A public forum about the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD) taser policy was held July 15 at City Hall in Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority (CRA) sponsored the public meeting. Thirty members of the public were present to ask questions and hear what progress the CRA has made in assessing MPD taser use and policy. Those present were critical of the MPD’s arguments supporting the use of tasers.
For more information, see REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK | Tasers in Minneapolis
The CRA board member panelists were Pamela Franklin, Austen Zuege, chair Donald Bellfield, manager Lee Reid, and CRA manager and head of the policy committee David Bicking. Justin Terrell, also a board member, was the moderator of the forum. Among the five panelists, only Reid, Bicking, and Terrell spoke.
Others present in the audience were representatives from the offices of Mayor Rybak and council member Cam Gordon, former CRA board chair Michael Friedman, and Communities United Against Police Brutality cofounder Michelle Gross.
MPD and city council recommendations
The MPD declined to be present at the meeting, but pamphlets were provided expressing the MPD’s point of view on its use of tasers. Bicking gave an overview of how and why tasers are used. He said the MPD’s main case for taser use is that they are “less lethal” if used properly, as compared to physical beating or gunshot wounds.
The panelists explained that the MPD’s taser policy came under CRA scrutiny after the MPD removed taser policy recommendations in 2007. The recommendations were passed by the Minneapolis City Council a year prior, in return for the authorization of the purchase of 160 new tasers by the MPD. Reid said that the CRA asked the previous policy be reinstated. The MPD has recently rejected that recommendation.
The recommended taser policy, which included restrictions like the number of officers who could taser a person at a time, and where a person could be tased, was almost entirely removed from the policy manual without the consultation or notification of the City Council or the CRA. The MPD said that it had just moved the policy to its training manuals, and since every officer must obey the training manual, the recommendations would also have to be obeyed. The CRA says the MPD has violated city council recommendations and needs to be held accountable.
Reid also said there is an issue of whether police officers guilty of misconduct are disciplined. Once a police misconduct complaint is filed with the CRA, it can be investigated by a CRA investigator. The investigative report is forwarded to a CRA board hearing panel that consists of three randomly appointed CRA board members. The hearing panel determines whether to “sustain” or “not sustain” the complaint. If there is enough evidence to show that the alleged misconduct occurred, the case is referred to the chief of police who will make the final disciplinary decision. If the police chief decides that the allegations are not “sustained”, the accused police officer will not be disciplined.
“The tricky part is whether you’re trying to determine if [the incident] is a policy violation or a training issue,” said Reid. “If the officer violates a policy, he can be disciplined for this. But if it’s a training issue, there’s no discipline. You’d just say the officer needs to be trained better.”
Terrell said that this is an issue of accountability, and that sometimes, police officers involved in sustained cases do not get disciplined.
Limited use-of-force data
Another issue of accountability, according to Reid and Bicking, includes the lack of use of force data provided by the MPD. “We don’t have as good data as we’d like. We requested more data months ago but we still haven’t received a response. We’re just waiting,” said Bicking.
Current taser use data shows that when the MPD requested to purchase 160 tasers in 2006, the number of taser use incidents spiked to 232 that year from just 50 incidents the year prior. That number almost doubled to 437 taser use incidents in 2007.
Bicking said that in 2006, little over half of the use incidents were of tasers used for one cycle, or five seconds, which is standard procedure. One cycle serves the purpose of incapacitation, thus making it easier to handcuff the subject. However, Bicking said the other half of the taser incidents in 2006 involved two to six cycles. Five cycles can be fatal, and according to the city council’s 2006 recommendations, a taser should not be used for more than three cycles.
According to the CRA’s data, one person was tased for eleven cycles.
Other data presented by the CRA showed MPD taser use by race of the subject. Between 2006 and 2008, out of a total of 1,046 taser incidents, 61 percent of the subjects were black, 25 percent were white, and 14 percent were of another nonwhite race. The average percentage of taser incidents on nonwhite subjects in those three years was 75 percent.
Many questions on accountability, not enough answers
After discussing the data provided by the MPD, the panel opened the floor to attendees who had questions or comments. Michelle Gross, cofounder of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said, “Tasers have become the preferred tool in many situations that have nothing to do with lethal force. Amnesty international has called them the ‘perfect torture device.’ They cause tremendous pain and have run the real risk of potential death. They are not non-lethal; they are less lethal.”
Another forum attendee brought up that the old taser policy instructed that tasers should not be used against pregnant women or those with a history of heart disease. “But I don’t know how many people get interviewed before they get tased. What if a person is just a few months pregnant, how do you tell?” she asked.
Several attendees brought up the issue of accountability.
“Who is the police department accountable to?” asked one frustrated audience member. “If the CRA can’t see the MPD’s use of force data, then who can make them answer our questions?”
Reid said that according to the city charter, “the police chief refers to the mayor, so the mayor has direct authority. But that doesn’t mean that’s the exclusive means of holding the police department accountable. The city council can have impact on policy decisions of the police department. City council has some control over funding of police department.”
“That’s why we have the citizens and the CRA,” added Terrell. “[It’s] to hold the police department accountable to their own policies and practices. This is the time when it’s really important that you guys are involved.” He urged everyone to contact city council members and advocate for more police accountability. “No one likes accountability,” said Terrell.
Kenneth Brown, chair of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, described his frustration at the lack of police accountability. “Several commissioners asked the police chief questions about police misconduct in March. They also asked these questions to the Mayor, the City Council chair, the Police Accountability Coordinating Committee (PACC), the city attorney, the director of the Health, Energy and Environment Committee, and the human resources director. Nobody has answered these questions.” Brown claimed the “police department said we can’t ask those questions, [they said] we have no right to.” The CRA had no comment.
Other attendees blamed the Police Accountability Coordinating Committee (PACC) for not being accountable itself. The PACC formed in 2006 to deal with police accountability issues and is made up of members from the CRA, the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, the MPD, the Mayor’s office and the City Council.
“PACC meetings are closed to the public although the police department says it wants to hear from the public at these meetings,” said one attendee. He also asked why the CRA would send a representative to “a closed meeting of the PACC when the CRA was created to increase transparency? Those meetings don’t have anything discussed in them that the citizens don’t need to know. So what’s the problem? Why are they closed?”
Reid said that sometimes “there are issues that come up [at PACC meetings] that shouldn’t be open to the public.” The attendee persisted, saying the meetings could have a public portion and a private portion. Reid did not address the suggestion but instead tried to assure the public that the CRA has been trying to keep the MPD accountable.
“The CRA needs a lot of help”
Reid emphasized that the CRA “needs more people to be involved with this issue. Spread the word.” Reid also said that most citizens don’t feel like they need what the CRA and civil rights department provides them. “If you’ve never been stopped by the police you won’t care. Some people believe that only those who have problems with the police need to act. But whoever knows better needs to be involved, because this affects all of us,” said Reid.
Bicking echoed Reid’s call for more involvement from the community. “The CRA needs a lot of help, we’re volunteers and we don’t have time,” said Bicking. “It’s not just taser policy we’re looking into. We need more research, writing, and outreach.” Bicking also said that the CRA board hasn’t been full for a long time and that more board members are needed.
The meeting ended on that note, with no official provisions or recommendations made. Although attendees discussed what possible routes the CRA could take next, there was no real indication of what will happen next, except for a CRA meeting with the MPD on August 5 at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, room 333. The CRA urges members of the public to attend the meeting and be more involved.
Lolla Mohammed Nur (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a student at the University of Minnesota and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.
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