Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights Interim Director Michael Browne remains diligent in his quest to improve the historically troubled department. With a current staff of four lawyers/investigators and three full-time law students, his goals for moving the department forward is certain to keep him and his staff busy.
These goals include improving the department’s function as an outlet for information; changing the way the Complaint Investigations Unit (CIU) process is documented; hiring a consultant to review the Contract Compliance Unit (CCU); and reversing the tendency to sustain cases older than 365 days.
Browne’s vision for the department emphasizes access and transparency. He expects that the department will disseminate information more effectively by “increasing awareness to all communities of color and surpassing language barriers.”
Browne conducted a “Residents’ Survey” using the discrimination complaints that came in this year. “Two things stood out,” he said of the results: “One-fifth of the people felt discriminated against in the past 12 months, and the Latino community is underrepresented in this department.
“Our services are underutilized, especially if one-fifth of those surveyed feel discriminated against,” said Browne. He believes that overall feedback on the department’s performance since his appointment has shown amazing improvement.
Question-and-answer sessions, called community education and engagement meetings, have also begun. These meetings allow the department to team up with neighborhood organizations to discuss the full role of the department and how it can be better utilized by community members.
One Northside resident was concerned about all the vacant property, a growing problem that she noticed does not seem to exist as heavily in other areas of the city. “When you’re living in one of these buildings, you’re in danger,” she said. “Just because you’re poor, you don’t know any better or don’t deserve it… It’s discrimination plain and simple.”
The CIU, coordinated by Ronald Brandon II, has the most contact with the public. This area of the department provides constituent services by investigating allegations of discrimination in educational institutions, employment, labor, lending, public accommodations, public services, professional organization memberships and services, and real estate (housing). Cases investigated through the CIU have an opportunity to be awarded damages.
Browne plans to apply his legal writing skills to developing a process where decision-making by the CIU is solely based upon the law, using legal principals, interpreting ordinance, and fact finding. In reading past decisions, Browne has found that “they did not [necessarily] follow administrative law or recognize its strengths and requirements. By doing so, it streamlines the cases for accuracy and it’s [clear] as to why the decision was made,” he explained. Browne intends to correct these deficiencies in the administrative processing of complaints and see that the corrections are implemented.
Reducing the processing time for discrimination cases is a team effort. “Any case over 31 months is old and starts to create prejudice,” said Browne. “Phase one is to eliminate any case older than 31 months. Phase two is to eliminate the cases from 12 to 31 months old. Within a year, the backlogs should be eliminated.”
The studies, evaluations and recommendations made by Browne thus far will purge the system of its kinks and bumps so that there will be a fair, just, streamlined process from beginning to end. “We should expect high quality of our government,” he said. “Because the topic is civil rights does not mean there should be a substandard decision… That is an unacceptable standard. The City has already created the mechanism and the tools; now it’s time to use those tools.”
Even before he was appointed as interim director, Browne was charged to figure out what changes were needed for the department’s success. One of the major issues was the Civilian Review Authority (CRA). He published A Study of the Policy and Process of the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority in February 2006. According to the report, “The City’s Civilian Review Authority — an eleven-person panel that investigates allegations of officer misconduct — has been largely ineffective for years.”
In addition to addressing discrimination in his office, Browne also set out to implement effective community policing and a police department that is consistently held accountable. “We want the law enforced, but also the police officers to abide by the law,” Browne said at a recent community gathering.
In order to do this, he recommended that the city council “establish a working group (CRA Taskforce) with the authority and power to address these issues and come back to the city council with recommendations on how to deal with the issues raised in the report.
“The [city] council took immediate action, and everyone was on board,” he said. He has also recommended an “independent review or audit of internal affairs to implement an early warning system that gives management a sign when there is a potential problem officer or related issue and to track information throughout the process, giving a full perspective [of the problem] statistically and sociologically,” Browne said.
With this system, problem officers can be identified quicker and disciplined in a timely manner, thereby preventing additional discriminatory cases. “It’s usually a small group of officers who are responsible for the majority of the complaints. If you can identify the officers and deal with the complaints…it’s huge when you start talking about community policing and historical relationships, especially relationships with people of color,” Browne continued.
A similar review will also be conducted on the City’s Contract Compliance Unit, requiring every contract that exceeds $50,000 to uphold an affirmative action/antidiscrimination policy. Further work will be done to assess the status of cultural diversity in Minneapolis city government.
Next week: more about the CRA report and the latest on its reform. To contact Michael Browne, file a complaint, or receive educational services about civil rights, call 612-673-3012.