A state law enacted over the opposition of city leaders has significantly reduced the power of the Minneapolis panel that investigates police misconduct, throwing the city's 22-year-old system of civilian police oversight into doubt.

The bill to prohibit the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority (CRA) from issuing "findings of fact" was introduced at the request of the Minneapolis Police Federation, the politically influential police union, and won overwhelming bipartisan support in the Minnesota Senate and House. Despite appeals from Mayor R.T. Rybak's office and City Council members, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill into law Thursday.

"I fully share the desire to assure the highest standards of police conduct," Dayton said in a statement Friday. "However, serious concerns have been expressed about the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority, prompting the city to begin its own review. This will be an opportunity to improve the authority's procedures, so that it can better carry out its important responsibilities."

Civil rights advocates on Friday condemned the measure, saying it will gut the authority and give the public less confidence that their complaints about improper police behavior will be taken seriously.

"It is a waste of a time for anyone to file a complaint against the police," said Kenneth Brown, former chairman of the city's Civil Rights Commission. It "closes the door on an independent examination of police misconduct against citizens of color," said Ron Edwards, a civil rights activist.

"I am very disappointed," said Council Member Cam Gordon. "I think this effectively forces us to re-evaluate the Civilian Review Authority."

The new law will prohibit civilian review boards from making "a finding of fact or determination regarding a complaint against an officer" although a review board could continue to make a nonbinding recommendation to the police chief.

Currently, the authority issues such findings, but the chief decides whether to impose discipline. In December, the authority board declared it had no confidence that Police Chief Tim Dolan would impose discipline when the authority recommended it.

Before the Legislature's action, city officials were already pursuing changes in the Civilian Review Authority that would shift the investigation of complaints to a joint team of police and civilian investigators. Velma Korbel, director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, said that civilian oversight of police will continue, but she couldn't say Friday how the new law would affect the city's proposal to change the authority.

Michael Friedman, a former CRA chairman, said because the authority will no longer issue "findings of fact" of officer misconduct, it will be difficult to introduce CRA reports in criminal trials. Defendants have used that information in the past to undermine the credibility of officers testifying against them, he said.

While the CRA can still issue recommendations for discipline, such comments might lack specificity about the officers' conduct and a judge could be more reluctant to admit them as evidence, he said. Police chiefs have a strong incentive to overlook officers' transgressions because they could be used against the department in future cases, he said.

Supporters point to liability

But supporters of the bill say the current powers of the authority go too far in the other direction. Jim Michels, an attorney who represents police officers and who testified at the Legislature on behalf of the bill, said it will give greater protection to the city and officers in civil suits.

He said that until the bill passed, a CRA finding of fact could be introduced in a trial, even though the chief had concluded that the findings were inaccurate and failed to issue discipline. "It has the potential to bind the city to a legal position not held by the chief of police," Michels said.

Also, he said, under the labor agreement between the federation and the city, the officer can file a grievance challenging a finding of fact only if discipline is imposed. If it is not imposed, the CRA finding cannot be challenged, he said.

John Delmonico, Police Federation president, dismissed the idea that the law would kill the watchdog agency.

"There's people who are trying to portray this as ruining the Civilian Review Authority," said Delmonico. "In reality, for the past twenty years, the Civilian Review Authority has been dysfunctional and lacked any real leadership."

Rybak's spokesman, John Stiles, said the mayor, the council, and the lobbying staff worked against the bill, but were unsuccessful.

"We are constantly looking for ways to make the CRA more effective and responsive, as we are with all city departments," said Stiles. "We wish that the Legislature had chosen to work with the city in this process."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224