Minnesota’s top police licensing authority is reviewing its standards of conduct for sworn officers and will consider expanding the list of crimes that trigger review for potential discipline.
The head of the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board said Friday the review was prompted by a Star Tribune series, “Shielded by the Badge,” which found that several hundred Minnesota officers have been convicted of serious offenses in the past two decades without ever facing discipline by the board.
POST Board Executive Director Nathan Gove said Friday he thinks there is “potential for some change,” and that the organization’s standards committee is in the early stages of examining the rules on behavior.
“We’re really going to see if we can’t push the board to say maybe we should at least plug some holes,” Gove said.
The move was applauded by state Sen. Ron Latz and state Rep. JoAnn Ward, two DFLers on the public safety committees with jurisdiction over the board. Both Latz and Ward urged consideration of broader changes. Gove said he wants the standards review done before the end of the year.
An independent state regulatory body, the POST Board sets and enforces the standards of conduct for the more than 10,000 law enforcement officers in Minnesota. But the list of crimes it deems grounds for sanctions is narrow, relies heavily on criminal convictions and has not been revised since 1995. That’s partly because the POST Board focuses on training and education and largely leaves discipline to employers — local chiefs and sheriffs — to handle.
The Star Tribune’s reporting showed that more than 500 officers have been convicted of serious crimes in Minnesota since 1995, but only a fraction ever faced discipline by the board.
More than 140 are still on the job after being convicted of offenses such as drunken driving, disorderly conduct, misdemeanor assault, trespassing, making harassing phone calls and reckless discharge of a firearm.
Most of the convictions appear to have been for off-duty behavior; officers are rarely prosecuted for misconduct on the job.
Disorderly conduct and fifth-degree misdemeanor assault are examples of two crimes that do not trigger a discipline review by the licensing board. It’s possible those two offenses could be placed on the list of behavior that is grounds for action, Gove said.
Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening, an 11-year POST Board member who heads the standards committee, said the panel met last week and that assault and disorderly conduct “are the two that stood out” in discussions. Wilkening said he thought adding fifth-degree assault convictions could help address the board’s current lack of standards addressing cases of officer-involved domestic violence.
The seven-member committee has two more meetings scheduled, Wilkening said. It will bring any recommendations to the board for a vote. Any changes will then head to the Legislature, Gove said.
Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park and ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, called the standards review “healthy.”
“Given what we know now, it’s important to do this,” Latz said. “I think it will be helpful for us also to consider comparison with other states and … whether we can do it better here than we are now.”
That was seconded by Ward, a Woodbury DFLer who serves on the House public safety committee. Ward said she thinks the POST Board needs “fairly broad” change and should learn from other states such as Oregon, whose more aggressive police licensing regimen, considered a national model, was featured in the Star Tribune series.
Ward called the POST Board’s standards review “a start” and said more diverse voices need to be involved. She called the newspaper’s findings “outrageous,” but said she considers the regulatory lapses to be unintentional.
“No one was maliciously protecting officers or making these decisions with intent to harm,” Ward said. “It [the POST Board] got stuck in a different time period without the authority or will to look at it.”
Last spring, Ward introduced legislation that would require mandatory, detailed reporting of all police job discipline to the POST Board so that the regulator can build a centralized tracking system for all misconduct — whether or not it is prosecuted. She plans to reintroduce the bill in January when the Legislature reconvenes.
With Republicans in control of the Legislature, any significant change is expected to encounter resistance.
State Rep. Tony Cornish, a retired police chief who is the Republican chairman of the House public safety committee, said he won’t automatically approve POST Board requests.
“I would have to consult with the chiefs, the sheriffs, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and other law enforcement coalitions to see what they thought,” Cornish said.
Cornish added that some community groups have told him it is already so difficult to become a police officer in Minnesota that minority recruitment is suffering. People in the military and public safety probably have more run-ins with the law, he said, because they deal with so much tension on the job.