Community leaders push to make MPD more accountable
Days after her head smashed through the rear window of a Minneapolis Police squad car in September 2004, Alicia Smith filed a complaint against the officer she said was responsible for the incident.
The Civilian Police Review Authority, known as the CRA, investigated the complaint and sustained it this year. When it reached the police chief, no discipline was issued.
“It's frustrating,” said Smith, who was hoping for years that the officer she encountered would be punished. “I haven't seen anything done.”
Two investigators, several city staff and an 11-member civilian board comprise the CRA, which investigates complaints brought against Minneapolis police officers and forwards its determinations to the police chief. The chief decides whether discipline is necessary.
Years of conflict between the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and the CRA have raised questions among citizens and city leaders about its effectiveness. The CRA was dismantled, redesigned and integrated into the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights in 2002, but problems persisted -particularly concerns about the chief's accountability and the quality of CRA investigations - so the city began another attempt to improve the CRA this year.
A council-appointed workgroup developed recommendations for the organization in August and some have been implemented. Other changes were scheduled to be approved at the Oct. 20 City Council meeting.
“The bottom line is making sure the agency is effective,” said CRA Manager Samuel Lee Reid. “Making sure complainants are getting the proper services they need.”
Years of mistrust
The CRA has long criticized the police department's lack of willingness to discipline officers involved in sustained complaints.
The department has accused the CRA of poor investigations and, in some instances, a lack of knowledge about police procedures, according to a recent study of CRA policy and process done by Michael Browne, who became director of the city's Department of Civil Rights this year.
Since the CRA's restructuring in 2002, 470 complaints have been received. Of those, 69 have been sustained. The police chief had issued discipline for 19 of the complaints as of early October.
“The issue for the CRA was discipline,” Reid said. “There was a period of time when we were receiving no disciplinary action from the MPD.”
The CRA does not investigate all complaints, Reid said. Some lack evidence or are withdrawn and many go through a mediation process, he said. But when a complaint is investigated and the CRA board sustains it, the chief is expected to take some action.
In the past, some complaints received no attention at all, he said. When Reid started in February, more than 20 sustained complaints had not been acted upon. Some were more than two years old, he said.
“That was a problem for the public,” Reid said. “To have sustained complaints sitting there for quite some time.”
In an interview earlier this year, Interim Police Chief Tim Dolan said there had been a lack of confidence in past CRA investigations, but the department's relationship with the CRA was improving.
At a recent City Council meeting, councilmembers questioned Dolan about his willingness to discipline officers. Dolan, who has served as interim chief since April, said he was willing and he had disciplined some of his staff.
The interim chief said he reserved the right to review sustained complaints and noted that discipline is not always necessary.
“If you're looking for a curtain answer, if every sustained complaint should be disciplined,” he said. “I would not recommend that Each case needs to be reviewed individually. I owe that not only to my officers, but to myself ethically.”
Some of the sustained complaints the police department receives have spent years in the CRA process before reaching the chief's desk. A complaint backlog built up in 2002 when the CRA budget was cut and the board was dissolved because of the agency redesign.
This year, the police department has received more than one sustained complaint dating back to 2004, said Assistant Police Chief Sharon Lubinski, who was recently appointed police liaison to the CRA.
Lubinski signs off on most of the complaints and said she and the chief have been processing them faster than the MPD has in the past.
“Prior to this year, I don't think the police department was being completely responsive to the CRA,” Lubinski said. “But in terms of where we are this year, it's much different.”
Browne's study clearly outlined the police department's previous rocky relationship with the CRA. His report's recommendations are what prompted the City Council to appoint a workgroup.
Working toward change
Created in February, the CRA workgroup included councilmembers, representatives from the CRA, police department and Mayor's office and other city staff.
Several of the group's recommendations, such as creating a police liaison to the CRA (Lubinski), developing a Police Accountability Coordinating Committee and increasing training on police accountability issues for the CRA and Internal Affairs Unit, are already being implemented.
Other changes including granting subpoena power to the CRA and establishing discipline options for the chief are going through the City Council approval process.
On Oct. 12, the Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee and the Health, Energy and Environment Committee each approved seven of eight policy changes. The changes were scheduled to go to the full council Oct. 20. The issue of subpoena power, the one recommendation that has stalled, will be taken up at the Intergovernmental Relations Committee meeting Oct. 31.
The most significant and discussed change is meant to hold the police chief accountable for disciplining officers when a sustained complaint reaches his desk. Councilmember Betsy Hodges (13th Ward), proposed the amendment, which originally required the chief to issue discipline for all sustained cases.
Because the city charter does not allow the CRA to have authority over the chief, Hodges worked with Dolan and Lubinski to revise the ordinance change.
It now requires the chief to choose one of four options within 30 days of receiving a sustained complaint:
- Impose discipline and notify the CRA of it in writing.
- Determine no discipline is necessary and notify the CRA in writing of the decision and reasons for it.
- Make a one-time written request to the CRA for reconsideration.
- Submit to the CRA a request for a time extension not to exceed 30 days.
If the chief chooses not to discipline an officer, the CRA board could call a private meeting with the chief to discuss the complaint. The chief's compliance with the sustained complaint guidelines would be part of his annual performance review, according to the ordinance change.
Hodges said she would have liked the ordinance to be stronger, but she thinks it will improve the way the police department handles sustained complaints.
“I would have liked more capacity to discipline,” Hodges said. “But these amendments have teeth.”
Some community members are concerned the ordinance change will not be effective because it still allows the chief to opt out of discipline.
“The chief has to discipline or the CRA means nothing,” said Michelle Gross, spokeswoman for Communities United Against Police Brutality.
Lubinski said she is working toward making no discipline the exception, rather than the norm. This year, discipline has been issued for close to 50 percent of the sustained cases she has reviewed.
She couldn't speak specifically about Smith's complaint, but said each case is reviewed carefully and thoroughly.
The CRA process has improved by “leaps and bounds” this year, she said, and it should only get better.
“We're in a much better atmosphere,” Lubinski said. “We have a stronger relationship and a good, fair process.”
Jake Weyer can be reached at 436-4367 and email@example.com.