Citizen review panels were developed to improve public confidence in how allegations of police misconduct were handled. Across the nation, civilians needed a place to lodge complaints and be treated fairly.
Minneapolis leaders are considering a proposal that would replace the city's Civilian Review Authority (CRA) with a combined police/citizen group. As it stands, the plan goes too far in reducing civilian influence -- defeating one purpose of citizen review.
Though there have been some improvements, Minneapolis has a history of troubled police-community relations. Over the years, the city has paid millions of dollars in settlements over complaints about police behavior. That's among the reasons why City Council members should make sure that any change maintains adequate civilian influence.
Currently, anyone with a complaint against police can take the concern to the CRA or to the department's internal-affairs unit. If the CRA decides to pursue a complaint, it takes testimony and can assign the case to a civilian investigator. Then the body can make recommendations to the police chief. Last year, the citizen group received just more than 350 complaints and heard about 20 percent of them.
However, under the new proposal, prepared by civil-rights department staff, the review panel and internal affairs would essentially merge under a new Office of Police Conduct. Together, the units would jointly process complaints and determine whether police or independent investigators should handle them. Currently there are two civilian and seven police officer investigators for CRA. All allegations of criminal misconduct would be handled by internal affairs.
A panel of two sworn officers and two citizens would review the investigative report and make recommendations to the chief for discipline or other action. The civil-rights director, a city employee, could make the decision in the event of a tie.
The change was proposed to secure more police buy-in and presumably make the process more effective. But if the review group is heavily tilted toward officers, it could lose credibility with the community. In addition, complainants may be less likely to come forward if they have to present their concerns to a police officer and have it investigated by police.
Another part of the staff proposal would eliminate the residency requirement for review panel members. Currently CRA members must live in Minneapolis. Changing that would also create a credibility problem with citizens; they want their fellow residents to hear their complaints.
In response to the staff proposal, the current CRA developed its own reorganization plan that strikes a better compromise. The review panel would include three citizens and one nonvoting police officer; recommendations would go to the chief, but the chief's decision could be appealed to the mayor. The CRA plan would also retain a residency requirement.
At least a couple City Council members have expressed concerns about the recommended changes. "This is a big step backwards. We've made some progress [on police-community relations] because of the CRA, and I'm worried that this would be a setback,'' said Council Member Cam Gordon.
City leaders should support an independent group of citizens to review allegations of police misconduct, not turn the group into an extension of police internal affairs.
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