When the Police Conduct Oversight Commission released a study last week detailing serious problems in the way complaints against Minneapolis police officers are handled, there were immediate calls for a revamping of the complaint process.
Some see the issue as an important test of the authority of the seven-member panel, originally envisioned as a way to give citizens a stronger voice in shaping police strategy.
The panel called on the police department to provide "training for all officers on the [Office of Police Conduct Review] process and complaint handling to better provide customer service to the community."
Whether the police department will act on the group's proposals is another matter, said PCOC Commissioner Adriana Cerrillo.
"We don't have the power to give any oversight. We give recommendations to the MPD, which they might or might not take," Cerrillo said, pointing as an example to a 2015 PCOC report on using body cameras.
Only after months of back-and-forth, Cerrillo said, did the department incorporate some of the panel's recommendations.
Cerrillo said the episode was a "slap in the face," and that the department's public insistence on hearing from the community amounted to little more than lip service.
Her sentiments reflect a growing frustration among some commission members over the difficulty of influencing police policies and practices from outside the department.
Critics long have viewed the panel, appointed by the mayor and the City Council, as ineffective, saying the department has routinely ignored or resisted the panel's advice on a range of policy issues.
Other concerns have dogged the body.
One commissioner complained recently that many people had a hard time defining the panel's role. Several members grumbled about not being consulted before Police Chief Janeé Harteau announced changes to the department's use-of-force policy.
Other panel members said the department is becoming more receptive to policy proposals from the PCOC.
"I think there's still room for growth, that's for sure, [but] I do see them looking at our recommendations, even if they're not implementing them as quickly," said Commissioner Jennifer Singleton.
Still, she said, there is a need for better communication between the PCOC and the department.
"My goal, at this point, is to have the MPD reading our reports," Singleton said last week, "and to be able to have a conversation with them, if there are recommendations that they're not going to implement, why they're not going to implement them."
Harteau conceded as much while speaking at a recent PCOC meeting.
"I certainly think there has been a lack of communication," Harteau said in a briefing on the department's body camera program. "You're an oversight commission, so the reality is you should be looking at things where we can make improvements, but honestly I see we have a lot of common ground in that area."
Outreach efforts cited
Harteau said she had started meeting monthly with the panel's chairwoman and vice chairwoman to address concerns the commissioners had. The chief said that she repeatedly had opened her department to outside scrutiny.
A police spokesperson said last week that the department intends to keep working closely with the PCOC, adding that Harteau's chief of staff, Deputy Chief Medaria Arradondo, and Cmdr. Jason Case, who runs the internal affairs unit, have been regulars at the civilian group's meetings. Collaboration "has led to changes in the way the MPD handles community engagement, communications, police oversight, police coaching and mentoring, and the development of a new Early Intervention System for officers," the spokesperson said in an e-mail statement.
The panel was created by city ordinance in 2012 and charged with making recommendations for improving police training and enhancing police-community relations.
"My intention is to … utilize that group of community members as a sounding board for ideas about how to build stronger connections and understanding between the MPD and the community," Harteau told the City Council at the time.
Her words came on the heels of the disbandment of the PCOC's troubled predecessor, the Civilian Police Review Authority (CPRA). Its members complained that then-Chief Tim Dolan routinely ignored recommendations to discipline officers. Dolan, and several city officials, countered that he had little faith in investigations conducted by the CPRA, which had been stripped by state law of its power to make factual findings.
Whether the department implements any of the recommendations made in the complaint study will be an indicator of how far the panel has come, observers say.
"In the beginning, it didn't seem like the commissioners in the PCOC wanted to assert any authority," said David Bicking, a former CPRA board member who is among a handful of regulars at PCOC meetings.
He said that the defunct agency, which also investigated citizen complaints, was so "bogged down" with cases that there was little time for policy discussions.
In that respect, he said, the PCOC is an improvement over its predecessor.
Under the current model, misconduct claims are handled by the Office of Police Conduct Review, which is under the city's Department of Civil Rights.
Another former CPRA member, Michael Friedman, said PCOC members also have had to contend with an insular culture that makes the department resistant to change.
"The problems that they may be experiencing, that we experienced, are that fundamentally police, including their leadership, are trained on a model of control," said Friedman, executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis.
He said that many police officers have long clung to the idea "that outsiders don't know what it's like, but when they get sued civilly, the jury are outsiders, the judge is an outsider who's making sure that you didn't do something unconstitutional."
Civilian involvement in shaping police policy is an important step in improving relations, some observers say.
"The chief and the administration have to be receptive to the role that oversight plays in the level of oversight and professionalism that they want to have," said Liana Perez, director of operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
Perez said some civilian oversight groups have been empowered to summon witnesses and conduct independent investigations, pointing to Newark, N.J., where one such group has the authority to seek subpoenas and make policy recommendations.