Credibility is at stake when cops investigate cops

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 29, 2013 - 4:56 PM

Minneapolis plan to use BCA for internal cases deserves support.

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Minneapolis police chief Janeé Harteau

Photo: BRIAN PETERSON , Star Tribune

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Earlier this month, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau announced a plan to have the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension handle high-profile investigations of her department. The smart idea is to build public confidence in the department by having an outside agency take on such cases.

But just after the Dec. 18 announcement, Gov. Mark Dayton and Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman, who supervises the BCA, shot back that Harteau had been premature in announcing the plan. Though they agreed that external reviews made sense, Dayton and Dohman said they were caught “unaware’’ that a MPD-BCA agreement had been struck.

Harteau said that she’d talked with the commissioner last summer and that officers from both agencies had met several times since then to discuss it — most recently on Dec. 13.

The dust-up about timing — over who knew what and when — should not distract from the main point. Although there apparently was a breakdown in communication between the agencies, they appear to agree that it should be done. That should be the focus now. As Mayor R.T. Rybak said in defending the plan, once the “miscommunication” is cleared up, the MPD should call on the BCA to handle investigations of cops who seriously hurt or kill people while on duty.

But there is opposition from a predictable constituency. In a Dec. 26 commentary on these pages, Minneapolis police union president John Delmonico opposed the external reviews. He argued that Minneapolis has the most-qualified investigators — and that the chief’s plan indicates that she has no confidence in her own officers.

We disagree. Harteau praises her investigators and recognizes their competence. In the e-mail to her staff about the plan, she wrote, “ I have the utmost confidence in the response and actions of our officers. I also have full confidence in the ability of our investigators to conduct thorough, constitutional and impartial investigations, regardless of who is involved.

‘‘Unfortunately, the general public does not share this view, and they do not understand how it is not a conflict of interest. I will not put involved officers and their families under unwarranted scrutiny simply because we choose to investigate our own.’’

Farming out a few of the most controversial investigations each year would not shut down Internal Affairs or cause officers there to lose their jobs. Minneapolis officers would continue to handle the majority of internal complaints.

But no matter how good those cops are at their jobs, it is understandably difficult for the public to accept that they can always be fair and impartial about policing their own.

Historically, community members have complained about how some cases were handled, especially when police action caused a death or serious injury. A decade ago, former Chief Robert Olson asked Hennepin County to review some controversial cases. But that practice ended in 2003, when then-Chief Bill McManus brought all investigations back in house.

Using the BCA would bring the department in line with best practices for critical incident reviews. Many other Minnesota law enforcement agencies send similar cases to the BCA.

As part of her overall goal to change the department’s culture and public image, Harteau has made the right call on this issue. Independent investigations of police actions in some high-profile cases will help build confidence in the department. And that stronger trust will in turn help cops do their jobs more effectively.

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  • Dohman

  • TWO VIEWS

    “Everyone, the public and police, is served when, in highly charged critical incidents, there is an independent eye that gives the assurance we did everything to get to the truth. That protects the public, but also police, who too often get falsely accused and can get cleared better if people know they are cleared by more than their peers.”

    Minneapolis Mayor R.T. RYBAK

    • • •

    “[T]he public should be wary of any policy change made for the purpose of “restoring public trust” in the police. Because the underlying message … is that police cannot be trusted unless the change is implemented, such claims actually do more to undermine the public trust than … to ‘restore’ it.’’

    JOHN DELMONICO, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, in a Dec. 26 Star Tribune commentary

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