A Minneapolis police watchdog group has garnered some of the same criticism that plagued its predecessor, namely that it too often lets officers off the hook for bad behavior.
Last year, the Office of Police Conduct Review, or OPCR, looked into more than 360 citizen complaints of misconduct by city cops — ranging from discrimination and foul language to excessive force. (Some complaints contained multiple allegations.) The group dismissed more than 60 percent of the allegations, and more than half of the 63 allegations sent to a review panel for possible discipline were tossed out, records show.
Dave Bicking, a local advocate for reform in policing practices, said those statistics inspire little confidence that the OPCR can hold problem officers accountable.
“For accountability, there has to be some expectation that bad behavior will lead to discipline,” he said.
As an example, Bicking pointed to Christopher Reiter, a recently fired Minneapolis cop whose personnel file included several unsubstantiated complaints. Reiter was charged last month with felony assault after prosecutors reviewed a surveillance video showing him kicking a suspect in the face with such force that the man suffered a broken nose and brain injury.
Records show that Reiter has been the subject of eight OPCR complaints, six of which were closed without discipline. Two cases remain open, including the assault for which he was charged.
Director Imani Jaafar, who took over the board last year, said she is pleased with what it has done so far. Civilians have more of a voice in the disciplinary process than in years past, she said. The OPCR, with a budget of $728,317, is part of the city’s Civil Rights Department.
“You’ve got civilians touching the cases in almost all different ways,” Jaafar said. “The boards can make those recommendations, but the chief of police is still making the final discipline.”
Many cases are dismissed because they involve officers from other departments or complainants who won’t cooperate with investigators, she said.
She said that most civilian complaints are now handled by the OPCR, although the group uses Internal Affairs investigators on some cases. Jaafar added that the review panel’s decisions are based on a preponderance of the evidence, a standard of proof used in most civil litigation.
Police and civilians
Launched in 2013, the OPCR was billed as an effort to hold officers more accountable, while enhancing trust between police and the community by giving residents a voice in the disciplinary process. Its predecessor, the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority, was disbanded the previous year on grounds that it was ineffective.
The four-person Police Conduct Review Panel meets twice a month. It’s drawn from a pool of eight civilians appointed by the mayor and City Council — including an attorney, schoolteacher, nurse, former FBI analyst and a retired Chicago cop — and a group of police lieutenants hand-picked by Chief Janeé Harteau. After a complaint is vetted, it is sent to the panel, which considers whether a policy violation occurred.
But a newly released U.S. Department of Justice report critiquing the city’s response to the protests that followed Jamar Clark’s death, raised concerns about the way that police complaints were handled during the Fourth Precinct Occupation.
“All citizen-initiated complaints may not have been formally reported, recorded, or investigated,” read the report prepared by the DOJ’s COPS office. “The assessment team was unable to determine if all complaints were captured and investigated due to inconsistent record keeping.”
Coaching vs. discipline
To avoid case backlogs that plagued the CRA, many minor policy violations now are sent to the precincts, where the offending officers are coached by their supervisors to improve interactions with the public. Critics say coaching isn’t really discipline, arguing that rude behavior or foul language is emblematic of deeper problems with the department and should be taken seriously.
But Harteau said that cracking down on every violation is ineffective in altering bad behavior. “The goal of discipline is to change behavior,” she said. “It’s not meant to be punitive.”
At the same time, Harteau says, she has argued for increasing the penalty for officers who are unnecessarily disrespectful or use harsh language.
“That has always been looked at in any organization as a small violation, but I think it goes a long way in increasing public trust and keeping the officer safe,” she said.
Since its creation, the panel has considered 66 allegations of excessive force: It ruled in the complainant’s favor 10 times. Similarly, it has thrown out most allegations against officers for inappropriate language or attitude and harassment. In cases accusing officers of violating a department policy, such as speeding while on duty, the panel found merit in 51 of the 95 claims.
Changes to process
Last fall, officials announced changes to the complaint-filing process, including clarifying confusing language on the department’s website and training officers on receiving complaints, to make it easier for citizens to report misconduct. The changes came in response to a city Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC) report earlier that year that laid out a list of problems in the way that complaints about police behavior are handled, while suggesting possible fixes.
In addition to new training, officers will start distributing cards — translated into Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong, Somali, Oromo and Spanish — with information on how to file a complaint, Jaafar said, and the lieutenant’s test now features a section on the role of the OPCR. Mayor Betsy Hodges also set aside $10,000 to streamline the complaint process in her 2017 budget.
OPCR analyst Ryan Patrick said research shows that only a small fraction of civilian complaints against law-enforcement officers are upheld. In cities with civilian-run oversight boards, that percentage is only slightly higher, he said.
And while the board lacks the subpoena power of other oversight agencies across the country, its investigators already have full access to case files.
Adriana Cerrillo, a former PCOC commissioner, said that while the OPCR is technically a part of the city’s Civil Rights Department, she is troubled by the presence of police officers on the review panel.
“At the end of the day, the city has good intentions, but I don’t see enough action,” said Cerrillo. “We’ve got to be fair to the police officers. Excuse me? We’ve got to be fair to our community. They work for the community. They get paid by the community.”
The idea of civilian review boards is not new, according to Annette Nierobisz, a sociology professor at Carleton College.
Nierobisz said that the earliest such body was created in Los Angeles in 1928, but more watchdog groups sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s as cities across the country looked for way to enhance police accountability.
Police unions have traditionally been opposed to civilian oversight, but Federation President Lt. Bob Kroll said he has few qualms with the current model. But he drew the line at civilians deciding when and how to discipline officers, contending that the public is in no position to judge the split-second decisions that cops make.
“I would never dream of going to evaluate, teachers, plumbers, carpenters, I would be out of my league, so why would you want to do that to police?” said Kroll.