The data from the St. Paul Police Community Feedback database (“Survey alleges cop misconduct,” July 7) reinforces our concern that a significant number of St. Paul community members have been denied the opportunity to have their complaints about St. Paul police reviewed by the St. Paul Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission (PCIARC). It also supports our concern that the Police Department has not been providing the commission with a full accounting of all complaints received, as noted in the commission’s strategic plan as well as in various meetings with the department and the mayor’s office.
The feedback database contained 187 negative comments about the Police Department, submitted via an online survey between Sept. 28, 2017, and June 20, 2019. Well more than half (101) of those comments contained allegations about specific negative encounters with St. Paul police officers. More than two-thirds of those specific negative encounters contained complaint allegations that would fall under the purview of the PCIARC.
In all the negative comments, the most common theme is distress at officers’ alleged failures to do their jobs. Examples include repeated failure to return community members’ messages and refusals or expressed reluctance to investigate and/or write reports.
Another common allegation is that officers were rude, disinterested, unhelpful or unsympathetic. There are also a number of allegations concerning harassment, such as racial profiling or misogyny, as well as complaints alleging excessive force and inappropriate use of firearms.
Community members who visited the feedback page left their names and contact information in just under half of the complaint allegations that would fall under the civilian review commission’s purview. This suggests that many community members view the feedback comments as equivalent to filing a complaint.
Community members commonly understand “complaint” to mean telling an official of their concern regarding an alleged negative police interaction. In contrast, the Police Department uses the technical legal definition for what constitutes a complaint, including Minnesota’s requirement that complaints must be signed by the complainant. But the department does not explain this difference in definition, and even though community members may include names and contact information, it does not count their survey responses as complaints.
There is nothing on the Community Feedback web page that explains to members of the public that their responses may not be considered formal complaints against St. Paul police officers. There is also no link to the civilian review commission’s complaint form. Further, the department fails to offer community members a plain-language explanation of the difference in consequences between answering the community feedback survey and filing a formal complaint. The department’s current practices are serious, unnecessary obstacles to community members making fully informed choices about having their policing concerns addressed.
We would suggest that:
1) The Police Department should place a plain-language disclaimer on its Community Feedback website letting community members know that their response may not be investigated or responded to as a formal complaint and redirecting them to the PCIARC complaint form if they wish to file a formal complaint. This should include a plain-language explanation of the different consequences of each option.
2) The department should share access to the feedback database with PCIARC members and the city’s Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Department, which supports the PCIARC. This will enable the director of that department to refer concerns for investigation and enable the review commission to better examine data on complaints received, including consideration of policy recommendations.
3) The Police Department should track what, if any, follow-up it does for each negative comment in the feedback database.
4) The department should ask for voluntary information concerning complainants’ race and ethnicity. This is in keeping with the 2001 NAACP Agreement with the department, which resulted in the formation of the PCIARC.
5) The City Council should amend the PCIARC ordinance so that the commission is assured of being referred all use-of-force incidents resulting in personal injury or property damage (not solely investigations initiated by civilian complaints). This practice is also in keeping with the spirit of the NAACP Agreement and the ordinance.
Constance Tuck is former chair and Rachel Sullivan-Nightengale is former vice chair of the St. Paul Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission.