Reinstate Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority

Wielding a machete and a crowbar, a Somali man was shot 16 times by Minneapolis police last weekend. Was the force used excessive? Everyone in the city wants to know. So authorities are asking for an investigation, mitigating the need, in this case, for the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority, a government agency designed to investigate civilian complaints about police brutality and other illegal acts. But that is not always the case.

Several years ago, Nick Hughes, then 13 years old, was standing in a group watching a police officer bust two kids for shoplifting. Someone in the group yelled out a profane insult. The officer pointed at Nick and said, “Everyone get out of here but you.” Hughes said the cop then grabbed him by the back of the neck and drove his Maglite into Hughes’ stomach. Hughes maintains his innocence, which makes the abuse he suffered all the more troubling. So to whom could he complain? Can we expect Nick or other people in similar situations to feel comfortable going to the police department where the officer’s peers and friends work? No, but they would probably go to an independent agency designed specifically to handle their complaints about police. The Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority is such an agency. Yet the Minneapolis CRA is being put on hiatus by the mayor and the City Council, and it will officially cease functioning May 1. Today, Nick’s only recourse would be through the same group that hurt him – the police.

Police brutality exists. And until recently so did a check to the Minneapolis Police Department’s power – the CRA. The CRA has been taking complaints from citizens since 1991. Last year alone they handled 853 complaints from people who alleged police wrongdoing. And they did it well. Professor Sam Walker, who researches civilian-police interaction at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, said the Minneapolis CRA was a success.

“It was one of the most effective in the country,” he said. “I think it’s a tragedy.” He even uses the Minneapolis CRA on his Web site, Policeaccountability.org, to model how a good civilian oversight should be structured.

Patricia Hughes, director of the dismantled CRA, isn’t surprised. “We’re considered top three, if not top,” she said. The CRA was a wake-up call for bad cops, she said, and made them think twice before breaking the law. Officers have been fired as a result of CRA investigations. “The fact that we’re here is a deterrent for unlawful behavior,” she said.

Or at least it was a deterrent. The CRA’s Web site now directs complaints to the Police Department’s Internal Investigations. Minneapolis, a progressive city, has taken a step backward. Its citizens have lost a protector. The only way to right this regression is to reallocate funds and re-establish the Civilian Review Authority.