Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Michelle Gross thinks the reorganization of the police civilian review board is a shell game
Richard Fleischman

Michelle Gross believes the deck was stacked from the beginning. Even so, the veteran police misconduct activist spent a good deal of time this past spring lobbying to get on a city task force charged with redesigning the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority (CRA), the citizens' board that reviews police brutality complaints. Over the course of its 11-year history, many have called CRA ineffectual--window-dressing, for practical purposes--but Gross had a vision. She foresaw a CRA that was more powerful, more visible, more relevant.

Fat chance. Instead, Gross says, the CRA is now more a moot point than ever. In February Mayor R.T. Rybak offered a wish list for his 2003 budget that effectively cut out the review board. During the summer, Gross and 23 other task force members plotted alternate futures for the CRA. But by the time task force participants voted on a recommendation to the Minneapolis City Council in July, Gross felt hoodwinked. Throughout the process, meeting times had been changed abruptly. Backroom deals were struck. With no more than five community representatives at the final meeting, she says, the least popular--and least effective--of her group's proposals was the one that wound up being adopted.

"If I were to write a story on this, I'd call it 'Lies, manipulation, and how the people got screwed out of the CRA,'" says Gross, the cofounder of a two-year-old organization called Communities United Against Police Brutality. "It's a gigantic disappointment."

Gross is not the only one who has questioned the way the city is overhauling its handling of police misconduct complaints. During the review of CRA, the city's Department of Civil Rights oversaw the beleaguered civilian board. On September 13 the Minneapolis City Council gave the civil rights department 60 days to integrate CRA into its fold permanently. While some argue that the move saves the CRA (and grants it a bigger budget), critics say it further cloisters the board and scuttles any autonomy the CRA may have had.

Whatever the eventual outcome, there's little question that CRA is dead in the water for now. With community tensions running near an all-time high, the city has--wittingly or not--made it harder than ever to lodge complaints about police misconduct. Since May, the civil rights department has been logging complaint calls, but what becomes of them afterward is unclear. What is clear is that the CRA is in complete disarray.

So where can a citizen go to gripe about the cops? "I'd say the best thing to do is call me," says Sixth Ward council member Dean Zimmermann, only half joking. "You can go to the police Internal Affairs bureau or to the civil rights department, but there's a perception that there's no longer a third party involved. And this city has a reputation of not doing well with police complaints."

"The bottom line?" says civil rights activist and CRA task force member Ron Edwards. "There's no place for people to go. It's a hell of a problem."

It's not like anyone was in love with the CRA anyway. Since its inception in 1991, the CRA's five-person civilian board has been widely viewed as harboring a pro-cop bias. Critics have likewise alleged that the board stifles investigation of brutality claims by requiring an unrealistically high standard of proof--"clear and convincing" evidence of misconduct--before it will so much as review a case. The review board has also lacked subpoena power to compel testimony from sources outside the MPD, and all its meetings with accused officers have occurred behind closed doors. The CRA's 2000 annual report shows that of 1,373 complaints in nearly 10 years, only 116 were found to have "probable cause" for proceeding with an inquiry. Of the 116, only 41 claims of police misconduct were sustained.

Eighth Ward council member Robert Lilligren, one of two council members on the task force (along with the Second Ward's Paul Zerby), says he has long considered the CRA to be invisible and ineffective. But he maintains that the reorganization of CRA is headed in the right direction. "We created a public process for people to make clear the impact the CRA can have on the community," Lilligren argues, noting that many are angry about the shuffle. "The purpose, as far as I'm concerned, was to save the CRA."

It certainly looked as though the board would come to an end under Rybak's reconfigured 2002 budget (in which CRA lost $250,000). Rybak's 2003 budget calls for $2.5 million to go to the civil rights department, of which, according to director Vanne Owens Hayes, $325,000 will be earmarked for the CRA. (In addition to its five-member board, the CRA also employs two investigators and an administrative assistant.)

Many have wondered if Rybak's move to cut CRA's funding, along with his failed attempt to buy out Police Chief Robert Olson's contract, constitutes repayment for the police union's endorsement of Rybak in last year's mayoral race. While Rybak's office has maintained that the CRA desperately needed streamlining, it's no secret that the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis has long viewed the CRA and Olson with general disdain.

Lilligren, who recently introduced a motion to delay bringing in a federal mediator (see "The Jordan Shuffle," September 25, 2002), is now viewed by some as beholden to the police. "When are these guys going to quit doing work for the federation?" Gross asks rhetorically.

"Everybody has to be at the table for this to work," Lilligren counters. "There's a perception that the federation has gotten to me because I talked with them on this. But I made no deals with the federation."

(Sgt. John Delmonico, president of the federation, sent a letter to Rybak and the council in May complaining of "cop-bashing" and a "clear anti-police bias" on the part of many task force members.)

Lilligren and Dean Zimmermann say they remain convinced that some good will come out of the CRA reshuffling. Others, like Gross and Edwards, say the Civilian Review Authority is taking a giant step backward at a time when the community needs the forum most.

Civil rights director Owens Hayes, for her part, is overwhelmed. "It's premature to say anything yet," she concedes, saying that her staff is struggling to come up with a plan to meet the 60-day deadline. Even so, Owens Hayes denies that her department has been lax on taking complaints and insists that she wants to establish more visibility and "trust" in civilian review, whatever shape it may take.

Although the final recommendation for CRA calls for public case reviews and the addition of subpoena power to its investigative arsenal, it isn't clear whether the present plan will survive before the city council. To open the reviews, for instance, the state legislature may have to change certain statutes related to the Minnesota Data Practices Act. Other provisions could require changes to the city's charter.

"Nothing will come of this," shrugs Michelle Gross. "It's worse than it was before."

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