Every year, Minneapolis residents watch and wonder as the city pays out large settlements in alleged police misconduct cases. Taxpayers deserve to know more about the settlements and about what, if anything, is being done to prevent similar incidents.
According to a recent Star Tribune story, the city paid nearly $14 million in settlements between 2006 and 2012 in connection with cases of alleged police misconduct. Of the 95 payouts (ranging in cost from a low of $150 to a high of $4.5 million), only eight resulted in disciplinary action.
In those cases, five officers received reprimands, one got a last-chance warning and three were fired. But the 12 costliest payouts did not result in a reprimand or discipline. There were 15 payouts for incidents involving officers who were never publicly identified, but city records did not show any discipline for incidents that occurred on the same dates, according to city data analyzed by Star Tribune reporters.
That’s a disconnect that demands more explanation from the police administration. The allegations that led to settlements included excessive force that caused death or injury; property damage, and the use of racial slurs. If they were serious enough to lead to five- to seven-figure settlements, why are more of those responsible not held accountable in some concrete way?
Granted, not every settlement involves clear wrongdoing by cops. In some cases, city attorneys may have agreed to settlements to avoid expensive, lengthy trials. In addition, settlements allow both sides to walk away without any admission of guilt.
The rub is that police officers are public servants who rely on the faith and cooperation of citizens to be effective. When leaders fail to take disciplinary action, it erodes public confidence in the department’s ability to police itself.
In their defense, the Minneapolis city attorney and department officials say that they win the majority of cases that go to trial. Decisions on discipline and settlements are made separately, they say, and the administration does not shy away from discipline for fear of liability.
In a statement, Police Chief Janeé Harteau said, “Although there were 110 cases over the past seven years, our officers interact with more than a million citizens every year. I am unable to explain the details and rationale behind every past case, but I can assure you we vigorously look at each individual one for any policy, training and/or discipline needs.’’
If that’s the case — and if Harteau is successful improving the department’s culture — taxpayers should expect to see fewer costly misconduct cases in the future.
Most big-city police departments deal with some level of police misconduct. But a small number of those departments have found ways to analyze information gathered from lawsuits and settlements and use it for personnel and policy lessons.
For example, officials in Los Angeles County now require the sheriff’s department to submit a corrective action plan for every case with a payout of more than $20,000. And in Baltimore, certain settlements cannot be finalized until some corrective action has been taken or scheduled.
The MPD has a long history of problems with community relations and use of excessive force. Local attorneys who have successfully sued the department for misconduct say wayward officers too seldom are disciplined. The now defunct Civilian Review Authority wrote in a 2010 report that the “lack of discipline in the MPD fosters a culture of impunity which will likely lead to further cash payouts related to police misconduct …’’
Given that reputation — and the staggering scope of the most recent settlements — the MPD should be more transparent about how misconduct allegations are handled and about what’s being done to prevent them.