Recent controversies concerning Minneapolis police acting with racial hostility reflect a problem that the Star Tribune accurately noted has existed for “decades.”
As someone who has had access to private data regarding complaints against police and serves as director of a legal organization founded decades ago because of police violence against blacks and American Indians, I offer the following ideas:
1. Safety for whistleblowers
How can police officers safely report colleagues’ problem behavior, and be given incentives to do so? I’ve had conversations with demoralized officers who felt that the department discourages complaints and fosters the infamous blue wall of silence. Whether objectively true or not, this perception is decisive if officers do not believe the benefits of bringing a complaint outweigh the potential costs. (Interestingly, the officers causing trouble in Green Bay seemed to assume the wall of silence would extend to every police department.)
In other fields requiring significant public trust — doctors and lawyers, say — reporting unethical or incompetent conduct is not viewed as disloyal. Even if those professions may sometimes be more tolerant of a colleague’s actions than the general public would like, doctors and lawyers operate under the general presumption that their own professional standing is enhanced when the unfit are reformed or removed.
Perhaps the state needs a pathway through its licensing board for officers to lodge ethics complaints about colleagues safe from departmental politics. Perhaps this pathway should also be open to those who work with police statements made under oath, such as attorneys and judges?
2. Zero tolerance for lying
Excessive force by police gets the most public attention. But it can represent an impulsive mistake that is not necessarily a sign of unfitness for duty or consistently poor ethics. But lying in a police report is such a sign and, when widely tolerated, contributes to the air of corruption and sense of immunity that appears to be a problem in Minneapolis.
3. Restorative practices for police
There is growing evidence that restorative practices in criminal justice provide more transformative effect on offenders than punishment. Officers need a safe means for acknowledging mistakes or misdeeds and coming to understand the effect it has had on others, so as to truly improve from the experience. Except when the corruption inherent in untruthfulness is present, the goal must not be punishment, but transformation and true understanding.
4. Revise data practices
The Minneapolis Police Department is currently having a public relations crisis, which is an embarrassment to its management and to city officials. It is no accident that the headlines came from outside of Minneapolis, where the city is powerless to impose information control.
Our data practices law gives an incentive to a police department to take no action against officers who commit misconduct. That’s because doing nothing keeps all the facts away from the public. State data law reads that only disciplinary actions against officers allow complaint files to become public information.
In my years of police review work, I came across several cases worthy of front page coverage; police management chose to do nothing so as to prevent embarrassing public disclosure.
Do any of the officers involved in the recent controversies have a track record that should have been dealt with by police management in the past? Sorry, I’m not allowed to tell you.
5. Stop subsidizing bad risks
Typically, when professional liability insurance is required, a private insurer that bears the risk accesses public and private information regarding any past problems or allegations and bases its price on the likelihood of paying a claim. (No different than how automobile insurance works.)
In Minneapolis, taxpayers serve as the insurer, with handcuffs on, unable to make use of true risk assessment but liable for the damages all the same. If the city cannot build risk assessment into its compensation practices, it needs to privatize its risk and use collective bargaining to determine standard individual insurance rates. Above that standard, a high-risk officer would have to personally pay the difference in the policy cost.
6. Police for America?
The teaching profession — and, by extension, its unions — has recently been put under the microscope due to disparate outcomes for minorities. While it is not my place to offer an opinion about that, I do believe that a debate is healthy when it shines light on the ultimate outcomes sought. Have police provided service to minorities that is fundamentally just and equal? Can we find some structural alternatives or hire police through nontraditional pathways? Let the debate begin.
7. Make police-community relations a two-way street
At a Minnesota Department of Public Safety police leadership conference several years back, I happened to see a presentation by Chief William McManus of Minneapolis, then newly installed. He had a fantastic reputation for working with the community. His presentation, however, revealed only the ways that police get their message out to culturally diverse communities. There was nothing about how they receive information or insights from those communities. The attitude is pervasive within policing, and suggests the need for a public commission with direct oversight of a police chief.
8. Policies and priorities established by neighborhoods most affected by crime
This last idea applies far beyond Minneapolis. Too often, criminal justice policies tend to emerge out of the genuine or exploited fear of those who are not necessarily impacted by crime, and who are not living in high-crime areas. It is not the inner cities that are demanding to “stand their ground,” or who want longer sentences for drug offenders. The “two-way street” referred to above must prioritize those streets most directly affected by police practices and policies, not external constituencies.
Michael Friedman was chair of the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority from 2003-2005 and since 2006 has been executive director of the Legal Rights Center.