After audit, St. Paul gathers input on overhauling police complaints panel

St. Paul City Attorney Samuel Clark
St. Paul City Attorney Samuel Clark met residents at Pilgrim Baptist Church in the Summit-University neighborhood on Nov. 12, 2015. St. Paul leaders are holding a series of public meetings to gather input on how to overhaul the Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

St. Paul leaders began a series of public meetings Thursday on the panel that handles police misconduct complaints. Last month, the University of Minnesota released an audit of that panel recommending major changes.

The city voluntarily set up its Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission back in 1994. Around that time, courts across the country had ordered many cities to set up similar boards to hear complaints about excessive force and other alleged police abuses.

Two decades later, the commission is facing criticism. After a controversial arrest of an African-American man in the downtown skyway early last year, civil rights groups including the NAACP said the panel is biased in favor of police.

This year Mayor Chris Coleman requested an audit after officers shot and killed Marcus Golden. Police say the 24 year old — who was also black — drove his vehicle at them. A grand jury found there was not enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the two policemen.

Shooting scene investigation
St. Paul police shot and killed 24-year-old Marcus Golden in January after they say Golden drove his vehicle at them.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News file

The audit, from the University of Minnesota's Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, recommends among other things moving the panel out of police headquarters and automatically investigating allegations of excessive force.

Metropolitan State University criminologist Raj Sethuraju helped perform the review. He says after interviewing people in the community, he also recommended the commission drop its two St. Paul Police Federation members and add more civilians.

Your support makes a difference.

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

"They're afraid that with that influence of police officers in that circle, or in this decision-making process, that their voice might get silenced," he said.

Kedar Hickman, 45, was among about 70 people who gathered at a church in the Summit-University neighborhood Thursday night to share their opinions about the audit.

Hickman says he's never filed a complaint against the police, but says officers have stopped and questioned him about crimes he had no knowledge of.

"Being between 5 foot 4 and 8 foot 7 — and I'm a black male — I fit the description," he says.

Nevertheless, Hickman says police are valued members of the community, and the recommendations are a good starting point for making PCIARC more independent and officers more accountable to the public.

"Accountability and responsibility is something that should be shared across the board," he said. "Whether you wear a badge, whether you wear a cleric's collar, whether you wear the title of CEO, whether you wear the title of teacher, whether you don't wear a title at all."

But implementing the recommendations for overhauling PCIARC will likely be an uphill battle for Coleman and other city leaders. The St. Paul Police Federation opposes the idea of removing its members from the commission. While police union President Dave Titus was not available to comment, a federation attorney told MPR News last month that the audit includes "mandatory items for negotiation."

"Accountability and responsibility is something that should be shared across the board."

St. Paul City Attorney Samuel Clark, who organized Thursday's meeting, says he's been having discussions with Titus about PCIARC.

"I'm hoping that we can work together," he said. "I have been working with Dave on other issues with the federation, and I just view this as one other issue to work with him on."

In the meantime, Clark says he'll continue to gather input on overhauling the commission.

Two more public meetings are set for Dec. 3 on the west side and Dec. 17 in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood on St. Paul's east side.