Last year, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan imposed discipline in just four of the 24 police misconduct cases sustained and forwarded to him by the city's Civilian Review Authority.

In 2008, he didn't impose discipline in any of the five cases the CRA forwarded after investigating and agreeing with citizens' complaints.

The Star Tribune examined Dolan's record on discipline after several high-profile incidents that resulted in the city paying nearly $1.5 million in 2009 to settle complaints against police, part of $11 million the city paid for such claims in the past seven years.

Among the claimants paid were a Hmong family whose home police mistakenly raided in 2007 and a public housing resident who needed two brain surgeries after an officer punched him to get him out of the path of a 2008 police raid.

Dolan declined to comment for this story. But he recently told the City Council that "If I believe discipline isn't warranted because the investigation is unfair or beyond [the] reckoning period, then that discipline would not be meted out."

Mayor R.T. Rybak said Dolan strikes a "complicated balance" between the citizen panel's judgments, fair labor practices and the police union contract, and has done "a good job with that."

But the low discipline rate is comparatively "alarming," said Philip Eure, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Police disciplined officers in all nine cases sustained by his Washington, D.C., agency in 2008. San Francisco police acted on 90 percent of sustained complaints.

"If I were a member of the public, I would have serious questions about police accountability in Minneapolis," Eure said.

Dogged by questions

The CRA was created to restore confidence after incidents such as a 1989 North Side drug raid in which a police stun grenade started a fire that killed an elderly couple. Two weeks later, more than 200 people protested after a confrontation between police and partiers at a hotel resulted in five arrests and allegations of police harassment.

Citizens may complain to the CRA, as most do, or to the police Internal Affairs Unit. Blacks file more complaints than all other races combined.

CRA investigators interview police and citizens involved. Panels of board members hold hearings, and then the board forwards sustained complaints for discipline. In the first half of 2009, the CRA took 224 complaints and sustained eight. Often, investigations find evidence contrary to the complaint, or a panel decides that evidence is lacking.

Critics have questioned whether the CRA is effective. It can't impose discipline itself, and its funding level has meant large caseloads for its two investigators. It couldn't hear complaints for much of 2008 because Rybak and the council hadn't appointed a chair and enough of its 11-member board.

It takes more than 200 days to resolve the average complaint. CRA Manager Lee Reid said it would take a bigger budget to be faster. He has one investigator for every 425 police. San Francisco has one investigator for every 150 officers.

When the council appointed Dolan in 2006, it mandated that he work toward imposing discipline in every sustained case and do better than his predecessor, Bill McManus. In his first year Dolan issued discipline in half the sustained cases. But by last year, Dolan's rate was as low as McManus'.

This month, disappointed Council Member Cam Gordon told Dolan: "We could be celebrating a new level of trust and confidence in the department today."

Examples of Dolan's discipline include his reprimand of Officers John Ochs and Mark Bohnsack last year for requiring a couple in their 40s to hike up a freeway ramp after their car was impounded. He also reprimanded Sgt. David Mathes and Officer Clark Goset after they cited a woman for obstruction of justice; she had objected when one of them pulled an unlit cigarette from a man's mouth.

A CRA-sustained complaint from 2008 that didn't elicit any discipline from Dolan involved officers spraying a chemical irritant on a man who wouldn't let go of the arm of a friend he thought was under the influence of drugs. The officers also arrested and took away a bystander whose pants were down. Neither officer would give badge numbers when the citizens asked. Identities are not disclosed in cases that don't result in discipline.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged in 2000 that cities let civilian boards impose discipline. But Eure said he's not aware of any city where that's happened. Minneapolis police and their union, which didn't return calls, have long fought that idea.

"The civilian-review controversy has nothing to do with review and everything to do with who controls the disciplinary process," former chief Tony Bouza wrote in 1989. "The cops know that in dealing with street people they must sometimes use force. ... They do not trust outsiders, even decent ones, to make judgments about their actions."

The city attorney ruled in 2006 that by city charter the mayor and chief have sole disciplinary power.

Evidence and reckoning

In nine of the 25 sustained cases Dolan has declined to act on since 2008, he said evidence wasn't sufficient.

"I don't reinvestigate the case, but I do review whether the evidence warrants discipline," Dolan told the council this month.

The CRA argues that Dolan's action violates a 2006 council ordinance that removed police discretion to re-examine the facts. A recent CRA performance review of Dolan argued that he had violated that ordinance and should be disciplined.

But Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who helped write the ordinance, disagrees that Dolan's practice violates it. The CRA also urged Dolan to ask the CRA to reconsider sustained complaints; he did so recently for the first time.

Although the ordinance requires an evaluation of Dolan's compliance, the city did not ask the CRA for its opinion before Dolan was renominated, according to CRA chairman Donald Bellfield.

Dolan told the council that he also declines to discipline when a complaint is too old, beyond the "reckoning period" formalized last year in a department policy. The CRA law requires only that a citizen complain within a year of the incident, and the agency formally objected to the department's use of that policy.

Council Member Betsy Hodges said Dolan is "not following the spirit of the CRA agreement and quite possibly the law of it." Advocates of citizens review aren't likely to be satisfied as long as chiefs are allowed to ignore what reviewers recommend.

"It's not that we haven't hit on the right design. It's that we haven't hit on a critical mass of elected officials willing to make this thing work," said former CRA Chairman Michael Weinbeck.

Weinbeck said he still believes what he told policymakers in 2006: "We're empowered to make a decision on citizen complaints, but the Police Department rarely issues discipline. This isn't the way good police accountability works. And it's not the way to build trust between the Police Department and the community."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438