Minneapolis police leaders used a secretive process to handle serious officer misconduct cases while keeping the details confidential, despite repeated claims to the contrary.

In public meetings and statements to media, police and city officials long claimed they use coaching, a form of one-on-one mentoring, in response only to the lowest-level policy violations, like uniform infractions or not wearing a seatbelt. But new court documents reveal that some of the misconduct quietly coached in recent years is more severe.

Three officers mishandled their service weapons, one of whom fired a round into the wall of a precinct.

Another failed to report a colleague's use of force, which resulted in injury to an individual in their custody.

And another, who has since been promoted, let a police K-9 off leash, allowing the dog to attack a civilian.

All were coached, the documents say, meaning all records of the misconduct were shielded from public view.

The Minneapolis Police Department has used coaching more than any other means of dealing with police complaints over the past decade. Attorneys for the city say this gentler form of corrective action doesn't amount to real discipline, and they don't have to disclose any records to the public under Minnesota law. Critics have for years contended that the lack of transparency amounts to a rhetorical loophole the police department uses to keep bad behavior hidden.

Last year, in charging Minneapolis with a pattern of discriminatory policing, the U.S. Department of Justice criticized coaching as part of the city's "fundamentally flawed" accountability system. Only one in four cases referred for coaching through a city oversight office ended up being coached, the charges say, and some allegations were "far from 'low-level,'" including an officer who "smacked, kicked, and used a taser on a teen accused of shoplifting."

The new court filings, made public as part of a government watchdog's lawsuit, offer the fullest window yet into the police department's convoluted coaching process. The records include nine examples of MPD using coaching to handle more serious misconduct than what the city officials have publicly claimed. They also show how city leaders have misrepresented this process in public meetings in the wake of George Floyd's murder, even as they sought to mend fractured trust.

In May 2021, a group of top police officials and city leaders gave a presentation on coaching to the Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC), a volunteer board created by the city to make recommendations on police policy. Members of the commission pressed the officials on whether secrecy around coaching allowed former officer Derek Chauvin to work for nearly two decades unencumbered by serious excessive-force complaints.

Then-Deputy Police Chief Amelia Huffman said she couldn't speak directly to Chauvin's case, but that coaching is reserved only for the lowest-level violations, such as problems in writing a report.

Video (00:47) In the wake of George Floyd's murder, a police oversight commission pressed department leaders on whether coaching hides serious misconduct.

"So … something like excessive force would not be eligible for coaching?" asked Commissioner Abigail Cerra.

"Yes, that's correct," replied Huffman.

But it wasn't correct.

When a lawyer pressed Huffman about this exchange in a deposition last fall, Huffman acknowledged the Minneapolis Police chief can, in fact, institute coaching for excessive force — or any other violation on the discipline matrix.

The Chief could technically coach a police officer for murder "to the extent it was a policy violation," then-Deputy Chief Troy Schoenberger said in a separate deposition this February.

'As discipline ... you will receive coaching'

These revelations were made public in connection to a lawsuit filed by the Minnesota Coalition On Government Information (MNCOGI), an all-volunteer organization made up of current and former journalists, attorneys, librarians and others interested in government transparency.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2021, alleges Minneapolis willfully misinterprets Minnesota public records laws by labeling coaching documents as private data. This practice has promoted a culture of secrecy, allowing the Minneapolis Police Department to operate without accountability to the people it serves, according to the civil complaint.

"We're not telling the city it has to stop coaching officers," said attorney Leita Walker. "What we are saying is that if it looks like discipline and quacks like discipline — and if it's for serious misconduct — then it's discipline and it's public. It doesn't matter what made-up word the city uses to describe it."

Walker and Isabella Salomão Nascimento, of Ballard Spahr, and the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union are representing MNCOGI. Walker has also represented several local media organizations, including the Star Tribune, in cases related to public records and the First Amendment.

The Minneapolis City Attorney's Office filed its own brief Wednesday evening asking Hennepin County District Judge Karen Janisch to dismiss the lawsuit.

The city argues MNCOGI has wrongfully tried to "make this case about police accountability," when the legal argument comes down to a narrow question about whether coaching documents are discipline and public data. The motion says coaching is intended to be "supportive," and not "punitive," and the city has been consistent in its position for many years.

"This case is about whether data on coaching is private personnel data," City Attorney Kristyn Anderson said in a statement. "If it is private personnel data, and we believe it is, then the City is not legally permitted under State law to provide public access to it."

The documents, including hours of on-the-record deposition transcripts of eight city employees, still leave open questions. But they offer many striking details, including:

♦ Coaching looks a lot like discipline. The paperwork is virtually identical to a letter of reprimand, which the city recognizes as discipline. Some coaching letters from the police chief explicitly say to officers, "As discipline for this incident, you will receive coaching."

♦ Coaching is sometimes offered as an alternative to formal discipline. In one case, former Lt. Bob Kroll called a group of coworkers the "lesbian Mafia." He was given the option of a coaching session with the chief or formal discipline, the latter he could fight through the grievance process.

♦ Officers often feel that coaching is a disciplinary action, because it can feel like punishment. One officer even described being "strong armed" into coaching. The federation has and continues to grieve B-level coaching administered by the chief.

♦ When MNCOGI filed a data request for coaching documents, a city clerk summarily closed their request within three minutes — without bothering to identify, redact or disclose relevant records, even though dozens were considered public under the city's definition.

The city's brief acknowledges that the chief uses coaching for more serious "B-Level" violations, but "it only happened 13 times" over a 10-year period and never for the most egregious levels of misconduct.

Former Chiefs Janeé Harteau and Medaria Arradondo mistakenly referred to coaching as discipline in the notification letters, and they did not believe it to be punishment, according to the legal brief.

'Coaching ... will not go away'

Leading up to the May 2021 PCOC meeting, the issue of coaching was becoming a problem.

As Chauvin headed to trial for murder, court records showed he'd been the subject of at least 15 misconduct complaints, and the city labeled all but one as "private data," meaning Chauvin was either coached or the complaints were dropped without discipline. Some incidents of excessive force were caught on video: In one case, which years later led to a federal charge and conviction, Chauvin choked and knelt on a handcuffed 14-year-old's neck.

In August 2020, Abigail Cerra, a former public defender who had also worked for Minneapolis as a civil rights investigator, introduced a measure in the PCOC to ask the city attorney to reclassify coaching documents as public data. Cerra said at the time that Minneapolis seemed to be violating its own policy, which said discipline "shall" be imposed when a code of conduct infraction is sustained.

Later that year, the policy manual language was quietly changed to say misconduct "will subject the employee to discipline and/or legal action," granting the agency more latitude on whether to impose corrective actions.

As several news organizations covered the push to open up these records, city and police officials continued to downplay the coaching process.

Assistant City Attorney Trina Chernos said in an email to a PCOC member that only the lowest category of policy violations — "A-level" — are eligible for nondisciplinary action like coaching.

A city spokesman told the Star Tribune coaching is used for violations like "verbal tone and language," and not "improper or excessive use of force."

A WCCO report featured an unnamed Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis official saying, "Complaints can't come from outside the department and result in coaching."

All these statements were false.

In September 2020, City Council Member Andrew Johnson emailed City Clerk Casey Carl to ask for an update on a city working group to examine coaching.

Carl assured Johnson they were working on it with multiple departments, including human resources. "It hasn't left our radar," he said.

In March 2021, Carl sent an email to several high-ranking city officials: "The confusing issue of coaching as discipline has not/will not go away until addressed."

The city addressed it by sending a blitz of its top leaders from the police department, city attorneys office and human resources department to the PCOC meeting to make presentations on the benefits of coaching.

Arradondo described coaching as the "bedrock" of a system that allows police to grow professionally, used to "address an officer's attitude as well as help with training."

Huffman, after falsely stating that coaching isn't ever used for excessive force, continued to say the police manual is written to refer only "low-level violations" to coaching. "And so, force violations — use of force violations — themselves are not included in those coaching referrals."

None of the five city officials who presented at the meeting mentioned that the police chief also has the authority to implement coaching.

Huffman's defense

In her deposition last fall, Huffman denied that she intentionally misled the police oversight commissioners that day.

Huffman insisted that she was talking about one pathway in the city's complaint bureaucracy that leads to coaching — a combination of internal affairs and civilian review called Joint Supervisors. But in another pathway, the chief may impose coaching after an investigation sustains a complaint and the officer is afforded the ability to fight it.

"It did not occur to me to talk about any coaching that came out of a chief's discipline process," Huffman said, in acknowledging that she and others who presented at the meeting "didn't discuss every possible detailed part of the coaching process."

Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the city's chief operations officer, said it's implicit Huffman was talking about the Joint Supervisors pathway in the 2021 meeting because that's what fell under the PCOC's authority.

"Could this be confusing? Yes," Kelliher said. "But it's not intentionally misleading."

In response, Cerra said her question was not referring to only the Joint Supervisors pathway, and "that was not a part of the discussion at any stage in the process."

"The PCOC's jurisdiction was anything related to policing," she said. "The city has since made a choice to limit the oversight jurisdiction and to restrict the kinds of things the Oversight Commission can look at and discuss, but that was not true at the time."

Huffman, who later became the interim police chief, now works in the city attorney's office implementing reforms mandated by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

The City Council has yet to have a formal briefing on this case, which has been pending for almost exactly three years.

Judge Janisch will have 90 days to rule on MNCOGI's arguments that the city violated the state's public records law and should release unredacted copies of disciplinary actions "hidden under the coaching label," along with the city's request for dismissal, following oral arguments on June 26.

Read the court filings:

(Can't see the document? Click here.)