Minnesota's police licensing authority strengthened its standards of professional conduct Thursday for the first time since 1995, broadening the list of offenses that can bring an officer before the board for potential discipline.
A conviction for assault, domestic assault or drunken driving — all misdemeanors — will now trigger a licensing hearing by the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board, following a unanimous vote by the full board Thursday. The three misdemeanors, until now, were absent from the list of convictions that could trigger a state licensing hearing.
POST Board officials agreed to re-examine Minnesota's conduct standards for law enforcement officers after the Star Tribune published an investigation showing that hundreds of officers have been convicted of serious offenses in the past 20 years without facing any sort of licensing review or discipline by the state board.
Little-known outside the law enforcement profession, the small agency is an independent state regulatory board within the executive branch. Its 15 members are appointed by the governor; most are current or former law enforcement professionals.
Thursday's vote was applauded by Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell, a former board member who was on hand to be recognized for his service. He called the amendments "important reform steps" to building greater police accountability.
But Dave Bicking, representing the advocacy group Communities United Against Police Brutality, called for broader reforms. Bicking told the board Thursday that the changes are insufficient and urged it to exercise greater authority over police discipline, as well as the citizen complaints that it handles.
Bicking reminded the board's members that their own civilian chairman, Tim Bildsoe, was quoted in the Star Tribune series saying the POST Board was operating on a " '70s model."
"You need to go forward," Bicking said. "You need to ask the Legislature for more authority if you need it."
The amendments adopted on Thursday will likely go through a state administrative rule-making process, which could take at least a year. It's possible that the Legislature could enact the changes in statute, a much faster process.
POST Board Executive Director Nathan Gove, a retired Golden Valley police commander, commended the board for its vote. He also noted that only a very small fraction of the 10,750 sworn officers on the job in Minnesota get in trouble with the law, and that when they do, they are generally held to account by the local department that employs them — regardless of the POST Board's involvement.
"It's hardly a profession that's off the rails," he said.
Speaking with reporters later, Gove described the approved changes as "an excellent starting point," but did not detail any other reform efforts that might be under discussion. Gove said he cannot predict what, if any, changes state lawmakers might take up when they convene next month, noting that it will be a short session.
At Thursday's meeting, the board also approved two sets of new training guidelines that will be distributed to the state's 430-plus law enforcement agencies.
One set concerns crisis intervention, including mental health crises, conflict management and cultural bias. The board was instructed to develop the guidance by the Legislature last year, requiring officers to receive at least 16 hours of such training every three years. The new objectives include verbal and nonverbal techniques for reducing tensions in a mental health crisis and building rapport with the public.
A Star Tribune analysis in 2016 showed that at least 45 percent of the people who have died in forceful encounters with law enforcement in Minnesota since 2000 had a history of mental illness or were in the throes of a mental health crisis.
The second set of new training guidelines addresses police use of force, last updated in 2012, which was considered of particular significance given widespread community protests over police killings of civilians in recent years.
The updates say officers should be trained in the use of weapons in poor light or adverse weather, but also put the board on record supporting the use of verbal and nonverbal communication strategies to de-escalate confrontations and reduce the need for use of force. Understanding body language, for example, and how drug use and mental illness can affect a suspect's ability to comply with police orders are now part of law enforcement training goals.
Gove said the guidelines were developed by a 13-member task force of law enforcement professionals who train other officers in the use of force.