Off Beat

Cop Complaints: Same as It Ever Was

It's been over a year since Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak slashed the Civilian Review Authority's budget, jeopardizing the future of the citizen board that reviews complaints against Minneapolis police. On December 30, after city leaders and community activists engaged in a long public battle, a redesign of the CRA was quietly approved by the city council in an 8-3 vote. There was good reason for the lack of fanfare: Instead of transforming the ineffective, 12-year-old CRA, the city is basically back where it started.

The Department of Civil Rights, which drafted the plans for the new CRA, took pains to streamline the process and save the city money. Council members note that the new process reduces complainants' burden of proof and calls for an independent ombudsman to review cases. The overhaul does not give the board subpoena power, though, which most outside observers rightly believe is the only way to give a review process any bite. (In essence, subpoena power would give both sides unfettered access to evidence relating to a complaint.) As a result, grievances filed with the new CRA are doomed to the same fate as those filed with the old CRA.

Giving the CRA subpoena power would have required a change to the Minnesota Data Practices Act or an alteration in the city's charter by a unanimous city council vote. Those on the council who ultimately backed the watered-down initiative, such as the Fourth Ward's Barb Johnson, argue that the legislature would never have changed the Data Practices Act and a unanimous vote from the council is rare. What's more, many council members were put off by the fact that subpoena power would open the records of all city employees.

This reasoning, equal parts weak-kneed rationalization and a telling bit of political paranoia, is not good enough. The Minneapolis Police Department has never had good relations with minorities, and over the past year the situation has hit a new low. Now, after a lot of hand-wringing and hollow promises, the mayor and the city council have ensured that the CRA process will continue to take place behind closed doors, where citizens will have to engage in a game of "he said, she said" that makes an already confusing and intimidating endeavor seem futile.

Rank and file cops should feel cheated, too (although it's a safe bet they don't). A more open process would weed out frivolous complaints, and shining a light on the relatively few bad apples would benefit good officers on the force.

Like the MPD, unfortunately, city leaders are simply deaf to pleas from activists and citizens living in communities of color who believe they should have a right to feel safe from criminals on both sides of the law. "This is not just an employee issue, but a police-community issue," says Eighth Ward council member Robert Lilligren. "People who represent wards that don't have constituents of color don't understand that."

Sadly, that's not likely to change anytime soon.

 
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