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Ruszczyk case aside, Minneapolis police misconduct suits down

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Mpls. Mayor Frey, City Council Member Palmisano, Police Chief Arradondo
From left, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, City Council Member Linea Palmisano and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo listen to residents on May 7, 2019, during listening session following the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

Updated: 6:43 a.m. | Posted: 4 a.m.

Minneapolis city leaders return to federal court Tuesday morning to negotiate a possible settlement in the case of Jamar Clark, who was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer during a confrontation in 2015. City data, though, show these kinds of lawsuits are becoming rarer.

Between 2012 and 2018 the number of officer conduct lawsuits filed each year dropped by more than 60 percent — from 39 to 14 last year.

Several factors contribute to the trend, said Susan Segal, the Minneapolis city attorney. Over the last several years, officers have received more training on how to defuse potentially violent situations. And reported use of force by officers has been on the decline.

Police officials also report body camera usage by officers has been increasing, which Segal said can moderate the interaction between officers and citizens, "as well as weed out claims that maybe are not well-founded."

It's not clear, she added, which policy changes may have had the most impact, "but this seems like enough of a trend that cautiously and hopefully we will see this continuing."

There may be other factors responsible for the drop that have nothing to do with changes to police policies, said Jess Sundin, an organizer for the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar and advocate for others who've had family members killed by police officers.

Sundin doesn't know exactly what's behind the city's data showing a reduction in lawsuits but said the process of finding a lawyer and filing a suit can be daunting. "When we're talking about police killings, we have families who are crippled by grief," Sundin said.

People are sometimes afraid of coming forward out of fear of retaliation by police officers, she added, noting that such violent encounters often happen in the person's home or neighborhood.

"And the idea when you file a complaint, you absolutely are exposing yourself to the possibility that the same officers will encounter you again and make things more difficult for you," she said.

Many people, she added, have also lost faith in the city's internal complaint system and in the courts since Minneapolis police officers who use excessive force are rarely fired and too few officers face criminal charges for on-duty brutality.

Though the number of lawsuit settlements filed each year has declined, the payouts have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Between 2003 and April of this year, the city paid out more than $25 million in settlements.

Earlier this month the city agreed to pay $20 million to the family of Justine Ruszczyk, the 911 caller who was shot and killed by then-officer Mohamed Noor in 2017. A jury convicted Noor of murder and manslaughter.

In light of that historic payout, advocates for Clark are demanding the city settle a lawsuit brought by his family for $20 million. Clark's father, James Clark, and about two dozen supporters held a news conference in downtown Minneapolis Monday evening and called for an equal settlement. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.