For the second year in a row, a police-involved shooting has hijacked summer tranquillity in these Twin Cities. The name Justine Damond, killed by a Minneapolis police officer after calling 911 on July 15, has become as tragically familiar in the past two weeks as the names Philando Castile and Jamar Clark have been for more than a year.
If your conversations about their deaths are like mine, you’ve by now heard someone of long local standing offer a soliloquy about the differences in police culture and control between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
In this tale of Twin Cities, St. Paul is typically cast as the admirable sib. It’s where police officers are closer to the community because many of them grew up there and live there still — as opposed to Minneapolis, where most officers have suburban addresses. It’s where a commitment to diversity has long been evident. St. Paul’s first African-American police chief took office 25 years ago. In Minneapolis, that happened last week.
In St. Paul, it’s said, kids think of a Disney movie, not the cops, when they hear the word “thumper.”
Sorting myth from fact in that comparative narrative isn’t easy. But it’s a timely exercise. The longing in Minneapolis for a police force that citizens can trust to act in accordance with their best values — in other words, a force like the one they’ve heard exists in St. Paul — is now the driving emotion in this year’s city election campaign. Voters are going to hear plenty of politicians talk about improving police performance and culture. Knowing how policing actually differs in these two towns might help voters sort serious proposals from frivolous ones.
In that spirit, I welcomed a suggestion from reader Edmund Levering, a Minneapolis expat and community organizer now living in Colorado. Take a look at the differences in civilian review of complaints about police performance, he urged. A strong civilian review process can do a lot to curb excessive use of force and keep citizens in charge, Levering advised.
If “strong” means independence from police control, St. Paul’s civilian review process is the more muscular. But it is only recently so. Just last December, the City Council eliminated two seats reserved for police officers from the citizen commission that reviews police misconduct complaints. At the same time, the commission was enlarged from seven to nine seats so that it could more fully reflect the diversity of the Capital City’s population.
It was a change long favored by community watchdogs and recommended by a 2015 University of Minnesota audit of the city’s circa-1994 civilian review process. But it might not have happened if a sense had not been building that the city’s reputation for benign policing no longer matched reality. A Star Tribune analysis last year found that of 161 police-involved deaths in Minnesota since 2000, 29 had happened in Minneapolis, 24 in St. Paul. Factor in the larger population in Minneapolis, and St. Paul has a higher police-involved death rate per capita.
City Council Member Dai Thao — now a mayoral candidate — championed the change. He said he was propelled by eroding trust in St. Paul police in his First Ward, which includes highly diverse Frogtown.
“As society changes, we have to be adaptive to the community,” Thao said. “If people don’t trust law enforcement, they won’t trust government in general. We have to do everything we can so our taxpayers can trust us.”
It won’t surprise those who know Minneapolis city government that its civilian oversight process is more complicated. Velma Korbel, director of the city’s Department of Human Rights, called the Minneapolis approach a “hybrid” between citizen and police control of complaint adjudication.
The Minneapolis Office of Police Conduct Review is the latest iteration in a series of civilian review efforts in Minneapolis that began in 1990. It’s attracting positive notice from other cities, according to office director Imani Jaafar. It has unimpeded access to all relevant data and can compel testimony from police officers with a threat of termination if they refuse, Jaafar said. Minneapolis complainants can opt for investigation by either a police internal affairs investigator or a member of the civilian staff. When an investigation is complete, it is reviewed by a team of two police officers and two noncops. Recommendations for disciplinary action go to police administrators, as is the case in St. Paul.
A noninvestigative, civilian-only Police Conduct Oversight Commission also exists to issue reports on complaint outcomes and recommend policy changes. Those recommendations are purely advisory and can be ignored indefinitely.
That’s what happened to a September 2015 report saying police should be required to turn on their body cameras during all law enforcement activities. It took Damond’s unrecorded death to convince City Hall to finally act on the commission’s advice. Andrea Brown, the longtime chair of the oversight commission, told a City Council committee that she was made aware that Mayor Betsy Hodges and acting Police Chief Medaria Arradondo would accept the two-year-old body camera recommendation only 30 minutes before Wednesday’s announcement.
“We are to be the bridge, to bring the community’s voice into this process,” Brown said. It appears to be a bridge that can be easily blocked in City Hall.
That points to a reality about the civilian check on police practices in both Twin Cities. No matter the civilian review processes’ structure, their effectiveness ultimately depends on the willingness of elected officials to take them seriously and make their recommendations stick — and the willingness of voters to hold elected officials accountable if they do not.
St. Paul’s new all-civilian review board may look more independent on paper. But it’s likely to be only as good at bringing community values to bear on policing as the police chief’s boss wants it to be. In both cities, the chief reports to the mayor. In both cities, voters should be asking mayoral candidates how they intend to use the civilian review process to strengthen community control of the cops.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at email@example.com.