New names, old pains on Mpls. police review panel

Citizen board that takes complaints against police faces unsure future. Police Chief Tim Dolan and Mayor R.T. Rybak face criticisms as city's police civilian review board says it's being ignored.

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From left, Vernon Wetternach, Austen Zuege, Patrick Kvidera and Mary Pargo discussed the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority’s website during a monthly meeting at City Hall.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Star Tribune

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Its ranks depleted, its investigative staff overwhelmed and its recommendations routinely ignored, the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority entered this year far weaker than what it was once envisioned to be -- a vigorous investigator of complaints against the police.

The city agency's bylaws call for 11 members, but as of Jan. 1 it had just two with unexpired terms. Its one working investigator has open, unresolved complaints stretching back to 2009. The authority has seen so many of its recommendations rejected by Police Chief Tim Dolan -- he dismissed all but 17 of the 129 cases the authority recommended for action -- that its departing board chairman questions why the 20-year-old authority continues to hear cases.

"I can certainly understand why a lot of complainants who come to the CRA walk away with frustration," said Austin Zuege, another authority board member who's stepping down.

That could be about to change. Or not. A fresh slate of eight new members has been named and will soon take up positions on the panel. And a months-in-the-making plan to reinvigorate the authority will be unveiled this month, according to Velma Korbel, director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department.

Korbel, despite criticisms of the board, said she wouldn't call the current situation a problem.

"We do occasionally look at the process to make it more efficient, more responsive to the customer," she said.

She refused to discuss specifics of the upcoming changes, as did the staff of Mayor R.T. Rybak, who released this statement: "We as a city are committed to strong oversight of police officer conduct, with meaningful civilian involvement when there are serious allegations of misconduct. The Civil Rights Department, the City Attorney and the Police Department are collaborating on business improvements to ensure that the oversight system is thorough and accountable, as well as to help make it more efficient, which will serve everyone in Minneapolis better."

The turmoil at the authority comes at a time when payouts for police misconduct allegations reached $4.7 million last year, second-highest total on record. Still, the chief defended his record on police discipline, saying it speaks for itself.

"I believe discipline needs to be fair," said Dolan. "I've always tried to do that even though my record would show that I've been the sternest chief since the CRA has been around."

Changes coming

Over police opposition, the City Council in 1990 created the Civilian Police Review Authority (commonly referred to as the CRA) after several incidents of questionable police conduct, including a 1989 North Side drug raid in which a police stun grenade ignited a fire that killed an elderly couple.

The authority provided an alternative for those who had complaints of police misconduct but didn't trust the department's internal investigators to handle the complaint fairly. Almost from the beginning, however, its effectiveness was called into question because it lacked subpoena power, a sufficient number of investigators and was prohibited from revealing much of its work to the public.

A report commissioned by the city's civil rights director in 2006 found that citizen monitoring had been "completely nullified" by the police department, which sent CRA reports to its internal affairs unit for more work.

The authority's functions have been revisited over the years, most recently in 2006, when a City Hall task force recommended forcing the police chief to abide by its disciplinary recommendations. The City Council never took up the proposal, however, and ultimate discretion on disciplinary matters remained with the chief.

Still, when the council appointed Dolan as chief in 2006, it mandated that he work toward imposing discipline whenever the CRA recommended it and do better than his predecessor, Bill McManus. In his first year, Dolan issued discipline in half the recommended cases. But by 2008, he imposed discipline in none of the five cases where the CRA recommended it.

Last year, the authority issued a harsh critique of Dolan's record on discipline: "The MPD under Chief Dolan has not made discipline of officer misconduct a priority, and the CRA Board has no confidence that Chief Dolan and the MPD command staff will issue discipline on sustained allegations of misconduct going forward." It was signed by the six remaining members of the CRA board.

Dolan's viewpoint

In his defense, Dolan argued that the general trend within the department has been toward more transparency and fewer complaints, thanks to the conduct of the officers, the proliferation of squad-car cameras and changes to use-of-force tactics.

"Right now is the first time in my memory that we don't have huge tensions with some community out there," he said. "That says a lot."

Kenneth Brown, 2008-09 chairman of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, says Dolan does not believe in citizen scrutiny of police. He says Rybak is partly to blame for failing to appoint enough board members.

"The police chief and the mayor don't believe they have to be accountable to the citizens of this city who are put in office," Brown said.

The CRA has two investigators, one of whom is on leave. Last year the board also hired a part-time investigator to vet incoming complaints. Don Bellfield, outgoing board chairman, would prefer four investigators.

Some cases languish for years. The CRA is still reviewing cases from 2009, and Korbel acknowledges, "I don't know that anyone would be satisfied with that amount of time."

The board, which divides into sub-panels of three to conduct hearings on cases, is also understaffed. While it should have 11 members, there are only six board members listed on its website, four of whom had their terms expire at the end of 2011. They remain on the board until new appointments are made.

Eight people have been named to fill some of the empty seats on the board. One of them is Lorna Pettis, who said she didn't know much about the history of the authority. She said she's had mixed experiences with Minneapolis police. She praised them for a murder investigation last year that involved a relative, but she criticized two officers who refused to follow up after several people barged into her stepdaughter's house and punched her.

"There are quite a few good police officers," she said. "There are some bad."

mckinney@startribune.com • 612-673-7329 rfurst@startribune.com • 612-673-4224

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