Golden Valley human rights commission dismissed

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA
  • Star Tribune
  • December 23, 2011 - 10:02 PM

The Golden Valley City Council has fired its Human Rights Commission after it asked the city to form a task force to help prevent use of unnecessary force by city police officers, leaving the future of the state's oldest such commission up in the air.

The firing followed a November meeting that grew heated when the council reprimanded commission members for their comments about the police.

Volunteers on the commission didn't seem to "recognize the seriousness of the discussion that they had ... and the legal liability that they placed the city in," Mayor Linda Loomis said at the council meeting this week. Council members then voted 4-1 to dismiss the commission and made it clear that they rejected its participants' comments and actions.

City officials justified their actions by saying the group's discussion about police could have defamed employees and violated the state's Data Practices Act.

Council Member Mike Freiberg, who cast the only vote against the commission's removal, said he didn't agree with some of the commissioners' statements, but he didn't think they deserved to be kicked off the commission.

"What I heard was well-meaning citizens acting in a voluntary capacity, attempting to address what they viewed as an important issue, acting in good faith and trying to comply with the laws," he said.

Freiberg said the council's move at its final meeting of the year could validate suspicions of some citizens that the council does not support the commission. "Our last action will be this act of pettiness, the stench of which will waft into the next council," he said.

New commission member Terri Policy had only attended two meetings before the controversy erupted. She said she remembers the commission's discussion as a respectful one, though she now wishes things had been done differently.

"In my opinion, there are unresolved resentments between certain members of the City Council and the commission," she said. "I have a great deal to learn, and I now think I did not do the proper due diligence before agreeing to promote this resolution. But at the same time, I would have expected the City Council to say, 'Let's sit down and talk about this.'"

Residents wanted discussion

Commission Chairwoman Anne Dykstra, who suggested the police resolution, could not be reached for comment. At the November council-commission meeting, she said commissioners raised the issue because residents asked them to.

Since 2008, Golden Valley has settled two police cases, one involving use of a Taser and the other in which a jury determined excessive force had been used and awarded a total of about $1.3 million. In September, a woman with a history of mental illness was shot to death by a city police officer after she was stopped while speeding on Interstate 394 and raised a handgun in the direction of the officer.

At the November meeting, one council member called the commission request for a task force "abhorrent." Officials also said that any discussion of the I-394 shooting, which is still under investigation, opened the city to legal liability. They pointed out that the city's Police Department has a different chief than it did when the incidents linked to the $1.3 million award for damages occurred, and they detailed the training police go through. But commission members said some residents still want greater transparency.

"We raised the issue because of questions from citizens," dismissed commission member Marion Helland told the Star Tribune. She had served on the group for 25 years and earlier this month was recognized at the state level for a lifetime of work in the field.

She said the City Council action only addresses the commission process, not the issue it raised about the police.

The fourth commissioner who was dismissed, Tim Hepner, could not be reached for comment.

The commission voted to seek the task force at its Oct. 13 meeting. The measure asked the council to form a task force to "identify and adopt best practices that prevent the use of unnecessary force by Golden Valley police officers."

Suggested task force members included representatives of the city's Human Rights Commission, the Police Civil Service Commission and Golden Valley churches. Best practices to be determined included how to reinstate police to active duty after they had been judged to have used excessive force and training and psychological services for officers so they could best use the city's "use of force" guidelines.

Golden Valley's action has spurred the interest of Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey, who said he will be seeking more information.

"The Human Rights Commission was asking the City Council to have the city look into an issue," he said. "That seems to me consistent with what human rights commissions do."

Golden Valley's Human Rights Commission was established in 1965 and, according to Helland, is the state's oldest. There are 49 human rights commissions in cities and counties statewide. In October, Crow Wing County abolished its commission.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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