Of 439 cases involving Minneapolis police misconduct handled by a new office created last fall, not one so far has resulted in discipline of a police officer.
Police department officials say those numbers obscure gains made in responding to citizen complaints about police behavior, but skeptics say the few cases of actual discipline confirm that the new system is not working any better than the one it replaced.
“I believe there has been considerable progress,” said Medaria Arradondo, commander of police internal affairs, who reviews complaints along with Michael Browne, director of the new conduct review office.
“The criticism was that it would not improve process and lead to less discipline,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. “The numbers show that those criticisms were accurate.”
The question of how Minneapolis police disciplines its own is facing fresh scrutiny after several recent incidents involving Minneapolis police officers. Two of the incidents involved off-duty officers accused of fighting with black men and using racial slurs in Green Bay, Wis., and Apple Valley, and led Police Chief Janeé Harteau to convene a citizens advisory group this summer.
In addition, the city of Minneapolis made $14 million in payouts for alleged police misconduct between 2006 and 2012, but the Minneapolis Police Department rarely concluded that the officers involved in those cases did anything wrong, according to a Star Tribune analysis.
In the past, complaints against police could be lodged with the Police Civilian Review Authority (CRA). The CRA board had criticized then-Police Chief Tim Dolan for failing to impose discipline it had recommended. The CRA was dismantled in 2012 and replaced with the Office of Police Conduct Review by the Minneapolis City Council.
Under the new system Arradondo and Browne reviewed 439 cases and sent 17 of them to a conduct review panel to see if discipline was warranted. A big group of cases was dismissed because they were older than 270 days.
All 17 cases that were forwarded involved incidents initially reported to the old CRA.
The new review panel, consisting of two police lieutenants and two citizens appointed by the City Council, decided seven of the 17 cases merited possible discipline and forwarded its findings to Harteau.
Assistant Chief Matt Clark concluded that five of the seven were “nondisciplinary violations” and only eligible for coaching. That left two for Harteau for possible discipline. She has yet to rule on them.
Harteau is on vacation and unavailable, her office said.
Arradondo said he was barred by the state Data Practices Act from giving details of the five cases that Clark found were not subject to discipline.
99 cases sent for coaching
Both Arradondo and Browne say it’s too early to judge the new office, which consists of two civilian investigators and seven investigators who are police officers. A complainant can request a civilian investigator.
Browne said the office had taken big steps in clearing the backlog of CRA cases.
He said a major change is that the office sent 99 complaints involving minor violations to the precincts, where supervisors coach officers to improve their interactions with the public.
Arradondo said the complaint process has been streamlined but said, “we still have a lot of work to do to improve upon, both in the areas of building public confidence in the process and infrastructure in terms of staffing.”
Indeed, the lack of discipline resulting from the 439 cases has raised eyebrows.
“It certainly would raise red flags about the objectivity of the office,” said Brian Buchner, vice president of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. “People should be asking questions and the council should be asking questions about whether it’s effective … Any time you have as significant a revamping as has been done in Minneapolis, the decisionmakers have an obligation to evaluate the impact.”
While he does not dismiss the role of discipline, Browne said the focus on coaching officers is designed to change police culture. Among the complaints referred for coaching are accusations that officers were rude, he said.
Browne said he wants officers to think about “garnering respect of the community, not because of the discipline, but what is best for society. … If you only use the hammer you aren’t using all the tools in the toolbox to effect the change.”
Slurs against a protected class, be it race, gender or sexual orientation, are not minor violations and are subject to discipline.
Samuel Walker, professor emeritus at the University Nebraska Omaha and author of two books on police accountability, said coaching “has a lot of merit to it.”
But he said it was “troubling” there had been no discipline. “I am disturbed about that and that it is a police-dominated process with citizen input.”
Both Walker and the Minnesota ACLU’s Nelson endorsed Buchner’s call for an independent review of the new office.
Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist, said the data show that cases get “filtered” out before reaching Harteau. “I don’t think citizens are getting much for their dollar,” he said.
Another layer of oversight is coming. A new Police Conduct Oversight Commission consisting of seven civilians appointed by the mayor and City Council will routinely audit the way complaints are handled. “With input from the commission, the process will continue to be evaluated for effectiveness and additional changes will be proposed to the mayor and City Council when warranted,” according to the city’s website.
The Internal Affairs Unit investigates other complaints that do not go through the conduct review office. In 2012, 29 officers were sent to supervisors for coaching, 11 got reprimand letters, four were suspended and three were terminated.
In 2013, only 25 cases, aside from the police oversight unit, were investigated by Internal Affairs, leading to one reprimand letter and one suspension, Arradondo said. He attributed the smaller number of cases to coaching.
None of the cases filed since the oversight office opened has gone to the review panel. In September four more citizens will be added to the panel after a City Council hearing.
“We’re still putting in elements,” said Browne, who said cases now move more swiftly and can be tracked far better. “Next year we will have comparative data and we can look at different trends,” he said.