How a 1971 arrest laid the groundwork for the state’s investigation into Minneapolis police

Peggie Carlson looked at the photo albums spread out on her dining room table. Among the images of family reunions and school portraits, she found two photos of her younger brother, Randy Samples.

The first shows a little boy with a wide, gap-toothed smile. In the second photo, the smile is gone.

“He looks so serious in this picture,” said Jennifer Cummins, Peggie’s sister.

But the photo that would change the lives of Randy and the Samples family is not in any of the photo albums.

April 12e, 1971, the Minneapolis Tribune published a photo of two Minneapolis police officers dragging an unidentified black boy, by the ankles, down Hennepin Avenue. The small child is on his stomach, his hands scraping the sidewalk, as a crowd on the sidewalk looks on.

The boy was Randy Samples. He was 12 years old.

This 1971 newspaper photo showing police officers dragging a 12-year-old boy down Hennepin Avenue sparked a
historic legal battle between Minneapolis and the state Department of Human Rights.
Courtesy of Pete Hohn/Star Tribune file photo

His arrest became a pivotal moment in the fight for civil rights in Minnesota and resulted in a landmark decision by the state Supreme Court.

Legal experts say it also laid the groundwork for the state to investigate the Minneapolis Police Department more than 50 years later after the murder of George Floyd.

In April, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found that MPD agents engaged in a pattern or practice of racial discrimination. The 72-page report details what investigators say are systemic failures dating back a decade.

But longtime Minneapolis residents say the investigation — and the failings it identified — date back half a century — like Randy Samples.

“I think we haven’t taken a giant leap anywhere,” Carlson said.

The arrest

One Saturday afternoon in 1971, Randy Samples walked down Hennepin Avenue and noticed a large crowd gathering outside Rifle Sport, an amusement arcade.

The Tribune reported at the time that a fight that broke out inside the arcade had spilled onto the street. Peggie says Randy walked around to see what was going on as Minneapolis police released K-9s to break up the group.

“Even though there was a relatively large crowd of mostly white people, the dogs went straight for Randy,” Carlson said.

After being knocked to the ground, the officer dragged Randy nearly 30 feet to their patrol car.

“I remember being concerned about how he was being dragged and hoping his hands were okay,” Cummins said.

When Randy’s parents picked him up from the police station, he told them the officers were using racial epithets, including the N-word, to describe him and the other African Americans in the crowd.

“When I say Randy went to buy a little boy a poster and out came an old man, I think we all got a little older that day,” Carlson said. “I think I’ve become a lot more aware of what’s going on in Minneapolis.”

No Liability

Months after Randy’s arrest, Robert and Mary Jane Samples discovered that the fight for responsibility for their son would be an uphill battle.

In a June 1971 letter to the editor published in the Minneapolis Tribune, Randy’s father wrote that he was unable to file a complaint with the city of Minneapolis.

EXTRA: LETTER TO THE EDITOR BY ROBERT SAMPLES

“There was no accountability,” said LaJune Lange, a retired district court judge.

In the late 1960s, Lange worked in the city’s Civil Rights Department. Part of her job was to investigate complaints against MPD officers, a job she said had enormous power at the time.

“If we decided there was probable cause, we could have a hearing, an investigative hearing, and compel the police officer by subpoena to come and testify,” Lange said.

But that changed in 1969 after Charles Stenvig, a Minneapolis police detective, was elected mayor.

Under Stenvig, police officers were no longer required to attend civil rights hearings, according to Lange.

“My position has been abolished,” she said.

In his letter to the editor, Robert Samples wrote that “the powers of the department had been stripped” by the city council.

The Samples family’s only option was to file a lawsuit with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, sparking a fierce legal battle with the city that would go all the way to the state Supreme Court.

City of Minneapolis vs. Richardson

In March 1974, the state discovered that the officer’s actions and comments toward Randy Samples were motivated by bias because of his race.

Samuel Richardson, the State Department’s human rights commissioner, ordered the city of Minneapolis to apologize for the officers’ conduct, pay $100 in damages to the Samples family and keep a record official record of all complaints against police officers alleging racial discrimination.

The city instead appealed the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, questioning the state’s authority to investigate the police department, arguing that it was overridden.

Jerome Fitzgerald, the assistant city attorney at the time, told the Minneapolis Tribune that the state “does not have the power to tell a municipality how to run its services.”

But in 1976 the High Court ruled that the state had the power to investigate civil servants and public institutions – such as the police – for discriminatory conduct.

The decision also declared, for the first time in Minnesota, that a police officer’s use of the N-word is a form of discrimination based on race.

“The use of the term ‘n*****’ has no place in the civil treatment of a citizen by a public official,” Judge Fallon Kelly wrote in the majority opinion.

Kevin Lindsey, who served as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights from 2011 to 2019, said the Supreme Court’s decision was significant.

“We were really kind of at the beginning of what was discriminatory, what was inappropriate,” Lindsey said. “[The ruling] really established that the Department of Human Rights could deal with issues of importance to marginalized communities.

Model and practice

Today, the state still uses that power to investigate Minneapolis police for discriminatory policing.

Following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, the state human rights department announced it would launch an investigation to determine whether MPD is engaging in a “pattern or practice” of racial discrimination.

The final report, released in April, detailed historic racial disparities in policing. The agency said it found evidence that officers “consistently use racist, misogynistic and disrespectful language” when interacting with the black community.

The findings specifically note that some MPD officers and supervisors use the N-word to describe African Americans — the same word used to describe Randy Samples in 1971.

“I guess a lot of people didn’t get the memo,” Carlson said, referring to the results. “Here we are, many years later, and not much has changed.”

“I think we haven’t taken a giant leap anywhere.”

-Peggie Carlson

5 INVESTIGATES did not receive a response from current and former law enforcement officials in Minneapolis when asked to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision and its impact on what is happening today.

Spike Moss, a longtime Minneapolis resident, said he remembered seeing Randy Samples’ photo and thought nothing had changed.

“Here you are [in] 2022 and everything that happened is still going on,” he said in an interview.

For the Samples sisters, their brother’s photo is a snapshot of the past, but also a warning of the issues and debate that will resurface 50 years later.

“This with George Floyd was not the start,” Carlson said. “It started a long time ago.”

Chronology of samples at the Floyd

April 10, 1971 – Randy Samples, 12, is arrested on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. The child was dragged down the street by two MPD officers and claimed the officers used the N-word to describe him and other black people in the crowd.

April 12, 1971 – The Minneapolis Tribune publishes a photo of an unidentified boy pulled face down, by the ankles, by two Minneapolis police officers.

April 23, 1971 — Samples’ family files a racial discrimination complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

February 21, 1974 — The state concludes that the officers were discriminated against over the samples. The city appealed the verdict.

January 23, 1976 – The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that officers discriminated against Samples because of her race and that the use of the N-word is a form of racial discrimination. The ruling also upheld the state’s power to investigate police departments for discriminatory conduct.

June 1, 2020 — Following the murder of George Floyd, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights is opening an investigation into the Minneapolis police.

April 27, 2022 – The state concludes that there is probable cause that the city of Minneapolis and its police department engaged in a pattern or practice of racial discrimination.