Community leaders debate police review authority’s future

Tom Ford

Minneapolis officials, police and community leaders met Wednesday to start redesigning an endangered police review agency some say does little to curb officer misconduct.

As part of an effort to eliminate a $5.2 million city budget shortfall, the City Council voted in February to cut $257,000 from the Civilian Review Authority’s budget.

This left the CRA – which investigates citizen complaints against Minneapolis police – with $200,000. The agency will shut down April 30.

CRA employees and a criminal justice expert said the city didn’t fully understand the operations of the agency – often identified as a national model – before calling for its dismantling.

But several city officials said a remodeled agency is necessary because the community lost faith in the CRA and it became a toothless waste of resources.

Kinshasha Kambui, an aide for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, said many people during his campaign told the mayor the CRA was not holding police accountable.

“For poor people and people of color, the CRA provided a psychological Band-Aid,” Kambui said. “But in terms of results, it wasn’t what it could be.”

The city established the CRA in 1990 in response to public pressure and a series of incidents involving alleged officer misconduct. CRA operates independently from the police department.

After the budget cut, many of the agency’s duties were transferred to the Minneapolis police internal affairs department.

The CRA receives complaints from citizens about officer misconduct – including use of excessive force and inappropriate language – and has the power to conduct investigations.

If the investigation suggests wrongdoing, the agency can conduct a hearing to evaluate the possibility of misconduct. The CRA sends the findings to the police chief, though the chief is not obligated to impose punishments.

City Council member Dean Zimmermann said the CRA has failed to fulfill its mission as a watchdog of the police.

“People who feel they have a legitimate beef with the police department are not getting satisfaction,” Zimmermann said.

But Patricia Hughes, CRA executive director, said claims of ineffectiveness often stem from unrealistic expectations about the agency.

The agency can’t begin an investigation based solely on a citizen’s testimony, Hughes said. The evidence must be clear and convincing, and often this is not the case, she said.

“We have to work under the guidelines that were given to us,” Hughes said. “And sometimes that is frustrating.”

But she said the agency has remained effective, particularly in subtle ways. Hughes said the CRA allows people to vent their frustrations about officers without fear of police intimidation.

She said the CRA rarely receives complaints about officers investigated by the agency in the past.

“I do believe the fact that we’re here is a deterrent,” Hughes said.

Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska-Omaha criminal justice professor, said the cut to the agency is a tragedy.

Walker, who has spent 12 years studying civilian review processes, said the CRA has often served as a model for other cities.

He said studies show many officers and civilians involved in CRA investigations believed the outcomes of their cases were fair.

Compared to other agencies, Walker said, the CRA has a modest budget and completed investigations quickly.

“Minneapolis now has the distinction of taking a step backwards,” he said. “This is a terribly short-sighted thing that the city has done.”

But City Council member Gary Schiff said the city was
well-informed when it decided to cut the department’s funding.

“For far too long they were unable to have enough power to issue justice,” Schiff said. “We want to see a new form with more teeth.”

Currently, the CRA lacks subpoena power, which prevents it from compelling people not employed by the city to testify or provide information.

City Council member Paul Zerby tried to grant that power last month, but the City Council voted against the measure 7-6. Zerby said without the subpoena authority, the agency is “toothless.”

Daryl Lynn, CRA Board chairman and former investigator, said obtaining subpoena power is unnecessary, since it would apply to people who usually want to speak and bring along willing witnesses.

He said there have been only a handful of occasions when a subpoena would have assisted an investigation.

“Subpoena power gives the perception that you can get to the truth,” Lynn said. “But it’s not a truth serum.”

He said any reduction of agency power or independence could have a detrimental effect on officer conduct.

“When nobody is looking over your shoulder at all, you’re going to do what you want to do,” Lynn said.

City Council member Barb Johnson said shifting the CRA’s duties temporarily to the internal affairs department won’t produce a significant gap in services.

She said the agency received few calls and the public’s confidence in the CRA seemed to be waning.

“It became clear that the CRA’s workload didn’t justify a half-a-million-dollar budget,” Johnson said.

Clarence Hightower, Minneapolis Urban League president, said he doesn’t believe a new agency can be effective with a smaller budget.

“If the CRA was not totally successful when it was fully funded, how can it be effective with partial funding?” Hightower said.

Despite all the effort people in the city expended to create the agency, he said the City Council made the cut without community input.

“I’m afraid they’re creating something that’s destined to fail,” Hightower said.

The city’s redesign panel is expected to issue its recommendations by June 7.

Tom Ford covers City Hall and welcomes comments at [email protected]