A civilian review board designed to give Minneapolis residents a voice in steering public safety reforms is going on involuntary hiatus at a moment when the city faces a critical crossroads on the future of policing.
The Police Conduct Oversight Commission — a seven-seat civil rights board of appointed citizens — is down to only three sitting members, below the threshold for the quorum needed to conduct business, after a member resigned in September to relocate outside Minneapolis. The city has opened the application process, but some fear this mechanism of civilian oversight could remain dark for months during this crucial period.
“It’s basically unbelievable,” said Abigail Cerra, one of the remaining members of the commission. “As far as I know, we’re not going to meet again until January.”
The city bills the oversight commission as a credible avenue for residents to bring complaints regarding Minneapolis police and public safety issues. Through public meetings and outreach, the commission gathers input from Minneapolis residents and then applies it to policy recommendations for the city and its Police Department.
As the mayor and City Council navigate the future of police after the death of George Floyd — including whether that will mean the end of the department as it exists today — they have cited the police oversight commission as one means of helping collect community feedback.
City Clerk Casey Carl said an unpredictable year, which included a global pandemic and civil unrest over the Floyd killing, is responsible for a lag on appointments to the police oversight commission and many other boards and committees.
“I’m not sure that processing appointments to boards and commissions has been top of the mayor and City Council’s minds,” said Carl.
The city first postponed the appointment process in March, when COVID-19 hit and normal civil life came to a halt. The city planned to reopen applications in the summer, but riots and weeks of protests put the process on hold once again, said Carl.
It’s not just the police oversight board: Across the city, there are 116 vacant slots on boards and commissions, according to data from the city clerk’s office. The data projects another 228 spots will be vacant in 2021. Carl said elected officials have been prioritizing appointments to key policymaking committees, and this one wasn’t on the list because up until recently it had enough members to keep doing business.
“If I can use this phrase in a respectful way, it’s just comedy of errors of too many priorities and too much going on,” said Carl. “Not little things — big, major, huge crises and emergencies facing the city all at once.”
Minneapolis elected officials created the Police Conduct Oversight Commission in 2012. Many hailed it as part of a new approach to police accountability that would elevate citizen voices in the policymaking process. Its establishment came in the wake of the long-fraught Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority, a board widely lamented in its latter days as toothless in effecting real change and deterring misconduct.
The new police oversight commission played an integral role in collecting public input that contributed to the rollout of police body cameras. Earlier this summer, the commission brought to the fore concerns that the city is unlawfully withholding public records on police discipline.
While they’re not officially meeting, the police oversight commission is still communicating with the public, said Afsheen Foroozan, chairman of the commission, via e-mail.
“I know that a couple of us have continued to reach out to the public to listen and provide information about the PCOC and public safety issues so that community members who are interested can apply to be a commissioner, and so that the community knows where to bring their ideas and concerns once our meetings resume,” he said.
Foroozan said he believes their work will contribute to the council’s upcoming plans, and he expects to be meeting with a full slate of commissioners by January.