Mpls. police misconduct board is closer to an overhaul

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 2012 - 10:14 PM

Plan to change way Minneapolis handles police complaints has foes.

A Minneapolis City Council committee voted 3 to 1 Wednesday to approve a plan to overhaul a citizens board that investigates police misconduct, an issue that one council member said causes "nightmares" and another said was so difficult that she abstained.

The proposal came despite near total opposition from citizens who addressed the committee, including two civil rights lawyers, members of the soon-to-be-replaced Civilian Review Authority (CRA) and activists who have long agitated against police brutality.

The full council on Sept. 21 will consider the proposal, which would combine police and civilian investigators in a single office that will probe complaints of officer misconduct.

This hybrid plan appears to be unique among major police departments nationwide, according to three nationally recognized experts on police accountability. In interviews, they expressed concern that it reduces citizen involvement in investigations, which they said made it likely that the public will lack confidence in the outcome.

Four members of the CRA board speaking to the council committee urged the council to adopt their proposal, which puts citizens in key positions and reduces police to an advisory role. They complained they had no input in the plan's creation.

Council Members Don Samuels, Barb Johnson and Diane Hofstede voted for the proposal. Cam Gordon voted no, and Betsy Hodges said she was undecided and abstained.

Samuels said "we all know cops who do bad things," which reduce "our sense of trust," but the current CRA was not producing justice. He said members of the old CRA might have achieved a "catharsis" in concluding misconduct occurred, but it resulted in no change. He said the new entity will have citizens and police who must work together to reach decisions.

"These are issues that cause nightmares," Council Member Meg Tuthill said, audibly sighing during Wednesday's meeting. "How do you protect citizens and be fair to officers?" She left the meeting early, giving no indication how she'd vote.

The committee's action follows several years of bad publicity for the Minneapolis police, including several million dollars of payouts in police misconduct cases. Currently, alleged victims of misconduct can complain either to the police internal affairs unit or to civilian investigators overseen by the CRA.

In December, the CRA board said it had no confidence in Police Chief Tim Dolan because he had rejected most of their recommendations to discipline officers.

The new proposal was developed by Minneapolis Civil Rights Director Velma Korbel, police officials working under the direction of Dolan and the city attorney's office.

Under the plan, seven police and two civilian investigators will be assigned to investigate misconduct complaints. Their findings will be evaluated by a panel of two police officers and two civilians. They will issue a joint recommendation to the chief, who makes a decision on discipline. If the four-person panel cannot agree, it will be noted.

In a letter to city officials, Ilona B.R. Rosenzweig, vice president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said the city proposal "will effectively eliminate independent civilian oversight unless it is clear that the staff is predominant civilian."

"It's taking a step backward," said Sam Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the author of two books on police accountability.

Walker said with most of the investigations done by officers, there is an "inherent bias." He said "the police department is reviewing itself, and that is not an independent review."

Michael Browne, the new assistant director of the proposed investigative entity, cited Walker's past writings on citizen involvement in urging the council to adopt the proposal.

Korbel said after the meeting that if the authorities interviewed by the Star Tribune understood the full proposal, they'd embrace it. Explaining the 7-2 ratio of police to civilian investigators, she said the city proposal was for citizen "involvement" rather than "oversight."

Korbel said investigators for the new unit would be selected based on experience, expertise and workload availability.

Merrick Bobb, president and executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, which provides advice to local governments, said he thought the city's proposal was "generally a good one" but endorsed Rosenzweig's position that citizens should be able to select a citizen investigator.

He said seven police and two citizen investigators "stacks the odds" it will be a police inquiry and reduces the confidence a complainant will have faith and confidence in the outcome.

One speaker at Wednesday's meeting urged the council to adopt the plan. John Hoff, who writes the Johnny Northside blog, called it "a good overhaul." "I come as a resident who says thank God for police," he said.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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