When one cop is repeatedly involved in alleged misconduct costing his employer — in this case the city of Minneapolis and its taxpayers — more than $700,000, what should be done about it?
A June 30 Star Tribune story documented the record of officer Lucas Peterson, a 12-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department. His previous involvement with excessive-force complaints has been raised in connection with the investigation of the shooting death of Terrance Franklin in May.
Sources told reporters that Peterson fired the shots that killed Franklin in an Uptown basement where two officers were injured. The Hennepin County attorney’s office is reviewing the case to determine whether police were justified in shooting Franklin, whose death has prompted protests and demands that officials release more information.
Since joining the force in 2000, Peterson has been named in at least 13 excessive-force complaints. So far, settlements in those complaints have cost the city and other agencies more than $700,000, according to city and court records. During the past six years, the city has settled nine claims involving Peterson — more than any other officer during the same time period.
It should also be noted that Peterson was named officer of the year for the Fourth Precinct (which covers the city’s North Side) three times, and that he has twice been awarded the department’s Medal of Valor. Former chief Tim Dolan, who led the department from 2006 to 2012, said Peterson was a “great performer.’’
Even large settlements in court cases should not be viewed as admissions of guilt. Public agencies sometimes agree to settle these kinds of cases to avoid lengthy court cases that can end up costing even more.
Yet when officers are involved in repeated incidents, the public deserves to know what the department is doing to try to prevent future claims.
A majority of cops go through entire careers without being involved in shootings or excessive-force complaints, which makes it even more important for supervisors to determine why some names turn up again and again.
Some police departments have taken steps to do just that. In Phoenix and Los Angeles, for example, police officials do automatic reviews of cases involving individual officers whose work has generated numerous complaints, according to police accountability expert Samuel Walker, a professor, consultant and author of a dozen books on police operations.
Walker believes that police officials must intervene in some way when they see patterns.
“When there are numerous excessive-force claims with big payouts … that should be a gigantic red flag,’’ he said. “Corrective action should be taken.’’
Walker pointed out that the same aggressive qualities that can bring commendations like those won by Peterson can also lead an officer to cross the line when force is deemed necessary.
Intervention can involve anything from counseling to termination. And in cases in which officers have won grievances and cannot be fired, chiefs have the power to reassign. If contact with the public too often results in complaints that hurt the department’s image, a different kind of job might be the best solution.
Police-accountability organizations and experts confirm that most officers know who their “problem’’ colleagues are. They know the small minority among them who have quicker tempers or are more likely to use excessive force. When that kind of behavior costs a city and its taxpayers thousands of dollars, something needs to change.
Minneapolis police officials maintain that the necessary procedures are in place to deal with excessive-force claims, but the problem persists. It is incumbent upon officials to break the patterns of repeated complaints — both to reduce payouts and build better community relations with the citizens they serve.