The Hit Parade Revisited

In an age of shrinking budgets, the city of Minneapolis is spending more money than ever to settle lawsuits against the MPD

 

Largely forgotten in all this is the city's Civilian Review Authority, a citizens' group created to hear complaints about police misconduct. Limited in its powers from the start and frequently plagued by dysfunction, the CRA has had little to no impact for years, and the group plays no role in McManus's reform plans. Michael Friedman, who was named CRA board chair in 2003, says the overhauled CRA has been dismissed, for the most part. Since McManus took office, the CRA has sent 47 cases--where a complaint of misconduct was "sustained"--to him. Up until two months ago, when City Pages contacted him for this story, the chief had reviewed 10. He has now reviewed 26, and in only two of those cases did he "reprimand" an officer. In most cases, he disagreed with the CRA finding. There are still 21 cases to be reviewed.

Harris and McManus don't do much to hide their disdain, chortling out loud when the subject of the CRA is raised. "I deal with the cases as they come across my desk. There's nothing that I'm sitting on," McManus insists. "When the cases come back from CRA we review them and in many cases we find that their determinations, their findings, are based on conjecture, lack of knowledge of police procedure, those types of things."

Late last year, Mike Quinn, a retired Minneapolis cop who put in 23 years on the force, self-published a book that many feared would be a tell-all about the MPD. But Walking with the Devil: The Police Code of Silence is a frank meditation on "The Code"--the understanding that cops never out each other over bad policing. Quinn often sat in on CRA hearings when he was with the police force, and one salient passage from the book hints at the problems inherent in an independent civilian board. Quinn found himself contradicting testimony of a chief's aide, who was minimizing the actions of accused officers. "The panel believed him, not me," Quinn writes. "I wasn't surprised. I've heard cops from across the nation voice the opinion: 'I'd rather go in front of Civilian Review than Internal Affairs.' I could see why. The panel members were completely taken in by the chief's aide."

Even so, Quinn says he sees value in any CRA. "If [McManus] wants an effective CRA, he's gotta work with it--it can still be an effective tool," he says in an interview. "The chief has to be responsive to the community, and there is a need for an outlet outside of the department."

One rank-and-file cop who asked not to be identified framed the problem a little differently: "IA and CRA offer no remedy to those who feel wronged. All they get is some sort of hope that the officer might get in trouble. The civil lawsuit has become the new IAD. You can jam the cops up and get money for it. In the eyes of many, this is a great concept."

Quinn agrees up to a point. "The cost of litigating has gotten so high that it's easier for the city to settle a case for $5,000 rather than litigate it for $40,000," says Quinn, who trained new cadets when he was on the force. "More and more people are aware of that. And when the city settles, and there's no discipline, it validates the behavior of the cops involved. And it shows the young cops that this is how we do it."

It's an expensive practice. For the last three years, the city has been mired in a budget crunch, and while there have been cuts across the board, the MPD has taken some of the hardest hits. For 2005, the police department has an operating budget of $102 million, but the number of sworn officers on the payroll is at a low point. In 1998, the department had 930 street cops; by 2004, that number dwindled to 794. There are 785 sworn officers on the force now. "Frankly, we are running ourselves ragged, especially at bar close," notes William Palmer, a 12-year veteran of the force. "However, the citizens are the ones who suffer the most from the low numbers."

While it's often claimed that a diminished number of police on the streets will lead to more crime, the effect it has on police behavior is rarely discussed. Quinn, for one, says that the low numbers have made many officers "edgy" when answering even routine calls. When the proposed 2005 budget was being floated, it included layoffs and early retirements of about 43 sworn officers. The council later dug up some money to save nine officers, but the outline for budgeting through 2009 suggests the department will be staffed at levels lower than at any point since the early 1960s.

McManus has said that the budget outline leaves him about $12 million short of what he'd like to do with the department, and Don Harris says the current staffing in the Office of Professional Standards is about half of what he'd consider ideal. Last week, it was announced that some state dollars had been restored to the city's budget, and some 60 officers would be added to the force in the next year. But city finance director Pat Born warns that the money is a onetime boost, and longer-term budget issues remain unresolved. One place city leaders could theoretically look for money is in the city attorney's office. The average starting salary for a first-year Minneapolis cop is $43,080.96. But with benefits and other costs included, the city figures it spends about $65,000 annually for each sworn officer. Put another way, the $2 million in settlement proceeds paid in 2004 alone was equal to the salaries of about 31 additional officers.

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