 

These reforms apparently haven’t stuck, according to the recent state investigation, which says a “warrior mindset” still pervades training at the city’s police academy from the day cadets start.

“Broadly, a review of MPD’s Academy training and MPD’s written training materials demonstrates that MPD trainings establish a warrior mindset with officers from their very first day as new MPD officer hires,” the report states. The paramilitary approach to training that the city still uses stresses unquestioned obedience to superiors and positions community members as the enemy, according to the report, and undermines policies for officers to intervene or report unauthorized force, “instilling an us-versus-them mentality early in officers’ careers with MPD.” 

The persistence of warrior-style training in Minneapolis speaks to the difficulty of changing police culture and of uprooting a long history of police militarization. For the past forty years, Congress has supported—both rhetorically and financially—the integration of military tactics, arms, and intelligence gathering techniques into state and local police forces, resulting in a 1,500 percent increase in SWAT units from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, according to some estimates. 

Under the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, first approved by George H.W. Bush, billions of dollars worth of military equipment flowed to local police departments, a trend which continues well into today. Barack Obama’s two terms saw an allocation of high-tech weaponry, armored vehicles, and surveillance technology worth at least $18 billion. This trend has made cops look more like an occupying force than a component of broader public safety policy. 

According to the state investigation into MPD, the city’s “paramilitary approach to policing” leads to “officers unnecessarily escalating encounters or using inappropriate levels of force.” The paramilitary structure also insulates the department from cultural change. The report describes how MPD trainers instruct cadets not to question authority or veteran officers, making those recruits less likely to intervene in or report abuses. 

Veteran officers also often manage and approve lucrative off-duty security jobs at private businesses or events. Chauvin was partly in charge of giving out assignments in the department’s Third Precinct, where he worked, according to the Star Tribune

Michelle Gross, the president of Communities United Against Police Brutality who has spent decades pushing for reform in Minnesota, says Chauvin’s record shows how the department’s paramilitary structure and deference to long-timers makes it resistant to change. 

“Derek Chauvin was what they called the ‘warlord’ for the Third Precinct,” Gross told Bolts. “The Third Precinct guys that murdered George Floyd were not going to cross him and say ‘please, stop’ or anything like that … If the guy that’s in charge of off-duty work is engaged in misconduct, you’re not going to bite the hand that feeds.”

The “culture of unquestionable compliance” also means veteran officers that underwent the warrior cop training prior to the ban have deep influence over the approach to policing and tone that officers take with community members. In announcing his ban on Minneapolis cops attending outside warrior cop training seminars, Frey explicitly singled out sessions hosted by David Grossman, a notorious Army Ranger turned policing instructor who claims to have invented something he calls “killology.” Grossman’s “Bulletproof Warrior” sessions, deemed by many policing experts and researchers to be pseudo-scientific, teach officers that they must be psychologically ready to kill at a moment’s notice and have been attended by police in all fifty states, including Jeronimo Yanez, who a former officer in a Minneapolis suburb who attended Grossman’s “warrior” training before he killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop. 

Reforms to end warrior-style police training might still face resistance from rank-and-file cops, but they have started to gain traction among police leaders in recent years, according to Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee police officer who now studies policing and teaches law at the University of South Carolina. “You have more police leaders who say, ‘It’s wrong. That warrior, soldier metaphor, it’s the wrong metaphor,’” Stoughton told Bolts. “Prior to five or seven years ago—really prior to George Floyd—I don’t know that I saw very many police leaders making public statements that this is the wrong metaphor.”

Stoughton, who testified at Chauvin’s murder trial that his conduct during Floyd’s arrest was inexcusable, said changing police culture will require departments to reassess their relationship with the communities they patrol. 

“The phrase that I tend to use is ‘the principles of policing,’ what do officers think their first principles are?” Stoughton said. “If officers had to summarize in a sentence or two what policing is and the relationship that policing has with the community—what does that look like?” 

The problems flagged in the recent state investigation of Minneapolis police reflect broader shortcomings in police training around the country. Cops in the United States receive less initial training than police in other rich countries, on average 21 weeks of police academy training compared to officers in Germany, who train for at least two and a half years. Some states like Texas require less training to become a licensed peace officer than a cosmetologist or air conditioning repair contractor. 

The investigation also shows how training reforms can fall short. Minneapolis police training in recent years has been expanded to include implicit bias training and modules like how to interact with people with autism. Yet in one interview with MDHR researchers, an MPD officer didn’t seem to understand the basic concept of racial profiling. “One patrol officer claimed that they did not engage in racial profiling, yet later in the interview provided an example of how they might solve a crime based on racial stereotypes,” the report states. “This officer did not appear to understand that searching for someone based solely on racial stereotypes was, in fact, racial profiling.”

The state investigation also points to MPD’s use of bogus social media accounts to surveil Black leaders, Black organizations and Black elected officials “without a public safety objective.” The department also has a history of openly antagonizing protestors during the 2020 unrest, and MPD collaborating with the federal police to monitor protest leaders. 

Changing police culture remains a slow and uphill process in Minneapolis. Gross says that fear-based training is still inherent to how the city trains police despite reform attempts in recent years. “We have people in our organization who have gone through these training sessions, and what they will tell you is that what they are taught is scenario-based training. It’s a ‘Shoot, Don’t Shoot’ training,” Gross said. “Basically, they play a video and have participants make very short, very fast decisions about when to use violence.”

The recent state investigation also underscores why Minneapolis Councilmember Elliott Payne says he wants to reduce public interactions with law enforcement and expand alternatives to policing. 

“For me, it’s how do we address that culture piece, and I think that means reducing some of the interactions [with law enforcement] and identifying the types of need in the community that can be dealt with with a diverse set of tactics,” Payne told Bolts. In 2020, members of the Minneapolis city council sought to transfer $7.9 million of the MPD’s budget to pay for other social services that could tackle crime in a more holistic manner, but this was ultimately offset by a 2021 increase in spending for the MPD.

“The problems that the police have been tasked to solve are so complex and nuanced that you can’t conceive of every possible outcome,” Payne said. “Within that universe of discretion, it’s been filled in with these militaristic ways of being and the use of violence to maintain order.”