Crime, Law and Justice

Court docs reveal evidence MPD ‘coached’ officers involved in serious misconduct 

squad car and caution tape downtown Minneapolis
Law enforcement vehicles block off a street on Feb. 2, 2022.
Tim Evans for MPR News

A lawsuit alleging that Minneapolis has improperly used “coaching” for police officers to illegally withhold data has surfaced evidence that city officials routinely misled the public about the severity of the coached officers’ infractions. 

Under state law, complaints against police officers only become public if the officer is disciplined. City officials have historically claimed that “coaching” an officer didn’t qualify as discipline, and therefore isn’t public information. 

That premise was challenged in a lawsuit filed three years ago by the Minnesota Coalition on Open Government Information (MNCOGI), a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of information and government transparency.

A motion filed by MNCOGI this week asks the judge overseeing the case to make a partial summary judgment that Minneapolis was wrong in denying data requests from the nonprofit and journalists for records of coaching incidents that involved more serious infractions by officers.

The filing cites the city’s legal opinion in September 2020 by then-Assistant City Attorney Trina Chernos that “coaching is not discipline” and not subject to public disclosure.

But according to evidence obtained during the suit’s discovery, serious misconduct complaints were sustained against officers and led to a “formal letter” from the chief “imposing a consequence indistinguishable from recognized forms of discipline,” according to Ballard Spahr LLP attorney Leita Walker, who is representing MNCOGI and has represented MPR News and other journalism organizations in the past.

“[It] does not matter how Defendants choose to unilaterally label that consequence. Defendants can call it ‘coaching’ or they can call it an ‘elephant,’” Walker said in the filing. “Regardless, because the consequence looks and feels like disciplinary action — indeed, here defendants even call it that — the law of this state says this data is public and must be provided upon request.”

The filing notes that then-Deputy Chief Amelia Huffman told the city’s Police Conduct Oversight Commission in May 2021 that coaching was used for “only the most low level violations.” Huffman told the commission that excessive force cases wouldn’t be eligible for coaching.  

Evidence obtained in the case, though, shows that officers were coached for incidents including force. 

A K-9 officer was coached after his dog attacked a civilian after he let it off leash. Three officers were coached for mishandling firearms, including one officer who fired into the wall of a police precinct. Other officers were coached after violating the city’s use of force policy, failing to report another officer’s use of force that resulted in an injury and failing to activate sirens when responding to emergency calls resulting in a crash.

The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis also has challenged the decision to coach an officer as discipline in the past, according to the lawsuit.   

In a response filed Wednesday, Minneapolis City Attorney Kristyn Anderson said the case isn’t about whether officers should have been disciplined instead of coached, ”despite plaintiff’s attempts to make this case about police accountability.” 

“The sole issue in this case is whether the City of Minneapolis properly determined that data on instances of coaching of MPD officers is classified as private personnel data,” according to the city’s filing.

Anderson said there were only 13 incidents in the last decade where officers were coached for more serious infractions. She said the police federation hasn’t filed a grievance about a coaching decision since 2016.

She argued that coaching has long been thought of by officers as non-discipline and has never intended to be “punitive” by the city or police chiefs.

MNCOGI wants the judge to rule that the city wrongly withheld public safety data and to produce records they’ve requested showing that “coaching is discipline or [that] discuss coaching as a final disposition of a disciplinary act.” They want their ultimate argument that coaching for more serious infractions qualifies as discipline to be resolved at trial, along with any monetary damages, which could add up to $15,000 per violation.