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Police reform: Here’s a different model for officer discipline

The POST Board could be, and ought to be, in my view, the primary discipline agency for law enforcement officers in Minnesota.

Minneapolis' 4th Police Precinct
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

In a recent article in MinnPost, Walker Orenstein and Peter Callaghan described the changes made by the police reform package passed in the recent special session of the Legislature. Jessie Van Berkel, writing in the Star Tribune, focused particularly on the changes to the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board made by the reform legislation. The POST Board is a standards board for peace officers, and it licenses them, making sure they meet the minimum requirements for the job.

As described in these articles, the POST Board has always been a sleepy backwater in the law enforcement business. As previously constituted, and even after the reform’s changes to the board, it plays a very minor role in officer discipline. There is a range of criminal offenses for which one can lose a law enforcement officer (LEO) license, but that almost always (always, I think) happens after an officer is convicted. Being convicted of a crime is a rather low bar for evaluating LEO conduct. Currently, if you file a complaint against a law enforcement officer with the POST Board, it’ll send you back to the agency that employs the officer.

Proposing a different model

The POST Board could be, and ought to be, in my view, the primary discipline agency for law enforcement officers in Minnesota, but the new legislation falls far short. I draw on the discipline apparatus for my own profession, the law, as an analogy for how it could work.

Anyone — a client, an adversary lawyer, a judge, a member of the public, anybody — can file a complaint against a lawyer, anywhere in the state. The staff of the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board (LPR Board) investigates the complaints. Some of them are frivolous and are dismissed by the staff. If there is merit to a complaint, the board makes a determination on a range of available discipline, which can include reprimands, public or private, and the requirement of supervision by another lawyer for a time. In serious cases, the board asks the Supreme Court (which governs members of the bar and their admission to practice before the courts and to hold themselves out as lawyers) to suspend or cancel a lawyer’s license to practice.

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The board is made up of lawyers and a material number of people who aren’t lawyers, too. When non-lawyers (an odious term, I admit) were first added to the board, I remember the hue and cry from the profession about how only lawyers could judge lawyers, but the world didn’t end, and we have what I think is a pretty good system for lawyer discipline in Minnesota.

The backbone of the LPR Board is its staff and executive director, who investigate the complaints and make recommendations to the board. In serious cases where appropriate, the board can ask the Supreme Court to suspend a lawyer’s license pending an investigation. Lawyers get to respond to complaints, of course, and can hire a lawyer to represent them, if they want.

It’s more complicated than that, but that’s it in a nutshell.

POST Board would require reworking

For this model to work, the POST Board would require reworking: more citizen members to ensure meaningful and continued citizen oversight, perhaps changing the way that the board is appointed, maybe creating a discipline subcommittee of the board, and ensuring that it had sufficient staff to investigate complaints. It would also need a set of detailed standards that peace officers would be expected to meet. Like the code of ethical rules that the LPR Board applies to lawyers.

Steve Timmer
Steve Timmer
The POST Board and the agencies hiring law enforcement officers should probably have concurrent jurisdiction for officer discipline.

The current discipline system, relying on individual departments and grievance proceedings, is deficient. Some of you will recall in the discussions surrounding the recent law enforcement reform package, Mayor Jacob Frey said that he had hoped that the Legislature would have done more with grievance arbitration. The Legislature did make one change to grievance arbitration for law enforcement officers: It provided for the random assignment of arbitrators to police officer grievance cases to prevent arbitrator shopping.

You can’t blame the mayor, really, for wanting some help in reforming grievance arbitration, which most people view as overwhelmingly cop friendly and dominated by police unions. This is especially true when the City Council is charging off in an entirely different direction and is unlikely to assist in efforts to improve the grievance process.

The City Council’s entirely different direction, contained in a proposed charter amendment at the link above, is to replace the police department with the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, and it would dispose of the requirement to have any POST Board-licensed law enforcement officers at all. The city’s charter commission will vote on the proposed change; if it passes, it’ll be on the ballot in the fall for approval by Minneapolis voters.

Well, you say, there’d have to be some kind of police force, and you’d be right. But what would it look like? Nobody knows, really.

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One council member proposed – and then withdrew the idea — of funding armed neighborhood defense patrols. These patrols would undoubtedly attract just the people we are looking for: prudent, restrained, and civil. And highly trained, of course.

This is the wellspring from which the proposed charter amendment emerges; it fails to understand the state’s standards, training, and licensing schema.

By law, peace officers (badge, gun, full power of arrest) hired by a city or other political subdivision must be Post-licensed; otherwise, they aren’t law enforcement officers.

The scattershot approach of the charter amendment is not encouraging. But members of the city’s charter commission who have expressed reservations about the amendment have been in for all manner of abuse on social media. I think the commissioners are just doing their jobs, vetting proposed charter amendments: thankless, unpaid jobs, whatever one’s personal views of the proposed amendment.

Work for a better plan

It would be much better than the charter amendment, in my view, to make the POST Board an effective, statewide discipline agency for law enforcement officers. If the POST Board received and acted on citizen complaints expeditiously and suspended or canceled LEO licenses where appropriate, it would render the grievance process largely moot in serious cases: no LEO license, no job. But that means keeping the POST Board license as a condition to active employment for an LEO in Minneapolis.

There would be an advantage in having such a system be statewide, too. There is a current focus on Minneapolis, of course, but excessive force complaints can arise anywhere. They undoubtedly do, but get buried without so much as a glance in many places.

Our state leaders at the Capitol could change that.

Steve Timmer is retired after practicing law in the Twin Cities for over 40 years. His Twitter handle is @stevetimmer.

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