An Authority in Question

For years the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority has been a source of controversy. Now a reinterpretation of data laws calls into question whether or not it even works. Some former members say it doesn’t.

Andrew Mannix

On May 2, 2007, at 6:30 p.m., nine members of the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority sat in a third-floor room of City Hall tucked away beyond the office of the mayor and hours-vacant council chambers. The Authority is a board of city-appointed citizens that investigates and rules on conduct complaints against Minneapolis police officers, generally in segmented panels. The board assembles in its entirety once monthly for sessions open to the public, the business behind the nightâÄôs meeting. About halfway through, then-Assistant City Attorney Lisa Needham explained the contents of an inter-office memo she sent out earlier that day: Her office had reinterpreted state data laws. As of that day the Authority could no longer release to the public that they sustained a complaint, meaning they sent it off to the police chief with a recommendation for discipline. Some Authority members protested the ruling, alleging that it was made under pressure from the Minneapolis Police Federation. Current and former members say the inability to release this information to the public severely cripples the AuthorityâÄôs ability to perform effective civilian oversight of Minneapolis police. Twenty-one months after the meeting , a community watchdog group led by a University of Minnesota employee sued the city for violating state data laws . A Hennepin County judge ruled on the case earlier this month, siding mostly with the city, and an appeal is in the works. The case âÄî which is at its core a simple semantics debate âÄî will determine if the Authority unknowingly violated Minnesota data practice laws for 16 years and, according to experts, could hold the key to interpreting data laws for city employees across the state. It also begs a question that has been heatedly disputed since 1991: Does the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority work? September 2, 2009 At the AuthorityâÄôs September meeting, three people made use of the some-dozen chairs arranged for a public audience: Michael Salchert âÄî who is an attorney with the Minneapolis firm Rice, Michels & Walther LLP âÄî a journalist and a man named Chuck Turchick , who says his only stake in the Authority is that of a concerned citizen. When the board opened the floor to public comment, only Turchick stood up. âÄúI insulted you last month,âÄù Turchick began. âÄúAnd now IâÄôm going to insult you even more.âÄù Turchick went on to blast the Authority for his allotted three minutes, after which he was asked to stop. He thanked the board members politely for their time and sat down, noting that he would be back next month to finish. TurchickâÄôs gripe isnâÄôt actually with the Authority though, he said, itâÄôs with the system behind it. This is why: The Authority serves as an avenue for filing a complaint alternative to Internal Affairs , a subset of the Minneapolis police department where police investigate police for misconduct. After a civilian submits a complaint to the Authority, the board decides if it has merit. If sustained, the Authority then forwards the complaint to the office of Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan with a recommendation that he discipline the officer or officers in question. However, it is ultimately up to Dolan to decide if discipline is warranted âÄî and this rarely happens. Dolan took disciplinary action on two cases sustained by the Authority in the first six months of 2009; he did not issue discipline on 10 others, according to Authority data. âÄúItâÄôs a problem cause youâÄôre raising the hopes for people who come in with complaints thinking that someoneâÄôs going to be held accountable, and itâÄôs just not gonna happen,âÄù Turchick said. Before May 2, 2007, the Authority informed accusers if the board sustained a complaint. Because the cityâÄôs reinterpretation axes this step of transparency, many past and present members of the Authority say its function is hindered dramatically. âÄúIt turns the CRA purely into a secret body,âÄù said Michael Friedman, who served as Authority chair from 2003 through the end of 2005. âÄúCitizen oversight of police departments is about accountability,âÄù said Michael Weinbeck , who was the Authority chair at the time of the reinterpretation. âÄúItâÄôs not only holding the officers accountable to the administrative structure of the city, itâÄôs holding the city accountable to the community and to citizens who believe they have been harmed by police officers.âÄù September 5, 2006 Office of Administrative Hearings Judge James Cannon filed a complaint with the Authority following a 2006 incident where he said two Minneapolis police officers harassed him and his family at a Minneapolis impound lot. The complaint contained multiple allegations based on racial discrimination, Cannon said. The 2007 data reinterpretation came before the Authority ruled on CannonâÄôs case, so the Authority could not tell him if his complaint was sustained. But, the Authority did tell him that âÄúall or partâÄù of his complaint was not sustained, Cannon said. The Authority does this so an accuser is able to file for a reconsideration hearing , similar to an appeal process. However, because the person filing a complaint is not told which part of a complaint is and is not sustained, the accuser has no way of knowing what to argue during the hearing. âÄúItâÄôs like something out of Kafka,âÄù said Dave Bicking , a current Authority member who is running for city council in Ward 9. âÄúHow on earth can you ask for a reconsideration when you donâÄôt know what it was that youâÄôre supposed to be reconsidering?âÄù Eighty-six percent of complaints made to the Authority from January to June this year had multiple allegations, according to Authority statistics . Current Authority Chair Donald Bellfield said there has not been an incident in his tenure where someone showed up for a reconsideration hearing not knowing which complaint they were arguing. However, according to Bicking, the Authority has stopped informing complainants of their right to a reconsideration. âÄúSo far we have been sort of just finessing the issue, just not mentioning it and asking if you have any questions and hoping nobody asks,âÄù Bicking said. âÄúWe havenâÄôt been mentioning it during our hearings because thereâÄôs no practical purpose for it at all.âÄù September 12, 2009 Last Saturday, 13 people met for Communities United Against Police BrutalityâÄôs weekly meeting in the basement of Walker Community Church , a Methodist chapel in the Phillips neighborhood. Communities United is an activist group that advocates against police misconduct in the Twin Cities. One way it does so is by publishing public information about complaints filed against Minneapolis police officers on its Web site. Michelle Gross, president of Communities United and a University employee, said she has received more than 200 e-mails from police officers requesting the information be taken off her site. For seven years, Communities United compiled much of the complaint information from cases sustained by the Authority. In February of this year, Gross and Communities United filed a civil suit in Hennepin County District Court against the city of Minneapolis and the Authority for violating state data laws. âÄúThis is our gift to the community, because itâÄôs really important for the community that this is public,âÄù Gross said. âÄúThat doesnâÄôt mean that every complaintâÄôs valid âĦ but the ones that are, the community has the right to know about.âÄù Earlier this month, Judge Regina M. Chu ruled on the case, giving something to each party, but affirming the cityâÄôs interpretation that the public can not know if the Authority sustains a complaint. The first item on Communities UnitedâÄôs agenda Saturday was for a group vote on whether to appeal the case. All 13 members present voted for an appeal. As the city and Communities United noted in a July 2009 hearing, neither party disputes any facts. It is instead an argument of semantics âÄî specifically, the definition of the word âÄústatus.âÄù The Minnesota Data Practice Act, a hefty state ordinance that dictates what information is public and what is not, says that the status of a complaint against a city employee is public information. Before May 2, 2007, status included that the Authority sustained a complaint. When the appeal is over, a decision will be useful in interpreting MinnesotaâÄôs vague public information laws, experts say. Don Gemberling, former director of the Information Policy Analysis division of the Minnesota Department of Administration, said the decision could be applied more universally in other cases where an intermediary board investigate complaints against city employees. At a July hearing, Mark Anfinson , Communities UnitedâÄôs attorney, gave the example of a public school teacher. A broader or narrower definition of status could determine what information about a complaint against a teacher would be available to the public, Anfinson said. Gemberling added that he thinks the cityâÄôs interpretation is correct. September 2003 In 2003, four years before the reinterpretation, the city launched a redesign of the Authority, a new rendition that would learn from past failed models. The board would now exist as a subset of the city’s civil rights department instead of independently, among other administrative changes. Michael Friedman , who works at the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, was appointed as chair by the Mayor. In the outset of the redesign, Friedman garnered a sizable amount of public support, known to the community as one not afraid to ruffle the feathers of politicians. âÄúHe was kind of a lightning rod,âÄù remembered Anne Cross , former board member and criminal justice professor at Metropolitan State University. âÄúI think a lot of people on the board thought he was too confrontational and too out there. But I think maybe thatâÄôs one way that it can work âÄî to be a lightning rod, to attract press, to raise awareness.âÄù But by the mid-2000s, the Authority’s momentum had begun to wane. The Minneapolis police chief at the time was not issuing discipline on the cases they sustained. Many former Authority members say the board was frustrated with the city and MayorâÄôs office, which they believe did not take them seriously. Requests for an interview with the mayor âÄî who oversees the Authority âÄî were denied by his office, citing time constraints. The Authority also struggled with the Minneapolis Police Federation , which Weinbeck said frequently challenged the boardâÄôs rulings. âÄúThe Police Federation had very clear opinions about how the CRA should operate,âÄù said Michael Weinbeck, who took over Authority chair when Friedman left in 2006. âÄúAnd they were very opposed to either policies or political pressure that might be put on the chief to place discipline on cases that are sustained by the police review authority.âÄù Requests for comment from the Federation were not returned. When the May 2007 data reinterpretation came, many members saw it as a fatal blow that would irreparably damage their ability to function effectively. Some say they were suspicious of the Police FederationâÄôs involvement in the interpretation. âÄúI think a lot of us thought the city was getting very scared of the Federation,âÄù Cross said, âÄúand was feeling very bullied and were doing a lot of things that sprung from contacts with the [Federation].âÄù âÄúI think that the Federation is a political force in our community,âÄù Weinbeck said. âÄúI think that there are city council members who have received donations from the Federation. And I donâÄôt think that makes a council member beholden to them. However, whether or not that means the city attorney would interpret the law in a certain way, I hope thatâÄôs not the case.âÄù Soon after the reinterpretation, the board dropped down to four people, and for nine months was unable to even hold meetings, Authority Manager Lee Reid said. The Authority has still not recovered; it still does not have a full board. April 24, 2007 In late April 2007, Ann Walther , a partner in the Minneapolis law firm Rice, Michels & Walther LLP, sent a letter to Assistant City Attorney Lisa Needham on behalf of the Minneapolis Police Federation, which WaltherâÄôs firm represents. In the letter, Walther warned against releasing to the public that the Authority has sustained a complaint âÄî a practice that had been performed regularly since 1991, Reid said. Eight days after Walther sent the letter, Needham announced the reinterpretation. Walther would not comment on the e-mail or its origins, other than to say that âÄúthe lawsuit speaks for itself.âÄù Needham cited WaltherâÄôs e-mail in her memo, but she was careful to explain to the Authority that a reinterpretation had been in the works for âÄúsome time,âÄù according to Authority May 2, 2007 meeting records. Needham said she did not want people to think that outside entities like the Police Federation could ask the city for an opinion. âÄúWe donâÄôt represent the Federation, and nor would we at their request provide an opinion,âÄù said current Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal . SegalâÄôs tenure at the attorneyâÄôs office began after the reinterpretation, so she could not speak to its origins. Segal said NeedhamâÄôs interpretation is correct. âÄúIf there are people who think it is too restrictive then thatâÄôs something that needs to be taken to the Legislature,âÄù she said. âÄúThatâÄôs not something we have the discretion to ignore or avoid.âÄù November 7, 2007 Six months after the reinterpretation, Weinbeck sent a letter to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and several members of the City Council illustrating how the decision impacts the AuthorityâÄôs ability to function properly. âÄúWe are thwarted in our mission to provide a meaningful public accounting of the outcomes of a large portion of our cases,âÄù Weinbeck wrote. Weinbeck also wrote that the Authority wanted to seek an advisory opinion from the Minnesota Department of Administration, a governmental entity that issues opinions on disputes with state data laws. Commissioner Dana B. Badgerow issued an opinion on Aug. 6, 2008 affirming the city attorneyâÄôs interpretation that the Authority sustaining a complaint does not constitute status and should not be available to the public. June 2008 When Bellfield took over as Authority chair in 2008, he said he didn’t worry much about the reinterpretation. Instead, Bellfield concentrated on what he says is the real mission of the Authority: to rule on complaints against Minneapolis police officers. Under his leadership, the Authority went on to hear 57 cases in the second half of 2008, virtually clearing out the enormous back log of complaints that had incurred during the board’s absence. Bellfield does admit he thinks the Authority should be able to tell an accuser that their complaint was sustained, but unlike his predecessors, he does not think it disrupts the Authority’s mission. At the September 2009 meeting, the Authority passed a motion to launch an appraisal of Dolan’s performance âÄî a right in Authority bylaws that has never before been exercised. They plan to set a timeline in their October meeting. While Bicking is more pessimistic about the implications of the data reinterpretation than Bellfield, he also said he thinks the Authority still has use in Minneapolis. âÄúIf I felt it was only window dressing I would leave right now,âÄù Bicking said. âÄúI do feel there is still a purpose for the civilian review authority and a need for it even in its weakened form that it exists âĦ But we are extremely limited in what ought to be possible.âÄù