Don't Call Us, We'll Call You

Waiting to resolve a complaint against Minneapolis cops? Take a number

Racial profiling, according to a statewide study issued last week, is alive and thriving in Minnesota. The report found that cops across the state stop and search black, American Indian, and Latino motorists overwhelmingly more than they do whites--even though a higher yield of drugs and guns are confiscated from the fairer-skinned among us.

While this news may come as no surprise--state officials were quick to note that this sort of disparity is found pretty much everywhere around the country--it still led to some passing consternation around Minneapolis City Hall. "I've always said," one City Council member declared Thursday, "if you have a problem with the Minneapolis police, file a complaint with civilian review."

That wouldn't be a bad idea, except for one small problem: The Civilian Review Authority, the board that examines citizen complaints against the Minneapolis Police Department, hasn't looked at a single case for 20 months.

While city leaders claim that the CRA has been keeping track of complaints filed with the city during that time, it's unlikely that any of them will be reviewed soon. For starters, there's a growing backlog of cases: Last year, the city received 56 signed complaints against the MPD, and so far this year the figure has already more than doubled, to 115.

But the CRA hasn't had a full board to review cases. By city ordinance, the CRA is supposed to have seven volunteers from the community to look at citizen complaints against the cops. A year ago, that number had dwindled to just three, rendering the board nonfunctional. After months of seeking applications and making appointments, the CRA was once again at full strength, but just last month, the two African American appointees resigned their posts.

"Some things have taken longer than anticipated," concedes Barbara Damchik-Dykes, who became the board's director in March. "We hope it's November when we're ready to review cases again."

The current disarray of the long-troubled CRA began in February 2002, when Mayor R.T. Rybak announced that he wanted to fold the review authority into the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, and slash its budget from $457,000 to $100,000 for the remainder of the year. Though a whimper of public outcry led Rybak and the City Council to restore another $100,000 to the budget, the damage had been done. The review process was put on hiatus, and reorganizing the CRA under the long-ineffectual civil rights department has been painstaking.

The CRA was far from perfect. When it began reviewing complaints in 1991, the CRA was viewed nationally as a model for other cities wishing to address problems with policing practices. But over time, the review board gained a reputation as toothless and cop-friendly: By 2000, only 68 of 1,373 complaints against the police had been sustained.

Critics began crying for an overhaul of the CRA as early as 1996, and many City Council members often said the city should do away with it altogether, arguing that the city could save money and get better results by outsourcing cases to independent mediators. But pressure from community activists made that politically unpalatable, and since then, city leaders have paid a lot of lip service to the question of the CRA's proper role.

Beginning in May 2002, a task force of community leaders, city staffers, police representatives, and two council members haggled for months over a redesign of the CRA. Among the changes sought were subpoena powers allowing the board to open police employment records to the public, public "evidentiary" hearings for each case, an independent ombudsman to review the board's decisions, and a lowering of the level of proof required to sustain a complaint. Eventually, only the last provision happened in the overhaul: Now only a "preponderance" of evidence, rather than "clear and convincing" evidence, of officer misconduct is required.

By the time the City Council approved the new CRA last December, nearly everyone on the community side of the task force condemned the process, claiming they had been duped. Meanwhile, incidents between communities of color and police continue at a steady pace, as this year's more than two-fold increase in complaints indicates.

 

Federal Mediation: Beating the Community Team

KSTP-TV reported over the weekend that Minneapolis police officers allegedly roughed up a black man outside of the Minneapolis Urban League building during an NAACP meeting Saturday morning. Alfred Flowers apparently had been asked to leave the meeting by NAACP executives, who called the MPD twice. Police arrived to find Flowers standing in a corner, talking on a cell phone. More than a dozen witnesses say they saw police choking and kicking Flowers, who had to be taken to Hennepin County Medical Center.

The irony of this is that Flowers is a member of the community team negotiating with city leaders, Minneapolis cops, and a mediator from the U.S. Department of Justice about an overhaul of the city's policing practices. Flowers has also had a dustup with the Minneapolis police before (see "The Yo-Yo Files," 3/29/00). More recently, Flowers was one of the witnesses to the mysterious groundwater that surfaced at a playground in the Heritage Park development (see "What Lies Beneath," 7/23/03).

While reporting that story, I came across Flowers at the site on more than one occasion. At that time, Flowers told me that he had been confronted by police and told to stay off the site. The cops, Flowers said, threatened to arrest him.

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