By Chris Parker
By Jesse Marx
By John Baichtal
By Olivia LaVecchia
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By Judy Keen
AS THE MINNEAPOLIS City Council prepares itself for the annual budget process, it's become apparent that the city's Civilian Review Authority--the mechanism set up to provide a review of citizen complaints of misconduct against Minneapolis police officers--will once again be targeted for elimination.
The review board, with its appropriation of nearly $500,000, has survived similar efforts annually since the City Council created it six years ago. Yet those council members opposed to the CRA's existence believe that this is the year their efforts will succeed.
"I've worked against funding it every year," City Council member Dennis Schulstad (12th Ward) says, "and I think that other people on the council are starting to realize that it's a duplication of services and not effective. It doesn't work. It's almost counterproductive."
Given the finite tax dollars available, Schulstad claims, the political climate is ripe to defund the CRA. He adds that anyone who has a legitimate complaint against a Minneapolis cop already has several avenues available to redress their grievance, including the Minneapolis Police Department's own internal affairs division and the civil court. The money spent on the authority, he continues, could be put to better use--specifically, to hire more cops and bring the police department up to full strength.
Other council members are more pointed in their criticism of the CRA.
"I'm not a big fan of kangaroo courts," says council member Steve Minn (13th Ward). "I don't think the Civilian Review Authority has done anything to further the disciplining of police misconduct. We should move as swiftly as possible to save the city the hundreds of thousands of dollars we waste on this."
The CRA, which was created in January 1990, works something like this: Upon receiving a signed complaint, Executive Director Patricia Hughes either sends the case to mediation, dismisses it outright, or forwards it to one of the authority's three investigators, who makes a recommendation as to whether or not there is probable cause. If Hughes accepts such a recommendation, she appoints a three-member panel to hear the complaint. After the hearing, the panel can either dismiss or sustain the complaint. A sustained complaint is forwarded to Police Chief Robert Olson, who decides whether or not to take disciplinary action.
According to the Authority's annual report, it has handled 756 complaints and held 70 hearings during its six-year existence. Of those cases that went to hearing, 40 have been sustained, including charges of excessive force, harassment, and abusive language. During their tenures, Chief of Police John Laux or Acting Chief Richard Schultz took disciplinary action in 19 of 28 cases. Since becoming chief in March 1995, Olson has meted out punishment in eight of 12 cases.
"I think we definitely need it," Council member Jim Niland (6th Ward) says of the CRA, adding that he doubts the Authority's 1997 budget provision will end up on the floor of the Ways and Means Committee room. "It depends on how politically stupid some of the councilors are."
In addition to allowing for a measure of valuable oversight to the police department, Niland says, the CRA handles thousands of calls each year, providing information to citizens who wouldn't ordinarily trust the police to give an honest answer to a misconduct question. Moreover, he goes on, the Authority's existence demonstrates that the city is not blatantly indifferent to police misconduct--something that anyone seeking to win a lawsuit would have to prove.
The battle over 1997 funding will begin when Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton delivers her proposed budget to the council, no later than November 7. A review process, which involves hearing from the heads of the city's various departments, runs from November 13 through November 22. The public gets to put its two cents in on December 3, when the council holds a "Truth in Taxation" meeting.
The serious negotiations, though, get underway on December 5 and 6, when the councilors begin the "mark-up" period--literally taking out the red pens, drawing lines through some items and amending others--and the Ways and Means Committee begins voting on the final budget that it will send to the full council. It's during this period that the CRA will be subject to scrutiny, debate, and, possibly, elimination. The full council will vote on the final budget at its December 11 meeting.
While Schulstad admits he hasn't counted heads yet to see if, in fact, the votes are there to eliminate the CRA, other councilors confirms that they're willing to entertain the idea and that the Authority faces a more rigorous round of budget negotiations this year.
"It's going to be a close vote," Minn says.