Voter's Guide: Mayoral candidates outline views on police accountability

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October 16, 2013
By: Michelle Bruch
Mayor R.T. Rybak, Police Chief Janee Harteau and former Police Chief Tim Dolan.
Michelle Bruch

The Minneapolis Police Department has come under close scrutiny in the 2013 mayor’s race, prompted by officer scandals and an overhaul of the civilian review process for alleged police misconduct.

In two separate incidents in Apple Valley and Green Bay that recently came to light, officers allegedly used racial slurs and got into fights.

The Department is already in the midst of a major initiative to change its culture, called MPD 2.0. Chief Janeé Harteau told 1,000 MPD personnel last winter they must operate by one primary guiding principle: “Did my actions reflect how I would expect a family member to be treated?”

Aside from the attempt at culture change, the city’s civilian review process recently underwent major reform to become the Office of Police Conduct Review. The Office is working its way through a backlog of cases that currently date back to 2010. 

Police received 344 new complaints between the fall of 2012 and summer of 2013. Most complaints stemmed from downtown’s 1st Precinct, and most of the downtown complaints related to use of excessive force or inappropriate language or attitude.

Under the new process, complaints can either be dismissed, referred to officer supervisors for coaching, mediated, or sent to an investigator.

“Lower-level” cases alleging things like rude behavior are referred to the officer’s supervisor, who must immediately coach the officer to fix the problem. About half of the complaints that are not dismissed go this route. The new office checks the quality and timeliness of the coaching. Some precincts have many more outstanding coaching sessions than others, and the paperwork varies in quality, according to Michael Browne, director of the Office of Police Conduct Review. 

“This opens some windows and doors we hadn’t been able to look into before,” Browne said.

All complaints against officers are tracked into the future, said Velma Korbel, director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department.

“If you get 10 level A [minor complaints], you might get kicked out of the police department,” she said. 

Cases sent to mediation have seen some surprising outcomes, according to city staff. Some officers have offered ride-a-longs to complainants.

For more severe offenses, the civilian review process now includes two citizens who meet with two police officers, ranked lieutenant or higher, with at least 15 years experience. In the past, police and citizens evaluated cases separately, and civilians couldn’t see all files in the internal affairs system. Split decisions go to the chief for a final decision. 

The new review panel has deemed several serious complaints to have merit, but the chief has not yet issued discipline — the “reckoning period” has expired in those cases.

We asked each candidate whether they would further reform the Police Department, and we asked them whether they support the new Office of Police Conduct Review process. 

Their responses are summarized below:

Mark Andrew, former Hennepin County Commissioner and founder of GreenMark, said most officers serve the city well. But the spate of racist incidents this summer by some officers is disturbing and inexcusable, he said. 

“I am glad to see Chief Janeé Harteau committed to improving the culture inside the MPD,” Andrew said.

Andrew wants more training when needed, closer police ties with the community and strong discipline when necessary.

“We can’t let the actions of a few officers taint the whole department,” he said.

Regarding civilian review, Andrew said the previous Civilian Review Authority was treated as “political football.” He said he’s troubled that the new Office of Police Conduct Review has yet to review cases. 

(Editor’s note: The agency is currently reviewing the backlog of cases, and expects to be up-to-date by year-end.)

“As mayor, I will support a rigorous police conduct review process that includes an active role for the community, as well as provides a place for the community and police to review complaints together,” Andrew said. 

Jackie Cherryhomes, a consultant and former City Council president, said most officers handle challenges with professionalism and a desire to serve the city. 

“Unfortunately, the actions of a few officers have greatly tarnished the reputation of the Minneapolis Police Department,” Cherryhomes said. “I believe that Chief Harteau has taken the correct first steps to address these issues, however we must make it a top priority to create an environment that will not tolerate racism, bias and bullying.”

Cherryhomes wants to continually review and improve officer screening, selection and training. She wants swift discipline for problem officers.

She doesn’t think the current Office of Police Conduct Review is as strong as it needs to be. 

“I am concerned with any process that allows the Chief of Police to have a tie-breaking vote,” she said. “As mayor, I would restore the Civilian Police Review Board, working with the community to structure the board in a way that brings attorneys, retired police officers and nonprofit agencies together under a citizen chair.”

Dan Cohen, an independent candidate and Planning Commission member, is not happy with the police department.

“After an initial hearing and review of the tapes, the cops involved in the Apple Valley and Green Bay incidents should have been fired on the spot,” he said in an email, referring to officers who allegedly used racial slurs and became involved in fights. “There isn’t an institution in this country that would have tolerated this kind of behavior.” 

Cohen wants a crisis management committee to meet when a major incident occurs, particularly to unify the voices of the mayor, police chief and council members. 

Cohen also wants to encourage cops to live within Minneapolis through salary incentives, jobs for spouses, tuition for children or extra off-duty work opportunities. 

“A 24-hour-a-day cop triples the police presence of an 8-hour-a-day cop,” he said. 

Regarding civilian review, Cohen said that in order to be effective, the agency needs subpoena power.

Bob Fine, a long-term Park Board commissioner, thinks the police department needs to refocus its efforts on serious safety issues, rather than minor infractions like parking tickets. 

Fine spent 18 years on the city’s Civil Rights Commission, serving until 1998. 

“We were the ones who pushed the City Council to do civilian review,” he said in an interview. “I never had the feeling it accomplished at all what we intended it to do.”

He wants any civilian review authority to have supboena power to deeply investigate complaints.

“The fact that we have so many complaints is terrible,” he said. 

Fine said doesn’t have enough information yet to judge the current Office of Police Conduct Review process.

“I hope what’s been done improves the situation,” he said.

Betsy Hodges, 13th Ward City Council member, said culture change is one of her and Police Chief Harteau’s highest priorities. 

“We need a department that looks like Minneapolis and behaves like Minneapolis,” she said.

Hodges said she initially opposed the Office of Police Conduct Review, because it needs more structured civilian input. 

“That said, it has been in place for only a year, and I am willing to give it more time to see how well it works,” she said. “I have been committed to improving police accountability for the last eight years, working to improve civilian review and create an early-detection system to identify potential problems.” 

Don Samuels, 5th Ward City Council member, said he wants to take advantage of a wave of retirements over the next 10 years to diversify the police force. He wants to revisit the qualification and recruitment process to screen for strong “human values” and “people skills.” He is also interested in an internship-style pipeline that aids the department’s community service officers. 

Samuels said he fully supports Harteau’s internal push for more community engagement.

“Too often, we don’t have police officers out of their car and walking the beat, building relationships and trust with the community,” he said. “I want to see more officers walking in our neighborhoods, canvassing our homes and providing more than just a uniform and service, but a first-name basis relationship with the community.” 

Samuels also wants to work with the police union and police chief to provide a method to remove officers with “hateful behavior.”

Regarding civilian review, Samuels said he has confidence the new process will create more police accountability going forward.

“Despite how some candidates in this race want to portray the Office of Police Conduct Review, it is an enormous improvement over its predecessor and I do support it,” he said. 

The separate civilian and police silos in the review process meant that cases could bounce back and forth without resolution, he said, creating the backlog we have today. The joint review of police and civilians mean decisions carry more weight and “combined sensibilities,” he said.

Cam Winton, an independent candidate and wind power attorney, wants a culture change in the department so each officer is empowered and obligated to call out peers for bad behavior. He also wants to put cameras on officers, either on their vests or on glasses, to record their work. 

“Cities that have implemented on-body cameras have seen dramatic declines in allegations of misconduct,” Winton said. 

He also wants more officers on bike patrol, to allow more interaction with residents, and more officers to investigate rising property crime.

“A city our size should have 975 officers, but we only have 850,” he said. 

Winton said he supports the current Office of Police Conduct Review — “but it had better start showing results very soon or else I’ll start revising the process,” he said. 

He noted that the new process is supported by candidate Don Samuels, who Winton called a “rock-solid advocate” for communities most impacted by police conduct. 

“I was troubled, though, by the recent news that despite reviewing more than 400 complaints, the process has yielded zero disciplinary actions,” Winton said. “So I’ll be watching very closely to ensure that our system is effectively restoring residents’ trust in the police department.”

 Stephanie Woodruff, whose campaign was endorsed by the Independence Party, said she would not reform the police department at this time. 

“Chief Harteau just rolled out her MPD 2.0 plan at the first of the year,” Woodruff said. “I have great confidence in her and her 30 years of experience. I will support her reform plan.”

Woodruff said her role as mayor is to support and empower the experts, demand results and hold decision-makers accountable.

On civilian oversight, Woodruff said she is open to the idea of an oversight committee comprised of both civilians and police officers, as is currently the case. She said many successful models for this work exist across the country, and how Minneapolis adapts those models will require substantial discussion.