As Minnesota considers ways to improve police accountability, one measure is long overdue: an overhaul of the binding-arbitration process for contested disciplinary actions up to and including termination.
The process, used for all public employees, has become increasingly problematic where law enforcement is concerned, resulting in weakened authority for the police chiefs responsible for their forces.
According to the Peace Officers Standards and Training Board (POST), there are just under 11,000 sworn law enforcement officers serving across the state. A recent Star Tribune analysis showed 80 firings went to arbitration over a 20-year period. Of those, half of the officers contesting their firings got their jobs back.
That 50-50 split may not be entirely coincidental. Critics of the system note that it has perverse incentives that reward such a split. Both sides get to exclude arbitrators. Those whose records tilt too far one way or the other might not make the cut.
Erik Misselt, interim executive director of the POST board, said in talking to an editorial writer that the whole process of binding arbitration is outside the board’s jurisdiction, “but it’s one we hear a lot about. Chiefs have made it pretty clear that is one of the things they want the Legislature to address.”
Misselt said the board, which some have said should also have its authority strengthened, is undergoing an independent audit of its practices because it was “designed mostly for training and recruitment and has not kept up with expectations.” Misselt noted in particular that unlike some health boards, the POST board cannot suspend an officer based on allegations of misconduct, no matter how severe. It can impose suspensions once an investigatory finding has been made.
State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul and chairman of the criminal justice and public safety division, told an editorial writer that after hearing testimony on policing, “We came away thinking this had to change. Precisely because we heard from chiefs, and it’s not first time we’ve heard it from them. We saw egregious examples of undeniable excessive use of force. They are frustrated over the ability to properly discipline wrongful acts.”
Mariani, who is a member of the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, said restoring trust requires that police conduct be held to a high standard with strict accountability. While changing the current system of binding arbitration is not the only change to be made as part of policing reforms, it should be a high priority.
It’s not just a Minneapolis problem, either. St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell told city leaders last week that the arbitration system should be overhauled. And at a recent House hearing on police accountability, Coon Rapids Police Chief Brad Wise testified that “there’s nothing worse, in my view, for an organization than to lose an arbitration. I think it creates distrust within the workplace. Frankly, it saps the confidence of a police leader. And it makes police leaders be reluctant to even let cases go to arbitration for fear of losing them.”
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, in his testimony, said that serious misconduct cases erode public trust that can take years to regain. “We work so hard to build relationships and trust, and it can be swept away in a moment. … Because we’re a monopoly and you can’t call another police department that you like better, we must maintain the public’s trust. We need a process in which there is a fair outcome.”
The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, to its credit, has thrown its support behind a broad array of accountability measures that include changes to arbitration. Gov. Tim Walz and the Legislature should focus on arbitration and redouble their efforts to address an issue that has repercussions statewide.