Only mediator can fix police-resident relations

Minneapolis has a problem. The police and the public have not been getting along. Recently, residents of many communities have claimed that they have been subject to profiling, harassment and discrimination based on their ethnicity. The Minneapolis City Council will decide today whether to allow mediators from the United States Department of Justice to aid in resolving disputes between the police and community members. If the council misses this opportunity to resolve the problem, it could be years before another solution is found.

Until this past February, complaints against the police department were addressed by the Civilian Review Authority (CRA). Because of citywide budget cuts, the review authority’s annual operating budget was reduced by more than half, from $457,000 to $200,000. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak also decided to shut down the CRA for reconfiguration, stating that in order to operate effectively, the department needs more credibility.

While the CRA certainly needs more credibility in order to be effective, it needs more than a reconfiguration and a budget cut. Under its former configuration, the CRA had neither the ability to subpoena nor the ability to discipline police officers. The only authority it does have is to request witnesses to appear and to recommend that officers receive discipline. Further, even at its most effective, the CRA only addresses one problem at a time, although changes are needed at a much more fundamental level.

While the CRA is being redesigned, the Civil Rights Department is fielding complaints, although many consider the Civil Rights Department already overburdened and even less effective than the CRA was on its own. Meanwhile, many consider the CRA to be beyond repair, especially since the City Council declined to give it subpoena power. Without either such basic power or an adequate budget, the CRA isn’t likely to be an effective vehicle for change any time soon.

When the disputes between police and the community reached a point of media saturation last year, the Community Relations Service branch of the Justice Department began to take an interest in Minneapolis. Patricia Campbell Glenn, the senior mediator, spoke to the City Council Aug. 29 regarding federal mediation. Glenn’s office cannot force Minneapolis to accept federal mediation, but if the problem is going to be fixed, this is the best option available.

Where the CRA has little to no ability to break through protectionist police practices to discipline errant officers, federal mediators have a different perspective. Instead of investigation and punishment of one problem at a time, Glenn and her department will try to understand the larger problem and to find a broad solution. The Community Relations Service brings public officials and community leaders to the discussion and facilitates an agreement between the parties to resolve the problem. Fundamental, proactive changes are the focus, not reactive surface repairs.

It’s also free. If it doesn’t work, Minneapolis has lost nothing. If the federal mediators succeed, however, Minneapolis will have learned about valuable new suggestions. Race-based conflicts are threatening the health of the affected communities, and more than ever a long-term solution is needed. Throughout August, the police shot three black residents of Minneapolis: 60-year-old Martha Donald on Aug. 1, 19-year-old Terrelle Oliver on Aug. 13 and 11-year-old Julius Powell on Aug. 23. As community activist Spike Moss put it, “We’re at the boiling point. One more incident or shooting, we’ll boil over.”

The main concern, however, is who should be chosen to represent the community. The idea of community is a rather nebulous concept, and the standard procedure of the Community Relations Service has been to invite interest groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Unfortunately, such organizations are not in touch with the community at the local level. If federal mediation is accepted, the discussions must include representatives from the neighborhoods most troubled and affected by police brutality. Community leaders and activists must be included, not only larger, national organizations.

Glenn started off in the right direction, though, when she first came to Minneapolis to survey the damage on Aug. 23, just after the shooting of Julius Powell in North Minneapolis and the melee that followed. She talked first to Minneapolis residents and city officials, setting the stage for a productive discourse. The Civilian Review Authority hasn’t been able to fix the race problems plaguing Minneapolis, but if the City Council will vote to allow the Community Relations Service to try mediation in Minneapolis, perhaps the city will emerge with an effective plan for reform.