Dancing as Fast as She Can

Is the director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights department really doing anything?

Absurdity is an underrated symptom of failure. Take, for instance, a recent meeting convened by Vanne Owens Hayes, the director of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights.

Roughly two dozen folks gathered November 7 in city hall, most of them city staffers, along with a few members of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, the union that represents the city's rank-and-file cops. The meeting was held to address widely criticized shortcomings in the civil rights director's plan to redesign the Civilian Review Authority, the board that scrutinizes complaints against the Minneapolis Police Department. There were just three citizens from a task force chosen last spring to overhaul the CRA present.

Owens Hayes, for her part, brought a special guest that evening: Violet Arnold, an independent facilitator, who conducted the meeting.

Arnold mainly deflected heat from Owens Hayes, sidestepping several questions and refusing to answer others, all the while asking those in attendance to avoid confrontation. Owens Hayes had offered a redesign of the civilian review process--a measure several believe is desperately needed to improve relations between the city's cops and minority communities--to a city council joint-committee hearing the week before; it was widely decried as inadequate.

Facilitator Arnold (whose direction of the meeting was termed "new-agey" and "childish" by some attendees) soon lost control of the meeting. At one point, Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist and member of the redesign task force, tried to voice several concerns about the future CRA. Arnold twice interrupted Edwards. She eventually came up behind him, placed a hand on his shoulder, and cupped his mouth.

"Sister, you better get your hands off me," he barked in return. Amid the ensuing outburst, Arnold abruptly ended the meeting.

 

The ridiculous nature of the meeting underscores a bigger problem: The city's Department of Civil Rights is flailing under Vanne Owens Hayes. Former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton appointed Owens Hayes interim director of the department in March 2001 when predecessor Kenneth White was dismissed, mainly for failing to act on a sexual harassment complaint within the department. (Owens Hayes had been deputy director.) In June, Mayor R.T. Rybak reappointed Owens Hayes to the post until January 2004, at a salary of more than $95,000, and the council approved it unanimously.

Her résumé includes an early-'90s stint with the Minnesota Ethical Practices Board, a body that monitors such things as contributions and gifts from lobbyists to public officials. She also served as the assistant dean at the University of Minnesota Law School. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, her sister, now deceased, once served as education director for the National Urban League, and one of her nephews was a member of the Black Panther Party.

Owens Hayes has repeatedly admitted that she is overwhelmed with the many problems facing the department and the CRA. And she has complained of staffing shortages. (The department is set to get $2.5 million of the city's 2003 budget, with $325,000 marked for the CRA.) Still, she has been reluctant to discuss these problems openly. Initially, Owens Hayes did not return several phone calls for this story. Then she gave only one brief interview, which she cut short, and again went back into hiding from repeated follow-up requests.

One thing is clear: Ever since Mayor R.T. Rybak pressed for the long-troubled CRA to be folded into the civil rights department earlier this year, Owens Hayes has been at the center of city hall controversy.

Following the most tense summer for police/minority relations in recent memory, Owens Hayes has hedged on whether her department is even reviewing complaints against the police through the CRA; by all outward appearances the review board is not functioning. In fact, it was disclosed recently that the board has had three of its seven positions vacant for much of the year--meaning that it hasn't even possessed the capacity to properly review complaints. (Owens Hayes has maintained that the board "has not ceased operations," that it is "handling cases, but there have been no hearings.") Further, Owens Hayes has incorrectly claimed that at least two discrimination complaints--unrelated to the police or the CRA--against the city had been withdrawn. And she has acquired a reputation for being defensive, disorganized, and prone to disappearing altogether. Reports of lost complaints, and of ensuing legal threats against the city, have floated around city hall for months.

The CRA redesign, launched in March, has been punctuated by missed deadlines and contentious debates. Civilian review boards in other cities have been increasingly visible and successful in recent years, while Minneapolis has been plagued by a process that has served as little more than window dressing since its inception in 1991. Many believe that Owens Hayes's lack of leadership to date will only prompt bigger budget cuts and further weaken the civil rights department and the CRA. (During budget crunches, some note, the first cuts are always unpopular social programs--especially ones that can be fingered as "inefficient.") Many have started to wonder why Owens Hayes is dragging her feet.

Either way, the director's fumbling over the review board's restructuring is emblematic of her 20-month tenure. "I don't know what her agenda is, whether she's completely overwhelmed. I don't know," says Michelle Gross, founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality and an exasperated member of the CRA redesign task force. "I'm getting the feeling that the city council is embarrassed as hell to have to keep her."

Paul Zerby is one council member who has encountered no small amount of frustration in dealing with the CRA restructuring. "I can't believe [Owens Hayes] would be deliberately trying to undermine it," sighs Zerby, representative for the Second Ward. "I just keep trying to move it forward."

While Zerby and other council members are reluctant to knock Owens Hayes in print, they've had no choice but to take her to task and call her out in council meetings. On September 13, the entire city council grudgingly granted Owens Hayes another 60 days to integrate the CRA into the civil rights department--this after half a year of meetings had been devoted to the project, and a redesign plan had been recommended by city coordinator John Moir.

That plan, finalized in July, was considered by many even then to be a step backward for the long-criticized CRA. (See "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," October 2, 2002.) Among the many issues unresolved by that plan was the level of evidence required to sustain a complaint against police (a change from the CRA's longstanding "clear and convincing" to a lower bar of "preponderance" of evidence was recommended). The plan also faced an overarching legal issue, concerning whether changes in city ordinances and the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act would be required to open complaint hearings and employment records of police officers.

 

While all this was happening--or not happening--tensions between minority communities and Minneapolis police continued to escalate. After multiple incidents in which police shot minorities, residents of the north-side Jordan neighborhood took to the streets one night in August. Then a federal mediator visited Minneapolis and offered her services in cooling neighborhood tensions.

Finally, on October 30, with the expiration of her deadline extension looming, Owens Hayes unveiled her redesign plan before a joint meeting of the council's Health and Human Services and Public Safety and Regulatory Services committees. Before the civil rights director could even speak, James Michels, an attorney representing the police federation, distributed a letter saying the plan "fails to articulate the desired outcome for a complaint made against an officer."

Michelle Gross distributed her own missive, lamenting that the plan was "significantly flawed" and failed to take into account many proposals from this summer's task force: subpoena power, the creation of an "independent" ombudsman, an appeals process. In short, the plan's main success was in uniting two disparate factions against it.

Several council members voiced open disappointment and confusion over Owens Hayes's presentation. Zerby, a veteran of the state Attorney General's Office, picked the plan apart point by point, siding alternately with Michels and Gross. Eighth Ward rep Robert Lilligren, the other council member overseeing the CRA redesign, asked what had happened to the subpoena power provision, noting that it was an integral part of the redesign in July. Other council members puzzled over vague language and the general lack of progress.

Owens Hayes defended the plan by claiming she had followed council directives to the letter. Owens Hayes and city coordinator John Moir took turns at the podium rebuffing the committees' objections.

"Basically you've lost a half a year on this," Zerby said. "This is just unacceptable. Let's just get a system up and running again. Let's get back to even ground."

"By reverting to the old CRA, with just a few changes, we'd be better off," Lilligren added.

Natalie Johnson Lee, representative for the Fifth Ward and the council's only black member, offered the civil rights director a stern lecture. "I thought 60 days was too long for the community, but it wasn't too long for you and now you need more," she said. "It's frustrating to have to go through this again. Being appropriate is not working for me. We need to get the work done now, because you're going to be out of time."

In the end, the two council committees gave Owens Hayes a directive to use an "open appointment process" to get the CRA board vacancies filled, and report back in two weeks with any problems. They then instructed her to hold a "study session" with "community involvement" about the issues raised at the meeting over the course of the next month.

Owens Hayes offered a flustered parting shot: "I do not enjoy someone telling me that. I can't do this all in 60 days, because there are a hundred things I have to do in 60 days and I've done them. I pride myself in doing things right and doing them professionally."

Owens Hayes has maintained that the details of CRA redesign are really up to the city council, a position echoed by council president Paul Ostrow. But privately some city leaders will say that Owens Hayes has done her part to delay and mire the process. And many grouse that the weak leadership of the civil rights department is starting to make the council look bad.

Michelle Gross puts a finer point on it. "She doesn't take recommendations; she doesn't listen to her own bosses," she says. "She should be next on the chopping block. It's time for her to go."

"We're doing our best under shitty situations," claims Lilligren, calling the current CRA plan "unsatisfactory," but not singling out Owens Hayes. "There are many of us who are interested in a redesigned and restructured civil rights department. We need to define what the Department of Civil Rights--and what the CRA--is."

Asked about Owens Hayes directly, Lilligren says: "She tends to respond with the status quo. It's not surprising, because she is within the system."

Zerby laments the lack of subpoena power in the plan: "The plan as brought forward completely guts the intent" of the original task force report, he adds. Zerby has repeatedly expressed concern that the chronic delays in formulating a workable CRA plan would make it impossible for the city to seek any needed corollary changes in state statutes regarding open records, since the council sets its legislative agenda before the end of the year.

At a November 22 meeting, Zerby's prophecy came true: The council voted against taking several CRA issues to the state legislature, including a requirement that Minneapolis police officers live in the city (which was repealed by the legislature in 1999) and proposed changes to the Data Practices Act to allow open CRA meetings.

Finally, the council also voted against adding subpoena power to the CRA. Police review boards in many major cities--such as New York, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Denver--possess subpoena power; many observers consider it an obligatory part of any serious police review body.

"No matter what model of civilian review you choose, it's now clear that you need subpoena power to properly account for police activity," says Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and a noted civilian review expert. He adds that a version of the Minneapolis redesign he saw was "terrible."

Meanwhile, the timeline in Owens Hayes's "implementation plan" now stretches well into March 2003, more than a year after the redesign process began.

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