For more than 20 years, the task of the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority has been to investigate complaints of police misconduct. The City Council today will take up proposed changes to the panel that some say will make investigations more transparent and efficient. But some critics say the proposal will make an already flawed system less effective.
Under the proposal crafted by Minneapolis City Councilmember Don Samuels, the Civilian Review Authority will become known as the Office of Police Conduct Review. Samuels said the new name better reflects the group's mission. He said the reorganized structure will involve police investigators and officers on the ground level.
One problem with the current authority is that board members often make decisions without input from law enforcement. On the flip side, Samuels said that officers often don't get a sense of where civilian board members are coming from either.
"And so you have two cultures evolving and coalescing and petrifying in absence of the other, but depending on the other for affirmation," Samuels said. "It's something that's doomed to failure."
Under Samuels' proposal, all incoming complaints will be evaluated both by members of a civilian unit and a unit made up of members of the police internal affairs department. Any allegation of criminal conduct by an officer will be handled by police internal affairs. Eligible complaints will go forward to a four-person review panel. Two panel members will be people appointed by the mayor and city council; the other two will be police officers ranking lieutenant or above, and appointed by the police chief.
Samuels said the review panel will make recommendations to the chief of police. He expects lively debate within the panel.
"That is the beauty of this change. It's a perpetual learning environment for both sides," Samuels said. "They have to factor in each side's sensibilities."
“It's a perpetual learning environment for both sides. They have to factor in each side's sensibilities.”Don Samuels, Minneapolis city councilmember
Samuels said another advantage of the new model is that an increased number of complaint investigators should make the process go faster. He said for a few years, the authority had to work through a backlog of cases, and that was frustrating for people who waited months to hear what became of their complaints.
In 2011, the CRA received just more than 350 initial complaints. Just more than a quarter of those complaints continued through the review process.
Most complaints involve multiple allegations against an officer. In 2011, the most common allegations made against officers were for inappropriate conduct. Excessive force allegations ranked second. The majority of complainants were African American. A majority of complaints were either not sustained or dismissed.
Former Civilian Review Authority board member Dave Bicking doesn't like some of Samuels's proposed changes. He fears the four-person panel will frequently deadlock votes. He also doesn't like the new complaint intake system which will include members of the police department's internal affairs unit.
Bicking says under the current system, people can choose to contact the internal affairs unit. But he says sometimes complainants have been involved in some kind of crime and don't want to divulge personal information to authorities.
"With the Civilian Review Authority now, that information stays confidential within Civilian Review. It doesn't go directly to the police department or the city attorney for charging or for use as evidence in court," Bicking said. "With this new setup, the complaint will directed directly to police officers."
Bicking said some people also fear that officers will retaliate against them for filing a complaint.
Regardless, the current system is toothless, Bicking said. He alleges that even when the authority sustained complaints against officers, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan often did not follow up with penalties.
"And that's where the main conflict has arisen. The Civilian Review Authority has sent many, many cases there and only a small fraction result in discipline for the officers," Bicking said. "The discipline that does result tends to be very minor."
Last year, the Civilian Review Authority released a report evaluating Dolan's cooperation with the authority. It found that between June 2010 and July 2011, Dolan imposed discipline in seven of 53 cases where the board found that officer misconduct occurred. Dolan has said that he did not impose sanctions in some cases because the complaints were too old and would violate terms of the bargaining agreement with the Police Federation.
That conflict is now somewhat moot. This spring, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law prohibiting city civilian review boards from making a "finding of fact or determination regarding a complaint against an officer." The board can still make a non-binding recommendation to the chief, but Bicking asks why anyone would bother to file a complaint with a body that doesn't have the authority to back up its findings.
The Minneapolis Police Federation supported passage of the state legislation. Federation president Sgt. John Delmonico said before the new law was passed, a review board's finding of a sustained complaint would go into an officer's personnel file, even if disciplinary action was not imposed.
"If a cop was going to find another job, it would be there," Delmonico said. Under the new law the chief is not obliged to include the review board's recommendation, he said.