Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

A little more than 20 years ago, in an administration fearful of Minneapolis cops being unfairly targeted by a newly formed Department of Civil Rights (DCR), Mayor Charles Stenvig led a campaign that removed police from the DCR's jurisdiction. Now, with a self-described law-and-order administration and an election season tempered by strained race relations, the two-decade-old question is being raised once again: Why are Minneapolis cops the only branch of city government not subject to a department whose mission it is to enforce anti-discrimination law?

Voters will get the opportunity to answer that question in the form of a charter amendment on the November 4 election ballot. Amendment 146, as it's known by the grassroots organizers who collected enough signatures to include it on the ballot, offers voters a simple yes-or-no choice. With the darkening of an arrow using a standard-issue felt-tip pen, they can decide whether the Minneapolis Police Department should be placed back under the jurisdiction of the DCR.

The issue really boils down to logic, says DCR Executive Director Kenneth White. While he has no official position on the change, White says it "makes sense that all departments are treated consistently. I think it sends the wrong message when one city department is basically exempt from the Minneapolis civil-rights ordinance."

Message aside, the amendment's potential effects are not clear--especially when it comes to how it would affect the city's controversial Civilian Police Review Authority. For reasons that include its slow case turnover and the small number of cases ever fully investigated, the CPRA has been deemed a big dog with no teeth. Even if it finds in favor of a complainant, the authority can only make recommendations to the police chief as to how the situation should be handled. By contrast, the Civil Rights Commission--the judicial arm of the Department of Civil Rights--has the same powers as an administrative court. It is also able to assign monetary awards.

But if proponents of Amendment 146 believe that the DCR would take over most of the civilian-review board's caseload, they may be in for a surprise. For one thing, White notes, most of the CPRA's complaints involve police misconduct, and those cases do not necessarily qualify for discrimination charges. "In the event that there is a case of misconduct and discrimination, it would probably still go before civilian review," he says.

If history is any guide, the DCR would likely be more active handling complaints brought by those who've been denied jobs or fired due to alleged discrimination by the MPD. Employment discrimination accounted for 82 percent of the department's caseload from 1987 to 1995; just under 60 percent of those complaints were based on race. Complaints in the area of "public services," which would include police if the amendment passes, made up a mere 1 percent of the caseload. And, says DCR Community Relations Officer Alanna Tyler, 146 will do nothing to affect the employment disparity between white officers and officers of color; that, she says, is already being handled by the city's affirmative-action department.

But if the amendment may not do much to reduce the CPRA's caseload, it could affect its future nonetheless. Within the last year, the CPRA has come under fire by Minneapolis City Council members who claim the agency has not been effective and is ultimately undeserving of its six-figure budget. Critics proposed making the independent agency a branch of the City Coordinator Kathy O'Brien's office, and a "redesign task force" was appointed. Its members include White, O'Brien, Deputy City Attorney Michael Norton, and--remarkably--Police Federation attorney Jim Michels. The task force, whose public-comment period ended last week, will issue a report in mid-November.

The political catch is strikingly apparent: If passed, the measure will have a perceptible impact on only a fairly small number of complaints against police. Yet even the perception of a new agency scrutinizing the cops will help those wanting to disband the civilian-review authority. To what degree the DCR will be there to pick up the slack remains to be hashed out by politicians. In the meantime, says White, "Our position is to be visible. We want everybody to know exactly what it is we do, so in the event that they need our services, we're there."

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