Police will no longer serve on the St. Paul panel that reviews officer misconduct allegations, one of many changes that will make the city’s board among the most independent in the state.
Removing officers from the Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission has been a hotly debated issue in the city, and is part of a controversial overhaul of the review commission that the City Council approved Wednesday.
Police have managed the board up to this point, but the city’s Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO) now will handle administrative operations for the commission and receive complaints from the public about police.
Nine citizens will serve on the board, rather than five citizens and two officers, and they will be able to suggest broad policy changes. Internal affairs investigators with the police will no longer tell the commission what they think the outcome of a case should be.
Residents and civil rights groups urged council members to support the changes, particularly removing officers from the board and shifting oversight to the Human Rights Department.
“Historically, systemically, structurally the system has worked against certain people in the community,” said Council Member Dai Thao, the key proponent of removing officers from the commission.
That change will help city officials understand how the community thinks a case should be handled, Thao said, and will build trust.
The commission is not the ultimate arbiter of disciplinary decisions. They make recommendations to Police Chief Todd Axtell, who has final say.
Council Members Dan Bostrom and Chris Tolbert, along with other residents, said the city should keep officers on the board. Mayor Chris Coleman had proposed keeping police on the board but require that they hold a commander’s rank, “ensuring that [they] are used to imposing discipline as part of their job.”
Sue Trupiano, chair of the review commission, told the City Council last week that civilian board members rely on the two officers as a resource and they should remain.
St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus said the city should not take subject matter experts off the commission. The decision to remove police was political, Titus said in a statement, and city leaders have “created something that is no better than a kangaroo court intent on getting cops.”
Thao said police might return to the board once trust is repaired. He said other city actions, such as construction of an $18 million police training facility, show that city officials support and value officers.
St. Paul’s review commission has been around for two decades. City leaders decided to re-examine it after getting complaints about the board’s exoneration of the officers who arrested Chris Lollie in a skyway lounge in 2014.
City officials asked the University of Minnesota’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking to audit the commission. The audit determined St. Paul should remove the officers as voting members of the board, a change the nonprofit National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement also recommended.
Civilian review boards are somewhat rare in Minnesota. Minneapolis and regional hubs like Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud have them, but smaller cities and suburbs generally do not. Minneapolis and St. Cloud have police on their boards and Duluth has a former law enforcement officer.