On Friday, September 21, the Minneapolis City Council will decide whether to substantially end civilian-controlled review of police behavior. The proposal before the council would abolish the current Civilian Review Authority, which has limped along with only two civilian investigators and an overburdened board, working hard to review cases even though the police chief usually disregards its recommendations. In its place, the new proposal would put a predominantly police-officer-conducted investigation process and review boards with two civilian and two police officer members. The only constant: the police chief could still ignore their findings and recommendations.

Pretty much everyone agrees that the current system has serious problems. Proponents of civilian review say it needs to be strengthened. Proponents of the ordinance say civilian review needs to be integrated with the police department.  After approval by the city council’s Public Safety, Health and Civil Rights committee on September 12, the ordinance is now set for consideration by the full council.

For detailed critique of the process and the substance of the proposed changes, see FREE SPEECH ZONE | Bye-bye to the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority and FREE SPEECH ZONE | Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority community meeting tonight — without three-day notice and FREE SPEECH ZONE | How to Dismantle the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority, by Velma Korbel

Civilian Review: How it works now

Links, documentation and side-by-side comparisons

• September 12 Public Safety, Health and Civil Rights Committee agenda
• CRA minutes 3/7/2012 – includes discussion of proposed changes and of lack of citizen or CRA input into the process of proposing changes
• Community feedback report from City of Minneapolis website includes citizen comments from hearings, letters, other documents — more than 100 pages
• Revised text of proposed Police Review Conduct Oversight ordinance
• Proposed changes – side by side comparison from City of Minneapolis website: compares Internal Affairs Unit, current Civilian Review Authority, proposed merger of CRA/IAU, and a fourth proposal made by CRA but not adopted by the city council committee
• Civilian Review Authority reports and statistics
• 2009 CRA annual report
• 2010 Civilian Review Authority statistics• 2011 Civilian Review Authority statistics
• Botched raid costs Minneapolis $1 million (Star Tribune, December 2011)
• Cost of Minneapolis police payouts could hit record this year (Star Tribune, July 31 2011)
• Minneapolis police payouts (Star Tribune, December 2011 list)

Here’s how the current Civilian Review Authority works. First, someone calls, emails or otherwise brings in a complaint against a police officer. The complaint is referred to an investigator, who gathers preliminary information, decides whether the complaint warrants further investigation. If the investigator thinks the complaint should go forward, it is written up and the complainant is asked to sign it. . In 2009, the CRA received 468 complaints. Only 30 percent — 141 — were determined to warrant further investigation. Of those 121 complaints, 114 were signed by the complainant and moved on to the next stage.

When a complaint is signed, the CRA sends notice to the Chief of Police and the investigators gather additional evidence, interview the officers and witnesses, and prepares a summary and recommendation. At this stage, the complaint may be referred for mediation. In 2009, there were 18 successful mediations and eight unsuccessful mediations.

Next comes a hearing before a panel composed of three members of the Civilian Review Authority. The officer and the complainant are both asked to attend.

The panel may sustain, not sustain, or dismiss the complaint. If the panel sustains the complaint, it makes a recommendation for discipline to the Chief of Police. Here’s the chart from the 2009 CRA annual report showing the determinations of the hearing panel:

 

The Chief of Police may discipline or not discipline the officer, or may send the case back for further investigation. Here’s what happened, again from the CRA 2009 annual report. Of a total of 35 officers recommended for disciplinary action by the CRA, only three cases involving five officers resulted in any kind of disciplinary action. That discipline was a letter of reprimand or an oral reprimand.

 

Two problems

Dave Bicking, a former member of the Civilian Review Authority,  that “pretty much everybody agrees that something needs to be done” about two problems: the length of time it takes for CRA investigations, and the lack of discipline imposed on officers.

“CRA has roughly the same number of investigations to do as internal affairs,” said Bicking, but has only two investigators, while MPD internal affairs has seven. The solution to the first part of the problem, according to Bicking: fund a sufficient number of investigators.

The other part of the problem is the Chief of Police refusal to discipline officers. That, said Bicking, is a problem for the city council, which appoints the chief and reviews the chief’s performance.

The proposal: Police Conduct Oversight

The proposed ordinance would eliminate the Civilian Review Authority. Instead, complaints would be reviewed by supervisory staff from both the Minneapolis civil rights department and the Minneapolis Police Department internal affairs unit.  They could refer the complaint elsewhere, require mediation, decline to pursue it, or refer it for formal investigation.

Investigation would be done by either civilians or police officers, but “Any complaint alleging criminal misconduct by an officer shall be investigated by the internal affairs unit.” In other words, any serious complaint against a police officer would be investigated by other police officers, not by civilians.

If a complaint gets through this process, it goes to a review panel. The panel is made up of two civilians (selected from a group appointed for this purpose by the mayor and city council) and two police officers. The panel is not allowed to hear testimony from the complainant or the officer or witnesses, unless specifically approved by the office of police conduct review. Because the panel is made up of two police officers and two civilians, any two members could create a tie vote.

Problems: Police investigating police

The biggest problem: Anyone filing a complaint would be assigned to an investigator — and there’s no provision allowing a complainant to request a civilian investigator.

If someone has a run-in with a police officer, will they want to make a complaint to another officer? Not likely. Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB) said in a flyer that is part of the public hearing record:

Complaining to the cops about the cops doesn’t work. As the plan states, the CRA office would exist “on paper only” and all complaints would really go to the police department. For the most part, the community DOES NOT trust cops to investigate other cops, which is why the CRA was started in the first place. The concerns are real—we’ve documented dozens of incidents of retaliation after people complained to internal affairs.

Other problems cited people in the public hearings:

  • It’s unsafe for civilians to file complaints about police officers with other police officers.
  • If someone complains about a crime (stolen property, etc.) you can be charged with a gross misdemeanor [if the complaint is made to police.] Current CRA allows you to complaint to citizens. 609.505.
  • There’s a loss of transparency – the new OPCR removes the Chief reporting to the complainant, the CRA and the community.
  • The chief is not disciplining IAU complaints … or CRA complaints. A combination of CRA and IAU is not a solution.
  • The Chief is free to ignore the CRA. This proposal not only doesn’t fix that, it makes it worse.
  • (These concerns and more can be found in the CRA community feedback document.)

There’s more to be said, and more that has been said — much more — but at this point, it looks like the final word will come from the city council on Friday.

Photo by taberandrew used under Creative Commons license

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