A little-known police licensure board that has come under fire for letting officers escape accountability is now at the center of Minnesota's attempt to build trust in law enforcement.
The Peace Officer Standards and Training Board emerged from the reckoning that followed the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd with a series of mandates intended to increase police accountability statewide. The Legislature tasked the board with bolstering its citizen oversight, setting a model use-of-force policy, creating a database to track officer misconduct, discouraging warrior-style training and developing autism training requirements.
Those new responsibilities are part of what interim POST Board Executive Director Erik Misselt calls a "watershed moment" for a licensing authority that has seen relatively little change since it was created in 1977. Misselt recently asked an international organization to audit the board's police education, training and regulatory processes and see how they stack up against other states.
And last week the board agreed to conduct a comprehensive overhaul of its standards and training rules.
"If you want to reform policing, you have to reform the POST Board," Board Chairwoman Kelly McCarthy said, because without the board changes, police practices in Minnesota would be local and piecemeal. "It really is the best place to make those statewide standards."
However, McCarthy said the board she helms is not in a position to ask for the public's trust. The POST Board hasn't "put our best foot forward in the past," she said, and needs to earn public trust by holding officers responsible and showing that members are addressing questions of racism in policing.
A Star Tribune investigation in 2017 found hundreds of officers had been convicted of crimes over the past two decades without losing their professional licenses. After that, the board changed its standards for which criminal offenses would prompt a reconsideration of officers' licensure.
Michelle Gross, with the advocacy group Communities United Against Police Brutality, said she is hopeful about McCarthy and Misselt's leadership. Her organization has criticized the board in the past and urged it to take a stronger role in police discipline. Currently that responsibility resides largely with the local agencies.
Gross said she was disappointed with the compromise police reforms the Legislature passed earlier this month, saying they did not go far enough.
However, she said the POST Board reforms are significant.
For police accountability advocates, one of the most significant changes was the creation of a new citizen group — the Ensuring Police Excellence and Improving Community Relations Advisory Council — that will recommend POST Board reforms. "They better get that it's a new day and we better see real changes," Gross said. "This is the state licensing agency for police, and they had damn well better step up and make some real changes here."
The POST Board reforms were among the most controversial items in the police accountability bill, said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul. Lawmakers reached a compromise on the reform package after nearly two months of debate on how to prevent another incident like that involving Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody.
The makeup of the advisory council was a key sticking point. Lawmakers ended up including fewer citizens and more law enforcement than Mariani wanted. He said legislators need to closely watch the work of the POST Board and ensure the new advisory council is not a paper tiger, and that its recommendations result in change.
"I'm going to be watching," Mariani said of the reviews and changes to the POST Board. "Their history doesn't give me a whole lot of confidence."
Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, was involved in negotiating the POST Board reforms and said they reached a good balance in the makeup of the advisory council.
"I don't want it to turn into an attack on cops. This needs to be something that is fair," Peters said.
Peters said he supports the POST Board's re-evaluation of its training and licensure processes.
"Law enforcement is notorious for not changing very quickly," he said, adding that the board needs to make sure its requirements are relevant to the times and consistent throughout the state.
The creation of a centralized database to track officer behavior was less controversial, but both McCarthy and Mariani said it could have a long-term impact. They said it could shift the board from a reactive role to proactively identifying officers with patterns of misbehavior.
"We're going to be able to make better decisions going forward. We're going to be able to spot problem officers," McCarthy said. "We're going to be able to do some prevention and not just response."
Peters said the data could also illuminate broader systemic issues in a department or among an agency's leadership.
"We're trying to fix the rank-and-file cop," he said. "But nobody is focusing on the leadership at some of these departments."
The various sides involved with creating the Legislature's police reforms called it a first step and said more work is needed.
Misselt and McCarthy said one of their next goals for the POST Board is to work with federal and state governments to allow the board to do national criminal history checks when someone is trying to renew a license or enter a police academy.
In the near-term, Misselt said the Legislature needs to address confusion around the timeline of the start of the advisory council and the creation of the database that tracks misconduct. He hopes lawmakers straighten out those start dates during an anticipated special session in August.