OPINION | An ethics officer can help reform the Minneapolis Police Department

Print

To Mayor Betsy Hodges,

Last month, I attended a forum at the Minneapolis Urban League about police-community relations. One of the panelists, longtime community leader and media presence Ron Edwards, pointedly mentioned that all of the debates about problems of police conduct were not so different from debates in the 1960s — we’ve had 50 years of a community looking for positive reform but getting very little.

The event was hosted by Council Member Yang, and sharing the panel was Council Member Andrew Johnson, who impressed the crowd with his genuine interest in listening for policy reform ideas. He follows a path I know you took as a council member representing a relatively White district who believes that confidence about police services is a citywide concern and not just a matter for the council members who have many constituents of color.

As you knew then, and Johnson and Yang stated again, there is little that the city council can do to achieve reform. Under the city charter, only the mayor or designee — normally interpreted to mean the police chief — can discipline police officers.

This article is reposted from TCDP media partner Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. Check out the links below for other recent Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder stories:

While many ideas were presented at the forum, some new, some old, I’d like to convince you to begin with a single step. Though I believe many of the ideas shared by the community are well worth consideration, I recognize that if the conversations have been ongoing for 50 years, it means proposed reforms are often too contentious to easily move forward. My request is highly unlikely to be contentious, given what it would require opponents to argue.

I ask that you use your authority to focus on police ethics, perhaps enlisting the assistance of a designated city employee who might be called the Chief Ethics Officer for your administration. When a police officer testifies in court or writes a report for use in criminal justice that can be documented as falsified, your confirming review will lead you to fire that city employee under your authority as mayor, not as a violation of police policy or practices, but as a violation of the Minneapolis Ethics policy. It’s possible the current ethics policy would need a bit of amending, but I’m sure the council will support such an effort, along with any minor budgetary adjustment.

There may be some grounds for lesser consequences. For instance, an officer who self-reports and then engages in a restorative dialogue with the victim of the report may not need to be terminated. But the central message is that we have enough problems of criminal justice disparities without a police force compounding it with false testimony. Prosecutors (including city staff), defense attorneys, and judges are all aware how often false police testimony shows up at court.

The week I am writing this, the Legal Rights Center, which handles just a small proportion of the cases originating with the Minneapolis Police, had two instances in our files that qualify. One falsification was documented by a doctor’s note in a hospital record, the other by the squad car camera.

Those who justify excessive force, as well as lesser police transgressions, do so on the grounds that police officers have difficult jobs that are especially dangerous in certain neighborhoods. Though many would join me in finding this view offensive, I recognize how that’s been an obstacle to reform.

Even enormous lawsuit payouts get rationalized as the cost of public safety. Yet how can this inequitable viewpoint extend to excusing police dishonesty in arrest documents and court testimony? I cannot imagine that the police union is going to engage in a public relations campaign around the idea that crime control requires officers to invent details in their reports and commit perjury.

I know you genuinely have wanted to see improvements in police-community relations; it’s not just a political situation to handle but something you think very deeply about. While you contemplate your political ability to take on the contentious stuff, why not set the tone, consistent with your principles, for something you uniquely have the power to move forward with. Let the Hodges administration be known as the one in which there is zero tolerance for police dishonesty.

Michael Friedman is the executive director of the Legal Rights Center, a member of the Fourth Judicial District (Hennepin) District Ethics Committee and former chair of the Civilian Review Authority.

Read more TC Daily Planet coverage of police misconduct issues.