A Twin Cities watchdog group is suing the City of Minneapolis for what they are calling an illegal suppression of public information regarding complaints against Minneapolis police.
Those who oppose the administrative move to limit the once-public status of a complaint fear it is detrimental to the complainants who rely on the integrity of the system. Without transparency, that integrity has the potential to be compromised.
"If we don't have the ability to see these complaints, it's like they fall into a black hole," Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, says. "At that point, you start to feel like, 'what's the point of complaining?'"
At issue is a 2007 interoffice memorandum from Minneapolis City Attorney Lisa Needham that reinterpreted the Minnesota Data Practice Act as it pertains to complaints filed against members of the Minneapolis Police Department. Historically, information regarding pending complaints made to the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority - a board of appointed citizens that reviews complaints against police -- has been public, including whether or not a complaint is sustained or referred to the police chief, who can take disciplinary action. Needham's memorandum issued a limiting of this information, citing the ambiguous language of the law, particularly in its failure to define what constitutes "status."
Representatives from the city attorney's office declined to comment for this story, other than to confirm they received the suit filed last week.
According to the Data Practice Act, when it comes to city employees, "the existence and status of any complaints or charges against the employee, regardless of whether the complaint or charge resulted in a disciplinary action," is public information. In her memorandum, Needham says the Authority's definition of "status" is inaccurate, and therefore does not coincide with the law. She argues that for the Authority to report allegations in a complaint as sustained when no disciplinary action is taken by police is misleading because it "implies that such complaint has merit," when it might not.
In November 2007, then-Authority chair Michael Weinbeck responded to the city attorney's memorandum in an e-mail addressed to city officials, including City Council members and Mayor R.T. Rybak, expressing his concerns about Needham's administrative rule revision. Weinbeck said that the Authority could not achieve its mission with the change in policy Needham issued.
"By conforming to the memorandum, we are severely limited in our ability to provide complainants with the information they need to fully participate in the CRA process," Weinbeck wrote. "And we are thwarted in our mission to provide a meaningful public accounting of the outcomes of a large portion of our cases."
Specifically, Weinbeck addressed the danger of a complainant not knowing what allegations in their complaint, if any, are sustained. Not having access to this information could make future hearings more difficult, Weinbeck wrote, because a complainant will not know which allegations to speak to.
Last summer, the city attorney's office sought opinion from the Minnesota Department of Administration on the revision, which affirmed the opinion issued by Needham.
The current suit, which is against Minneapolis and the Authority, calls Needham's policy revision a violation of state information laws. CUAPB is demanding a declaratory statement that releases all information regarding a complaint - including whether or not it was sustained by the Authority - to the public.
"If you can't know what happened, we have no idea what's going on with the police in this town," Gross says. "That's dangerous."