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Council to consider giving civilian commission (a little) more power to oversee Minneapolis cops

“This is meant to strengthen civilian oversight,” said Council Member Linea Palmisano. “It is incremental? Yeah. Is it better than what exists today? Yeah. Is it the end-all, be-all solution … Absolutely not.”

Minneapolis City Council Member Linea Palmisano’s ordinance to strengthen the existing Police Conduct Oversight Commission but leave the structure mostly in place will be heard in public safety committee Wednesday.
MinnPost file photo Terry Gydesen

Linea Palmisano knows that some critics of the Minneapolis Police Department won’t be satisfied with her proposal to restructure the city’s civilian police oversight commission.

She wants to give it a try anyway.

In the aftermath of two police shootings in the city and years of distrust between the department and the community, after all, calls for more civilian control over MPD have become louder. Some city council members have suggested that the council — not just the mayor — should have a say over department leadership and policies. And some activists are calling for a Minneapolis Police Accountability Council, a body that would both investigate and pass judgment on police discipline.

Palmisano herself wanted to create an independent body to audit the department and report its findings. But the city charter gives the mayor — and the mayor only — direct control of the police department, and Palmisano’s interest in creating a new body led to her being “visited” by the city attorney, the head of civil rights and others, she said, including one member of Mayor Betsy Hodges’ staff, who told her: “don’t step on the mayor’s charter authority.”

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So she stepped back and looked at how she could make changes that could pass and still have some effect. That’s how Palmisano, who represents Southwest Minneapolis on the council, came to author an ordinance will be heard in public safety committee Wednesday, a law that would strengthen the existing Police Conduct Oversight Commission — but leave the current structure mostly in place.

It does so by increasing the membership of the commission from seven to (at least) nine members while retaining the joint authority of the mayor and the council to pick members. The ordinance would also clarify the commission’s authority to conduct research into department policies and practices, including how it disciplines officers. The bill would also strengthen the commission’s right to get information and data from the department.

Finally, the bill would make sure the commission’s research will be shared with the council and the public on a routine basis, not just when a council member takes an interest.

“This is meant to strengthen civilian oversight,” Palmisano said. “It is incremental? Yeah. Is it better than what exists today? Yeah. Is it the end-all, be-all solution that people have been screaming in the streets about? Absolutely not.”

Time to turn ’emotion into action’

Palmisano’s work on police department reforms became more conspicuous after the July shooting of her constituent Justine Damond. It was then that she called for the resignation of then-Police Chief Janee Harteau. And it was then that she gave a speech at a council meeting calling for fundamental change in the department.

“I am done with damage control and crisis management,” she said on July 21. “Day by day I am moving beyond sadness. I am angry. My constituents are angry. Now is time to turn this emotion into action.”

But Palmisano says she’d been interested in police issues before Damond was killed. She said she began studying the relationship between civilian leadership and the police after the November 2015 death of Jamar Clark. Both Damond and Clark were killed by on-duty police officers. (While Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman decided not to charge the officer who shot Clark, the case against Officer Mohamed Noor in the shooting of Damond is currently being reviewed by his office.)

Palmisano said she was ready to introduce the ordinance in mid-summer, but the Damond shooting caused her to wait. “It needed to take a back burner,” she said. “There were more urgent emotions in the public sphere to deal with.”

A recent history of oversight

The history of the latest iteration of civilian review in Minneapolis is short — and controversial. In 2012, the city separated the investigation and discipline procedures from policy oversight.

Complaints about police officers go to the Office of Police Conduct Review, which is under the city Department of Civil Rights. Investigators from that office, along with the department’s internal affairs unit, look into the allegations (though a complainant can request that a civilian investigator handle their complaint). And — unlike a criminal investigation — the OPCR can compel testimony from officers.

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Once investigations are complete, reports are reviewed by a review panel of four: two civilians from a pool of nine appointed by the mayor and council and two from a pool of police lieutenants appointed by the chief. Those panels make a recommendation on the merits of the complaint but the final decision on discipline remains with the police chief, something required by state law.

One change under Palmisano’s proposed ordinance is a mechanism to remove what are considered low-level complaints from the review process and instead allow voluntary mediation or coaching to correct behavior. That function has itself drawn some fire, with critics fearing that it could obscure the volume of misbehavior and allow problem officers to remain on the force.

Palmisano wants cooperation codified

The Police Conduct Oversight Commission is charged with providing broad oversight of police policy as well as offering opportunities for the public to engage in discussions. It also audits police misconduct cases. At one of its first meetings in 2013, commission Chair Andrea Brown described the role: “We are to be neutral evaluators. We are not here to move the MPD to one side, nor are we here to move the citizens to one side. We are here to bridge the gap and get both sides moving one step closer to trusting and having confidence in one another.”

Among other things, the commissioners analyzed police stop data by race; tried to influence the body camera policies after a series of public meetings; and found gaps in the complaint filing process, a revelation that led to the suggestion that police officers carry a card informing the public on how to file complaints.

But there were also many complaints from the commission that Harteau either ignored it or dismissed its finding. The commission’s recommendations on the body camera policies, for example, were mostly rebuffed, including a call for cameras to be on most of the time and that officers should have little discretion in turning them off. Those recommendations were finally accepted by new Chief Medaria Arradondo, but only after the death of Damond, of which there was no video.

Palmisano said Arradondo has brought “refreshing change” to relations with the council and the oversight commission. But she said she doesn’t want to leave future cooperation to the whims of a chief. Instead, she wants it codified in city law. 

Palmisano said she isn’t sure if the ordinance will move by the end of this year or wait until the new council — with five new members — is sworn in in January.

“This is a tremendous amount of urgency because I think there’s interest in the community,” she said. “But what I don’t want to do is push something faster than it otherwise might go. I’m trying to take the temperature of people.”