Are police reformers on the defensive?

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Less than two weeks after negotiating a delicate truce around the confirmation of Police Chief Tim Dolan, police reformers on the Minneapolis City Council are proceeding carefully on gaining one of the central demands in their fight for expanded police accountability—broad subpoena power for the Civilian Review Authority (CRA).

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, council members Betsy Hodges, Ralph Remington, and Elizabeth Glidden—three of the council’s most rabid police reformers—sat quietly as Council Member Paul Ostrow argued for sharply reduced subpoena power for the agency. “I’m not in favor of compelling witnesses to testify,” Ostrow said, adding that he viewed the CRA has less of a judicial and more of an “administrative-type” process.

He would not oppose issuing subpoenas to get material evidence, such as a convenience store videotape, to help CRA investigate cases of police misconduct, but he would not support a move that would compel eyewitnesses to testify.

This, of course, was exactly the type of broad powers the CRA working group recommended the agency be granted in its recently released report. The task force was looking for ways to make the CRA’s investigations more thorough and effective, and broad subpoena powers have always been though to be the only way to break through the culture of indifference that has characterized the police department’s relationship with the CRA..

Granting the CRA that power, however, would require a change in the city charter or approval from the State Legislature. And Tuesday’s meeting did little to advance the idea in either direction.

Rather than argue for those broader powers, Glidden, a prominent member of the CRA working group, asked only that the committee “be clear about what our options are for making that happen.” And Hodges, the IGR Committee chair, who has been a surprisingly high-profile advocate for a more powerful CRA, called for “further discussions” on the matter.

Hodges said later that she and her allies have not lost their taste for the political fight ahead, noting that Tuesday’s meeting was clearly not designed to forge any consensus on the matter. Indeed, she said, she made it clear at the outset of the meeting that she did not intend to push the issue. Much of that work is going on behind the scenes and it will come up again for debate in the weeks ahead, when the committee formally drafts the city’s legislative priorities for 2007.

She acknowledged that there is significant opposition on the council, but vowed to continue working on the issue, perhaps the most meaningful component of the council’s ambitious police reform agenda.

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