Reporter’s Notebook: An Authority in Question

Andrew Mannix

Editor’s note: “Reporter’s Notebook” is an occasional blog that will feature worthwhile content left out of a news story.  It will also give reporters an opportunity to talk about challenges they faced while working on a story.  


Reporter’s Notebook: An Authority in Question [Sept. 15]

Defining Status

At its core, the dispute over what information the Minneapolis Police Civilian Review Authority can legally make public comes down to a single word: status.  Minnesota data laws state that the status of a complaint against a city employee is public information.  Status included that the Authority sustained a complaint for 16 years.  In May 2007, the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office re-evaluated this, ultimately deciding that the Authority sustaining a complaint does not constitute the status of the complaint.  The decision has since been affirmed by a Hennepin County Judge and a commissioner from the Department of Administration.  

Here is the city’s rationale, taken from the former Assistant City Attorney Lisa Needham’s May 2007 memo that announced the reinterpretation:

“Much of the information given out by the CRA as "status" exceeds this restriction, as it provides information as to the CRA’s determinations regarding the merit of a complaint.  Reporting that a complaint was "sustained" when no discipline was imposed implies that such complaint has merit even though no discipline was imposed. Indeed, even releasing information to the effect that  a matter is before the Board  for a hearing or has been referred to the Chief provides information that exceeds what is permissible pursuant to [Unke v. Independent School District No. 147], as it is possible to infer from such information that the CRA has determined that the complaint has merit and is proceeding accordingly.”

According to Mark Anfinson, Communities United’s attorney [Transparency note: Anfinson represents many media outlets in the Twin Cities, including the Daily]:

“Status is anything that doesn’t tell you the nature of the accusation.  And that includes even things that suggest along the path of the disciplinary proceeding that a complaint may have been substantiated or found to have credibility.”  

Cannon’s Experience

Judge James Cannon filed a complaint with multiple allegations to the Authority following a 2006 incident.  Authority members informed Cannon that they would not tell him if they sustained a complaint.  However, they had to tell him if they did not sustain the complaint.  Since his complaint had multiple allegations, it was possible that some parts be sustained and others not sustained.  

Cannon said the Authority told him that if they did not sustain all allegations they would notify him that “all” of his complaint was not sustained.  If they sustained some of the allegations, they would notify him that “all or part” of his complaint was not sustained.  
After an investigation, the Authority told him that “all or part” of his complaint was not sustained.  He was then able to infer that some parts were sustained.

The incident behind Cannon’s complaint was featured in a 2008 City Pages article by Paul Demko, "Judge and wife allege harassment by Minneapolis police."