Faced with ongoing criticism over Minneapolis' longtime police civilian review process, the City Council is poised to vote next week on a plan to replace it with a new Community Commission on Police Oversight.
But a number of past leaders of the city's civilian review process, as well as some local activists, say the proposed changes fail to tackle some of the current system's most serious shortcomings involving police misconduct.
"What they are proposing is necessary but underwhelming," said Michael Friedman, who chaired the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority in the early 2000s. "It solves some particular smaller problems and really doesn't address much of the big picture."
Critics complain the new commission doesn't upend the panel structure, in which two sworn police personnel and two civilians weigh complaints, and say that only civilians should sit on such panels. City leaders acknowledge the criticisms, but insist the proposed commission would be an improvement on what they have now.
"We are not saying this is a cure-all," said Alberder Gillespie, director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, whose office developed the proposal. "This is one piece in the puzzle. We know this is much bigger. This is a step in the right direction."
Council President Andrea Jenkins, who will bring forward the proposal Dec. 8, said she's hearing that the changes are a positive step but don't go far enough. "I absolutely think we can take more steps. ... I am willing to look at how to have more community involvement," she said.
The oversight process has been criticized by the state Department of Human Rights, one reason Minneapolis officials have sought to revamp it. Human Rights issued a report this spring saying the city's police officers were "not held accountable because of ineffective accountability and oversight systems."
The current system includes both the Office of Police Conduct Review and the Police Conduct Oversight Commission, which has led to considerable confusion.
The Police Conduct Review office, a division of the Civil Rights Department, works with the police department's Internal Affairs Division on misconduct complaints. They determine whether an investigation is warranted, and which department — Police or Civil Rights — should conduct the probe.
The Conduct Review panel includes at least seven civilians — three appointed by the mayor, four by the council — and 12 sworn police personnel, currently five inspectors and seven commanders. Panels of two police and two civilians from the group meet on a rotating basis to evaluate each complaint investigation.
The panel reviews the complete file and votes on whether the complaint has merit. Its decision is forwarded to the police chief, who decides whether to sanction the officer and what the discipline will be.
Then there's the Conduct Oversight Commission, composed of at least three civilians appointed by the mayor and four civilians by the council — no police. Their task is to review, research and study practices, policies, internal controls and trends in police behavior and make recommendations to city leaders.
One problem, which some city officials acknowledge: Oversight Commission members don't sit on the Complaint Review panels, and thus have less practical information about police trends and misconduct.
The proposal for a new review process would combine both bodies into a single Community Commission on Police Oversight. It would consist of 15 civilian members, 13 appointed by the council and two by the mayor. Review panels with two civilians and two sworn police personnel would remain the same, with the panels forwarding their recommendations to the police chief; state law bars such panels from issuing disciplinary measures themselves.
Mayor Jacob Frey favors the new structure, according to a statement from his office, and Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw, who chairs the council's Public Health and Safety Committee, supports the proposal. "We're not stuck with it forever," she said. "We can always go back and change it."
Combining the review panels and the oversight body into a single body, according to Minneapolis civil rights officials, will give commission members a better understanding of actual police functions and misconduct issues that will help inform its recommendations.
But others say the proposed structure, like the current one, would remain dominated by the police.
"I do have concerns about Minneapolis police officers serving on these panels to evaluate these officers, given the longstanding history of corruption and the blue wall of silence," said civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong, who was co-chair of a workgroup appointed by Frey on police reform and community violence.
Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB), a local activist group, last week called for creation of an entity completely independent of the police and other city agencies. "The Office of Police Conduct Review cannot be salvaged," it said in a statement.
John Sylvester, a paramedic who sits on the Oversight Commission, likes the proposed structure and said it would give commission members access to real-time case data. "I would rather sit on what is being proposed than what was," he said.
But three former Oversight Commission chairs — Abigail Cerra, Cynthia Jackson and Jordan Sparks — expressed skepticism about the proposed structure's effectiveness. Cerra believes the commission should be independent and placed under the city auditor. The proposal, she said, "is tinkering around the edges. I don't think it addresses issues we raised when I was on the commission."
Jackson called the proposal "more busywork to avoid the real work of police reform and accountability while creating the impression that reform is happening." And Sparks said that while the proposal has some good ideas, "I don't think it necessarily solves any of the problems we experienced" — such as a lack of independent authority and rejection of its advice by city leaders.
Friedman, the former review authority chair, said he disagrees with keeping two police and two civilians on a review panel. "If it's a civilian oversight committee, civilians should have all the votes," he said.
Jenkins said a panel of mostly civilians would be helpful. "But I recognize the need and desire for officers to be involved in this process," she said. "They can provide a realistic sense of what is happening and ... the policies and laws."
Jenkins said the city's new police chief, Brian O'Hara, has committed to holding officers accountable. But critics say Minneapolis police chiefs have rarely disciplined officers, even when the review panel found merit in the complaint.
From 2015 to 2021, according to city data, the Office of Police Conduct Review received more than 3,800 complaints. About 4% of the complaints resulted in officers being disciplined.
In that period, nearly half the complaint cases were closed because of lack of jurisdiction or duplicative complaints filed against the same officers. About 80 cases resulted in discipline against 100 officers, mostly in the form of letters of reprimand or suspensions, and about a dozen officers were terminated.
The Oversight Commission has been dormant since spring, lacking a quorum because of members who resigned and haven't been replaced by Frey and the City Council. The CUAPB has filed a document in Hennepin County District Court to force city officials to appoint new commissioners, said Michelle Gross, the group's president.
Rachel Moran, a University of St. Thomas law professor and an expert on police accountability and oversight boards, said putting an equal number of police officers and citizens on the complaint panels weakens the civilian review process.
"Minneapolis has had a variety of different police oversight structures that haven't accomplished very much," Moran said. "I think [the new proposal] is potentially better than what exists, but it is still a weak form of oversight."
Staff writer Jeff Hargarten and staff librarian John Wareham contributed to this story.