After a St. Anthony police officer fatally shot Philando Castile, the calls to Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell started rolling in. City leaders asked him: Where do we sit? Could this happen here? What are our policies?
Two weeks later, the suburban community is creating a citizen work group to review police use-of-force policies and training. It joins a relatively small but growing number of Minnesota cities with citizen oversight groups. Such boards, recommended in a national report on policing best practices, are seen as an important step to build trust between officers and the communities they serve.
High-profile police shootings, including the death of Castile, have spurred a “huge increase” in the number of cities across the country adding some form of civilian oversight, said Liana Perez, director of operations at the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. The nonprofit has worked to improve police oversight for more than two decades. In the past two years, its membership has jumped by nearly 30 percent, Perez said.
“More and more departments are realizing it’s in their best interest,” said Doug Bowen-Bailey, president of Duluth’s Citizen Review Board. “Police chiefs are recognizing if you do it well and you do it in partnership rather than an antagonistic way … it really can be a benefit for everyone involved.”
But many people question the effectiveness of review commissions in Minnesota. In 2012, state legislators passed a law barring the commissions from imposing discipline on police or making determinations about complaints against officers. The groups can only offer recommendations about whether a complaint should be sustained and an officer disciplined.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, is on a quest to undo those limitations and require that every local government that oversees a law enforcement agency establish a citizen oversight council. St. Paul NAACP President Jeff Martin is not optimistic that Dibble’s proposed legislation will pass. But if it did, he said it would completely alter the role of oversight boards like the one in St. Paul.
“[The review commission] would actually mean something,” Martin said. “It’s more symbolic than anything right now.”
Dibble said he is using the report from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as a guide for his proposed legislation.
The task force’s extensive recommendations, published in May 2015, aim to “strengthen community policing and trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”
The report says every community should come up with some form of civilian oversight, and the U.S. Department of Justice should study best practices and potentially offer funding to support local oversight efforts. The report also said cities should create serious-incident review boards, made up of sworn officers and community members, to review cases like officer-involved shootings.
Last week, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Police Chief Todd Axtell attended a roundtable discussion on 21st-century policing with the president, city leaders from across the country and civil rights advocates.
“The biggest takeaway today was the importance of community engagement,” Axtell said after the meeting. “It just illustrates the clear need of why we have to continue to engage our communities to build trust and transparency and legitimacy, which is more important now than ever in the history of law enforcement.”
The relationships between police and St. Paul residents are strong, Coleman said after the meeting.
When community members expressed concern about St. Paul’s Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission, the city had University of Minnesota researchers audit it. They recommended changes last year that would build the public’s confidence in the board, Coleman said. The city is starting to implement some of the suggestions.
Remove officer input?
St. Paul review commission member Sue Trupiano said that their most recent meeting was the first time internal affairs investigators did not tell the group whether they think a complaint against an officer should be sustained or not. They left the board to reach its own conclusions, which are passed along to the police chief who makes the final decisions.
But, on one of the most contentious recommended changes — removing two police union members who are voting members of the board — Coleman has not yet announced how he thinks the city should proceed.
“The community was very loud and clear: they don’t want officers on there,” said Martin, with the NAACP. Having officers vote on decisions about other police undermines the fairness and impartiality of the process, he said.
David Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, said the makeup of the board should not change.
“The perspective of the person who works in the industry is particularly important,” Titus said. “It doesn’t make any sense to take those officers off.”
Coleman will decide by the end of summer and any ordinance changes will go before the City Council in September, mayor’s office spokeswoman Tonya Tennessen said.
No single model
Other civilian review boards in Minnesota vary in their makeup and focus.
Two citizens and two members of law enforcement work together on Minneapolis’ Conduct Review Panel to determine if there is evidence to support allegations against officers. An all-civilian Police Conduct Oversight Commission then audits the panel’s decisions and identifies policy issues.
In Duluth, the board does not review individual officer issues. It just looks at broad policy concerns. Rochester’s oversight commission, created last year, reviews both complaints and policies. Those two outstate cities do not have current sworn officers on their boards, but St. Cloud’s oversight group does.
“There are no two entities that are alike,” said Perez, with the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
But when it comes to officers’ involvement with review boards, she said the best practice is clear: They can provide information and education, but should not vote.
“If it truly is citizen oversight, it really needs to be the community,” Perez said.