The Civilian Review Authority is supposed to give Minneapolis residents a window on the city’s police department. The shades have been drawn.
The CRA is supposed to give civilians some authority over the police department. The results of its investigations often are ignored.
Yet the seven civilian members of the authority push on, trying to make a difference, trying to be heard through the gags that have been placed on them.
“We see things that should be an early warning to the police department that there are problems,” said Dave Bicking, one of the Unappreciated Seven on the board. “That’s where we could have the most effect. If the police took seriously the problems that come before us, maybe they could prevent some of the bigger problems. But there’s little indication that they do that. Very few of the complaints we sustain result in discipline.”
There are numbers, from board members, to back up Bicking’s claim. Of the last 21 complaints the board has forwarded to Minneapolis police chief Tim Dolan, board members say only two have resulted in discipline.
That’s a .095 batting average, which is not exactly big league.
This would seem a rather liberal reading of city ordinance that covers the CRA’s functions.
Ordinance 172.30 (a): “. . . .The chief’s disciplinary decision shall be based on the adjudicated facts as determined by the civilian review authority board, and shall not include a de novo review of the facts by the Minneapolis Police Department’s internal affairs unit or any other police officer, unit, or division. . . . ”
But assistant chief of police Sharon Lubinski, the police liason on the CRA who handles all matters of discipline coming from the CRA and the police department’s internal affairs unit for Dolan, disputes the numbers and the outcomes.
Lubinski, who is awaiting U.S. Senate approval of her nomination to become the region’s U.S. Marshall, says her record shows that in the last year, 19 cases have moved from the CRA to her desk “sustained,” meaning the CRA has found cause for discipline in the complaint. Of those, Lubinski says, she’s responded with discipline in four cases. Five cases were so old — dating back to 2005 — that discipline was not warranted, she said. And in 10 cases she ordered no discipline.
She said she does follow the ordinance governing the authority of the CRA, but also uses her 31 years of experience in law enforcement in making discipline judgments.
“I come from a different point of view,” she said. “I may see things in the report that they [members of the CRA] don’t. Was the officer alone? What was the size of the officer compared to the size of the person being arrested?”
Lubinski says she has nothing but respect for the people who serve on the board, but wonders if the CRA model isn’t outdated.
Both she and Mayor R.T. Rybak also say that Dolan has “raised the accountability bar” of police behavior in the city.
But step back from the numbers of complaints versus numbers of cops disciplined. Step into the twilight zone.
The most bizarre aspect of the CRA is the shroud of data practices secrecy that has been thrown over its work.
If you file a complaint with the CRA, you likely will never know if anyone ever took your complaint seriously. This piece of uber-secrecy was the result of a 2007 memo by the city attorney’s office that said state data practices law means that the CRA can’t release “status information” on cases.
The only time, under current guidelines, a complainant will hear the outcome of a case is if the chief’s office does impose discipline on the officer who was subject of the complaint.
That’s right. You have an unpleasant experience with a Minneapolis cop. You file a complaint.
That’s it. You’ll likely never hear anything again from anybody.
Feel better now?
City faces suit
“It’s a combination of bureaucracy gone wild meets Fellini,” said attorney Mark Anfinson, who has sued the city on behalf of Communities United Against Police Brutality.
The suit would re-open the process to the degree that it would allow those who have filed grievances to know the status of their cases.
The initial ruling on the suit in the Hennepin County District Court case was so obtuse that both Anfinson and the Minneapolis Police Federation, which had sided with the city in the case, filed appeals.
While everyone waits for the state Court of Appeals to rule, the CRA operates in maze of Catch 22 proportions.
“It’s inside baseball versus outside baseball,” said Anfinson of the ties that bind the CRA. “The insiders, people who watch this sort of thing carefully, see this as normal. An outsider who stumbles in, looks around and says, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ You can’t get a clear answer on anything.”
A few clear answers:
The CRA was formed out of political necessity in the early 1990s following a couple of high profile cases involving tragic meetings between Minneapolis cops and black residents. Trust, always shaky, was shattered. Tensions were high. Local politicians were nervous. The CRA was formed to act as some sort of answer to the problems in the city, a pressure valve to let off building anger.
Since then reform of the CRA has been constant, the most recent reform coming in 2006 when the CRA was moved from being an independent body into the city’s Civil Rights Department.
It currently has a budget of about $400,000, a dedicated director, Samuel Reid, two investigators, who are retired police officers from departments other than Minneapolis, and seven board members, who receive $50 per monthly meeting. The board members are appointed by the City Council and the mayor. There are currently four vacancies on the board.
Board members undergo training, take ride-alongs with cops, serve on sub-committees, study police policies and hear complaints.
The racially diverse board is not anti-cop.
“Everyone on the board understands what a difficult job police have,” said Reid, the director. “Board and staff make every effort to be impartial. We do things on the straight and narrow.”
But there are times when board members feel they might as well adjourn from their bleak meeting room, step outside and pound their heads against the massive stone walls of City Hall.
“The chief doesn’t even acknowledge our existence,” said board Chairman Donald Bellfield.
Understand, the CRA tends to handle smaller complaints. About half the cases involve people complaining about issues surrounding respect. The other half are cases involving everything from excessive force to illegal search and seizure.
Under the CRA process, after a complaint is filed, an effort is often made to get the complainant and police officer to sit down with a professional mediator.
Other cases end up in the hands of the two overworked investigators, who pursue facts of the case, then turn those facts over to a three-person subcommittee of the CRA. That group either tosses the complaint, or sustains it, passing it on to the chief’s desk, or in this case the desk of Lubinski.
Backlog has been a problem. More than 150 complaints were filed in the first nine months of this year, a huge load for two investigators. In an effort to quicken the process, Reid said that the CRA is moving away from a take-a-number, wait-in-line approach, and is attempting to set up a triage arrangement, in which the most serious are moved to the front of the line.
‘Lack of discipline and leadership’
Again, most of these complaints are relatively minor. But when the “small” cases are ignored, Bellfield said, its sets the stage for the big cases of brutality that end up on the 10 o’clock news with the city shelling out thousands of dollars to settle cases.
“We see those cases on TV about the chief and the department and it hasn’t been good lately,” Bellfield said. “But it doesn’t really surprise us. We see a lack of discipline and leadership. What’s worrisome to me is that the mayor and the City Council don’t seem very concerned.”
Bellfield said that the board, which some activists have seen as too willing to bend to the police, will review the chief’s performance and pass on their recommendation on whether it believes Dolan should be re-appointed.
Rybak, who wants to re-appoint the chief, did not ask for the CRA’s performance review. Nor has he had anything but praise for the chief. As both mayor and gubernatorial candidate, he has proudly pointed to statistics showing that crime is down substantially in Minneapolis. He also points out that Dolan has fired more cops or forced more resignations than any of his predecessors.
Where then does the CRA fit?
“It’s important to have the civilian oversight function,” said Jeremy Hanson Willis, the mayor’s chief of staff.
But is the mayor happy with the current structure?
“Like everything else in government,” Hanson Willis said, “the mayor is not afraid of reform. He’s always looking at ways for things to be improved.”
Reid, the CRA’s executive director, believes the current model is good.
“The problem is not the structure; it’s the resources to get the job done,” he said, noting the overload on the two investigators.
The big problem that board member Bicking sees can’t be cured with still another reform.
“Somebody has to care about the work we do,” said Bicking. “Somebody has to take us seriously.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.