Lying about cops: it's not just wrong, it's a crime

In 2004, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association pushed for passage of a law that would make it a crime for a person to knowingly and falsely accuse a police officer of misconduct. The legislation was derailed after critics loudly complained it would be used as a cudgel to discourage victims of police brutality from filing legitimate grievances.

This year, it was a much different story. A resurrrected "false reporting law" was slipped into the 2005 omnibus crime bill, where it passed largely unnoticed alongside a slew of high profile provisions addressing such hot button topics as meth and sex offenders. Michelle Gross, vice-president of the Minneapolis-based Communities United Against Police Police Brutality (CUAPB), says there were no public hearings on the false reporting measure this time; her group wasn't even aware of its existence until a supporter happened to stumble upon it on a state website.

So CUAPB is kicking off a campaign to raise awareness about the effect and meaning of the new law. (A first meeting will be held at 7 p.m. tonight at Walker Church, 3104 16th Ave. S., Minneapolis). But Gross says her group wants more than attention: it wants the law repealed. Barring success in the legislature next year, she says, CUAPB may mount a legal challenge on first amendment grounds. "We have a number of concerns about the law," Gross says. "Who's going to decide what's false? How do we know what's false? Because the police say so?"

Gross points out that complaints about police misconduct are seldom upheld. In reviewing ten years of data about Minneapolis police, for instance, Gross found just two instances in which misconduct charges levelled by civilians were sustained. "The implication is that all the rest were lying, and we don't think that's possibly true." So does that mean all those people would be subject to criminal sanctions under the false reporting law?

Lyall Delaney, president of the Police Officers Alliance of Minnesota and a patrolman with the MPD, says not. Under the language of the law, he notes, prosecutors must prove that an accuser "knows" that the information is false. That, he argues, makes for a relatively high burden. "And if it has a stiffling effect on people making false accusations, I think that's great," Delaney says.

But, he adds, cops also have their suspicions about the law--mainly, the concern that prosecutors won't use it enough. "Police in Minneapolis are very cynical," he says. "Realistically, they know this probably won't be pursued by the city attorney's office or the Hennepin County attorney."

To date, according to spokespeople for both offices, neither the city nor the county has charged anyone under the law, which went into effect August 1.

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