In general, we are served well by the large majority of police officers who work in our neighborhoods every day. The more that the police can build trusting and effective partnerships with the people they serve the better they will be able to help make this a safer, better city for everyone.
Still, we should all be concerned about incidents of police misconduct, however rare. We should be even more concerned by examples of our inability to maintain civilian oversight of the police and the erosion of public trust and confidence that too often results. In a recent opinion piece in Southside Pride Tony Bouza raised legitimate concerns and pointed us to potential solutions when he wrote that police “unions have gathered such enormous political power that they’ve made it virtually impossible to fire the 1 or 2 percent of malefactors in the ranks.”
To their credit the mayor and City Council have made efforts these past years to improve police accountability, to diversify the police force and to improve police community relations and community oriented policing efforts.
However, as a council member, the issue of police accountability has come up again and again in my work and has proven to be one of the most challenging areas to influence. Even as we have made progress, we have more work to do. There are persistent and serious problems. The City continues to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in judgments, settlement agreements and legal fees related to police behavior. I have not found an easy single solution, but I am convinced that the key will be maintaining a more effective, clear, fair and authoritative system of civilian oversight of the police force.
Towards that end, I offer the following ideas that might make a difference.
First, we need to look at the Minneapolis Charter and reconsider the wisdom of putting the supervision of the police department solely in the mayor’s hands, distancing it from the City Council and thus the electorate. According to the Charter, the mayor is “vested with all the powers of said city connected with and incident to the establishment, maintenance, appointment, removal, discipline, control and supervision of its police force, subject to the limitations herein contained and the provisions of the civil service chapter of this Charter, and may make all needful rules and regulations for the efficiency and discipline, and promulgate and enforce general and special orders for the government of the same, and have the care and custody of all public property connected with the police department of the city.” It is this arrangement that has made it particularly difficult for council members to fully engage and influence how we manage and assist our police officers. We have little hope of directing staff, setting policy about police behavior or instituting promising management practices like an Early Warning System to help identify officers early who might be at risk for misconduct, when the Charter gives us no authority over the department, except to approve the appointment of the police chief and the department’s budget. It is time to put the police chief on equal footing with other department heads. There is no good reason why the Council should be able to directly influence Public Works, the Health Department, the Fire Department, Inspections, and all of the other essential functions of city government but not the police department.
Second, we need to strengthen the Civilian Review Authority (CRA), by getting it subpoena power, making its determinations public information, giving it the authority to impose discipline, and providing it the funds needed to make it effective. The first three steps will require state legislative or City Charter changes, but the third can be done as part of this year’s budget process. The CRA, housed in the Civil Rights Department, continues to offer the community one of the most hopeful avenues for addressing concerns about police behavior and police management in a way that is connected to community standards. A good first step would be funding an additional CRA investigator in next year’s budget. The only way the public will have confidence in the work of the CRA is for investigations to be done in a fair, timely and quality professional manner.
Third, we need to take a closer look at our Civil Service Commission to ensure that it is working well for everyone. Especially in matters of employee termination, the Commission appears to have a great deal of discretion. Certainly we must be sure that the rights and interests of workers are protected, but in order to run an effective and credible police force, the authority of the police chief, working through the mayor or perhaps someday the Council, must be able to hire and fire officers with cause after a fair and good process is followed. It is time for the City Council to reexamine how civil service commissioners are recruited, appointed and empowered to ensure they are working in the best interests of the public as well as our valuable public employees.
Finally, as Bouza emphasized, certain terms of the police contract must be changed to ensure that the police administration and civilian oversight can discipline officers as warranted. Like all city employees, police officers should be able to count on being treated fairly by the City. But the current contract goes far beyond that by erecting unreasonable barriers to holding officers accountable for actions that violate the civil rights of Minneapolis residents and putting the City at significant liability risk. The City’s latest Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Minneapolis Police Federation is set to expire Dec. 31, 2011. Before negotiations begin in June or July next year it will be important for the City Council and its Executive Committee to identify and take a firm stand on where and how the agreement needs to be improved.
If we do, and if we are able to honor and build on all the good policing that is already going on while enhancing civilian oversight, we can create better community-police relations and make this a safer, better city for everyone