A group that advocates for government transparency says Minneapolis is illegally withholding hundreds of police misconduct records, some for serious wrong­doing by officers, through a rhetorical loophole known as "coaching."

Minnesota law classifies complaints against police as public documents if the officer receives any discipline for the conduct. But Minneapolis has for years contested that coaching — a form of one-on-one mentoring — doesn't meet the bar of real discipline, and the city has kept these records locked away from public view.

A lawsuit filed in Hennepin County court Thursday says this is a willful misinterpretation of the statute designed to circumvent Minnesota data laws. 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, brought by nonprofit Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, or MNCOGI.

The Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and attorney Leita Walker 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.

"There's a clear disconnect between the official statements of transparency and accountability and the Minneapolis Police Department's policies that intentionally hide public data," said MNCOGI board member Paul Ostrow, who held a seat on the Minneapolis City Council from 1998 to 2009. "The city and the MPD are ignoring the intent and the letter of the law to deliberately hide bad police behavior.

"Public information is a civil right. Police reform cannot succeed when officer misconduct is hidden from the public."

Coaching has for years been a topic of interest for reformers of the Minneapolis Police Department. In January 2015, when Betsy Hodges was mayor, a Department of Justice report found that Minneapolis police resolved 418 complaints over a six-year period through coaching — more than five times the use of mediation, the next most-common outcome for sustained complaints.

The report identified the reliance on coaching as a systemic challenge to early intervention of bad officer behavior as well as "inconsistencies and confusion in the coaching process."

Last summer, members of the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission, a group of city-appointed civil rights watchdogs, said the city had been misinterpreting state law by classifying these records as private data.

City officials have disputed this analysis.

Earlier this year, Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader said the city is following the law, and is in line with other government agencies, in its interpretation that "coaching is not considered discipline." The city declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.

Under the leadership of Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, coaching has remained the most common outcome for sustained complaints against officers.

Coaching cases described in public records include a Minneapolis officer causing a "preventable" car crash through reckless driving, an officer ignoring a policy to turn on his body camera while interviewing witnesses at a crime scene and an officer using "inappropriate language" toward a victim of domestic assault and then not writing a report on the call.

In another case that ended in coaching, a person alleged that a police sergeant failed to turn on his body camera and then put a gun to the head of the complainant's brother, who is a vulnerable adult. The brother was "thrown to the ground and then the officer put his knee" into his back. It's unclear what part of the allegation was substantiated because the records are private.

Another officer created a post on social media that stated, "If you look at this picture, and you freak out due to the fact that you think these are scary 'assault weapons' then I accomplished my goal." The response: coaching.

The Police Department manual says coaching may be used in instances where officers behaved inappropriately but the conduct "did not rise to the level of discipline."

But the lawsuit alleges some of these are not so minor. It says the city classified all but one of the 22 complaints against Derek Chauvin as nonpublic data, which likely means some ended in coaching.

Filings in the ex-officer's murder trial showed multiple allegations of excessive force before Chauvin killed George Floyd, and one of those has since resulted in federal charges. But the paper trail was hidden from the public.

Similarly, the city says former officer Tou Thao — who is charged with aiding and abetting the murder of Floyd — has no discipline on his record. But court filings show that in Thao's first year on the force, he was written up by his field training officer eight times for "conduct involving dishonesty and/or taking shortcuts to avoid work," according to the lawsuit. Court records in the officer's criminal case also describe a history of "expediency, a desire to avoid scrutiny, and work-avoidance," according to the suit.

"One mechanism by which to prevent police murders is identifying problem officers before their misconduct can escalate. Yet the City Defendants have proven that not only will they remain willfully blind to the misconduct of problem officers, but that they will bury these officers' disciplinary data away from the public by calling it 'coaching,' " the lawsuit states. "This data belongs to the public."

The lawsuit asks a judge to compel the city to release the public records. It specifically names Arradondo, City Clerk Casey Carl and Patience Ferguson, chief officer of the city's Department of Human Resources.

It also alleges that the city's Department of Civil Rights leaders have been complicit in keeping these records from public view, along with the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office.

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036