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Minneapolis City Council signs off on merged police-misconduct unit

After a last-minute change, a divided Minneapolis City Council approved a new plan for dealing with police misconduct.

The vote was 8 to 5 to merge two separate units that currently investigate charges of police misconduct.

The new Office of Police Conduct will be made up of at least six Police Department investigators and two civilian ones from the city’s Civil Rights Department.

The change would allow the complainant to request a civilian investigator but does not guarantee such an assignment.

“This will be an exercise in frustration,” said Council Member Don Samuels, who opposed the change to the proposed plan that would have removed any choice for complainants.  “It’s almost certain that most people will choose the civilian.”

Currently, a complainant can choose between taking their grievance to either the Police Department or the Civil Rights Department. The civilian investigators, however, have a case the backlog dating to 2009, while most complaints filed with the Police Department are investigated within a month.

Council Member Cam Gordon attempted to restore choice with an amendment that said a complaint “shall” be assigned to a civilian at the request of the complainant. That was amended to “may” be assigned — which Gordon accepted.

“It’s not my first choice, but my first choice is not going anywhere,” said Gordon, who noted that allowing complainants to make a choice, even one that is not honored, will at least give the city “some good data.”

“I think it’s dangerous,” said Samuels.  “You ask people what they want and then tell them they can’t get it.”

“This is a problem of our own making,” said Gordon, citing years of tight budgets that prevented the addition of more civilian investigators. “I recognize there could be some budgetary problems.”

“I wish we had enough to invest and make this possible,” said Council Member Betsy Hodges, who chairs the Ways and Means/Budget Committee.  She reminded her colleagues that hearings on the 2013 budget have started and urged them participate.

The council approved the “request” amendment 8 to 5 vote and also approved another Gordon amendment that requires details of any investigation to remain private.  Final decisions in the cases, however, will be made public.

Opponents of the new plan were concerned that details of the investigation could fall into the hands of police outside of the investigative unit, or attorneys, which could lead to charges against witnesses or complainants.

Another Gordon amendment, however, failed. It would have added a fifth person, a civilian, to the panel that reviews investigators’ findings.  That panel, which will consist of two civilians and two police officers, will send its recommendations to the police chief.

“We have given up on civilian oversight of the police,” said Gordon as the council started to debate the amended plan. “This dismantles our civilian review process.”

“Lets give real change a chance,” said Samuels. “I care about getting something done. We will change it if it doesn’t work.”

“We should be able to embrace change without abandoning our core principles,” said Council Member Gary Schiff, who opposed the merger of the units.

“This changes the nature of the conversation in the Police Department,” said Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy, who said she likes the idea of the complainant and police officers having face-to-face conversations.  “It’s going to make a difference.”

“This really does take the critical role of civilian review out of the process,” said Council Member Robert Lilligren, who voted against the merger plan.

Velma Korbal, director of the Civil Rights Department, has said she expects the new system to be in place by the beginning of the year.

The five votes against the proposal were Elizabeth Glidden, Gordon, Hodges, Lilligren and  Schiff.

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