Minneapolis cop-community negotiations hampered by suspicion, friction

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Last week we began this story on the status of the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority (CRA) expecting it to conclude this week. However, due to new and changing information obtained during the course of our writers’ investigation, we have decided to expand the story into three parts to provide as much current information as possible on this important topic. Part two below examines more of the dynamics in the ongoing power struggle between the CRA, the police department, and others with a stake in the outcome.

City Council Member Betsy Hodges’ motion to amend Minneapolis ordinance 172.130 in a way that would have strengthened the CRA’s ability to discipline police officers was tabled after being introduced to the city council and its Health, Energy and Environment (HE&E) subcommittee in late June. She has since drafted a revised ordinance amendment that is stirring up yet more controversy.

“We had hope [for] the original ordinance change. It was great! No sooner than [Council Member Hodges] started, she bailed on us,” said Michele Gross, vice president of Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB).

When promoting her original motion, Council Member Hodges, Ward 13, asserted that, “it is crucial that police officers follow the law and maintain the civil rights of every citizen. The CRA is an important, foundational check and balance to our public safety initiatives.” But Hodges’ thinking about the importance of the CRA’s authority changed pretty quickly after consulting some of the very people that were against her original motion: the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).

“It was sad to hear Hodges describe…how she had met with these different parties over what they would accept in a proposed ordinance change, and how she rewrote her ordinance proposal to comply with their demands,” continued Gross. “She didn’t think she could get enough votes on the council for the original wording.”

Before, Hodges was adamantly against allowing the MPD chief to say whether or not a case should be sustained. The new draft proposal does not allow this explicitly, but it actually gives the chief several options in setting the terms of discipline. He or she may impose discipline; determine that no discipline will be imposed; request that the CRA Board reconsider within 15 days of receiving the case; or request a 30-day extension to take action.

If the chief chooses no discipline or asks for reconsideration of a sustained case, he or she can explain his or her reasoning at a closed CRA Board meeting.

“Should this proposal become law, the chief will simply remand every sustained case back to the CRA for reconsideration and then refuse to issue discipline — essentially the same situation we have today, but with an elaborate new mechanism for tying up the CRA Board,” said Gross in a monthly CUAPB newsletter.

The CRA Board voted to accept Hodges’ revised ordinance change. CRA Board member Julian Johnson is so disappointed by the decision that he is considering resignation. “They should have been getting some justice for these citizens or making these officers think twice,” he said.

“We were initially surprised that Hodges posed an ordinance amendment,” said CRA Board member Robert Velez. “She was an unlikely ally, given the constituency she represents [in Ward 13]. In the spirit of supporting what we’ve been fighting for — forcing the chief’s hand to discipline — why wouldn’t we support her? She came to us the second time after [consulting] the city attorney who advised that the amendment was in violation of charter, but it was still essentially what we needed.”

Velez was interested in the particular language carried by the motion: “A sustained CRA complaint shall be deemed just cause for disciplinary action…that’s what is needed. And to demand that the chief appear before the board to explain himself… It wasn’t everything we needed, but it was more than what we had,” Velez said.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment: “There was a certain and particular problem that required a certain and particular solution,” added Gross. “This board, whose responsibility in part is to defend the CRA, became willing participants in their own disempowerment, and in so doing betrayed the community.”

A taskforce without community members
Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights Interim Director Michael Browne’s Study of the Policy and Process of the Minneapolis CRA recommended a working group, now called the CRA Taskforce, as an external body that meets regularly to discuss Browne’s recommendations as well as their own concerns about the CRA. “[The taskforce] was a great idea and potentially a great tool to help increase residents’ confidence in the police department; to identify guilty police officers and address misconduct,” said City Council Member Cam Gordon, Ward 2, one of six city council members on the taskforce.

“Browne’s leadership is important,” said Michael Weinbeck, chair of the CRA Board. “It was the impetus of a conversation that the board has been wanting to have for the last three years. The report was responsible for getting the ball rolling in these conversations that are long overdue.”

“This is and has always been a battle between people who thought [the CRA] could work again and those who don’t want it to work,” said Gross. “Some of the freshmen council members thought something would happen, but there are no community members [on the taskforce]. Having community members at the table means you can report stuff.

“The vision for some was to create a CRA that actually did something, and for others, to create a system to take the steam off the kettle, but not actually work…so it would feel like something is happening. A fair amount of the council members don’t mind what the police are doing,” said Gross.

The CRA Board has the same concerns. “Community representation has not been integrated into the process,” acknowledged Weinbeck. “We want to make opportunities for the public’s comments and for new issues to be brought up. The CRA is important from a police oversight perspective, but is also integral in getting the community involved.”

Bias accusations
The CRA Board, as a group of civilians, has already been accused of bias by members of the MPD. Anne Cross, chair of the steering committee for the CRA Board, considers herself an advocate for law enforcement despite allegations to the contrary. Johnson has participated in a one-man protest against former Chief William McManus, passing out flyers about his failure to impose discipline on problem officers. He asserts that he has taken these actions on his own time and that he can remain objective as a board member.

Weinbeck challenges anyone to “look for a line item in a report against the police [that suggests bias]. It’s not capricious. It can’t be. It’s documented. [The board] is able to back up every decision without bias,” he said.

“The CRA has held up their part of the bargain,” Cross insisted. “We have a very good board that carefully reviews each case. There is a lack of discipline for sustained cases… The only time we’ll see change is when there is a drop in [the] 84 percent [no discipline rate].”

“The department will always have a problem with decisions, because the process takes conflict of interest away,” said Weinbeck. “The [police] department is second-guessing what the board has ordinance [authority] to decide. They really have not been in compliance with the ordinance. The CRA board [are the] fact finders and determine whether allegations are sustained. The MPD is trying to do that job as well and undermine the investigations of the CRA.”

Where is the real bias? The City Attorney’s Office also has a role in this. “When the police beat someone, [the City Attorney’s Office] inevitably brings phony charges, preventing lawsuits,” said Gross. “This is their version of self-indemnification. Any self-indemnification organization will always need a risk-management strategy. Under Heck versus Humphrey, “if a person is found guilty of a crime, anything police did is justified,” said Gross.

City Attorney Peter Ginder serves as legal advisor to the CRA board. “He issued a series of memos trying to stake the claim that the mayor’s partial delegation of oversight of police to the CRA board is somehow a violation of the city charter,” said Gross in a CUAPB newsletter. “That’s also the office that defends the city against the waves of lawsuits when their cops get out of line. It’s an interesting issue all by itself that a guy with this much skin in the game gets to advise the city council and the CRA on the legalities of an ordinance change that could hold the cops accountable.”

Eighteen-year MPD Veteran Deputy Chief Don Harris said, “Anyplace you look, with respect to a CRA or oversight, there is suspicion, animosity, and some degree of friction. Many departments utilize an independent monitor; someone from the mayor’s office reports on the status and quality of cases,” he said.

We’ve learned that repeat offenders on the police force are not rare. Browne makes two recommendations to counteract this trend: an independent review or audit of internal affairs, and the implementation of an early warning system giving CRA management a sign when there is a potential problem officer or related issue.

“Tracking this information throughout the process provides a full perspective. Statistically and sociologically, it’s usually a small group of officers who are responsible for the majority of the complaints. If we can identify the officers and deal with the complaint, that’s huge when you start talking about community policing and historical relationships,” said Browne.

‘Culture of policing’ at fault?
“In any metro area in the country, the police abuse people of color and those in poverty,” said Johnson, who was the only African American on the CRA Board when he joined in November 2004. “Individuals in other areas act out, but when they respond to those calls, [police] are respectful and patient due to their status, [knowing] they will not tolerate mistreatment.

“When in a poor area,” Johnson said, “the guy on the street may curse and holler, but he is not likely to file a complaint. The officers are knowledgeable about who they can abuse and who they dare not abuse. There is low tolerance. It’s intimidating when you’re filing a complaint and there are no people of color on the board,” he said.

“There are police officers that are habitual in abusing their authority and aggrieving citizens. When the CRA issues a recommendation, the chief should maintain discipline,” said Johnson. He views the MPD’s lack of discipline as part of a “culture of policing that embraces a blue code of silence.”

“Police [do] not snitch on another police officer. They’re in this together. The Police Federation represents that officer no matter what. They may even be fired, but the Federation [will get] their job back. In some cases, they should have been prosecuted for a criminal offense… They’ll fight tooth and nail to protect the officers, because they are one of them.

“No one [can] tell them how to police the streets,” Johnson said. “The same names are popping up over and over again, and they’re not being held accountable. The rank-and-file officers and the administration know about the bad apples, so why are they tolerant of bad behavior? It gets back to the culture of policing.”

Next week: Michael Browne talks about the history of police unions in the context of the MPD’s defensiveness against external accountability. Will the concept of community policing ever exist?

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