Watching the Watchmen

"To get rid of it is a disservice": Michael Friedman is trying to bring the review board back to life
David Fick

Two weeks ago, Michael Friedman sent a letter to members of the Minneapolis City Council, charging city leaders with playing politics as usual. Friedman had been appointed in September to lead the Civilian Review Authority's citizen board, which holds hearings on complaints against the Minneapolis police. He was seeking a rule change in CRA protocol to ensure that city prosecutors could no longer have unfettered access to complaint files before a full investigation. The city attorney's office was opposed to the change.

But Friedman got what he wanted from the City Council. To City Hall observers, the miracle wasn't that Friedman notched a win, but that he bothered to fight for the change at all. Past leaders had rarely been so active.

Since its inception in 1991, the CRA has sustained only 10 percent of complaints against cops. And the organization fell into complete disarray nearly two years ago, after Mayor R.T. Rybak slashed the board's budget and folded it in the city's troubled civil rights department. Since then, the board hasn't reviewed a single complaint.

In the meantime, a redesign of the CRA was underway, but many of the changes community activists sought--such as giving the board subpoena power to access MPD personnel files--were rejected by the City Council. And the board had dwindled to just two volunteers. In June, city leaders appointed seven Minneapolis residents to start hearing cases again, but two members quit almost immediately, then a third left. The vacancies were filled again on November 21.

Since early 2001, Friedman has worked for the Legal Rights Center in downtown Minneapolis, taking in clients who feel they have been mistreated by Minneapolis police. Prior to that, Friedman, a published short-story writer, taught fiction at Trinity College in Connecticut. The 40-year-old lives in the Wedge neighborhood with his wife and three children.

City Pages: Is Civilian Review looking at complaints now?

Michael Friedman: Monday [last week], the first hearing was held, and there are three or four more in December.

CP: How big is the case backlog?

Friedman: About 60 are cases ready for a hearing. The backlog also includes cases in various stages of investigation. These cases are two years old. I think it's horrible that people have had to wait two years. We're going to assign hearings every week until we catch up.

CP: What is the course of action if an officer has complaints sustained against him?

Friedman:The redesign left power with the police chief. Our report goes to the police chief, and the police chief decides what to do about it. We get a report of what the police chief does. I don't want "business as usual." If the police chief is not disciplining appropriately, we're going to go public with that.

CP: What drew you to this?

Friedman: I've done a lot of client interviews, what's called intake. The numbers of allegations of police misconduct are well beyond what I would have estimated. And I am going in as someone who would presume there is probably something out there. There's a certain point where the sheer numbers of allegations, taken with the laws of probability--some of them have to be correct.

And the people who are making the allegations, these are not necessarily the people who end up becoming known to Spike Moss or Randy Staten or Clyde Bellecourt. There's a constant inflow of people who don't go anywhere with their complaint, and are not represented and have no advocates.

CP: What is your sense of tensions between police and minorities in the city? How volatile are they?

Friedman: I do feel that there are two cities going on. It's not an original thought; there are City Council people who have talked about that. And it's not an accident that the City Council people who think policing is a problem happen to represent certain districts and the ones who think it isn't a problem reflect an entirely different demographic.

There's no question that the community thinks of the police as an adversary. There's this attitude that, "No, that's just Staten and Moss and other people trying to politicize issues," and I don't think that's true. I've talked to many, many people who are not in any way part of the political process.

Personally, I get tired of handing out a list of civil lawyers and saying, "Here, file a lawsuit." That's basically where things have been at in Minneapolis. Okay, now you can take it to court. Whether someone wins or loses in civil court, I don't consider it justice. My own personal belief is that not everything can be turned into a monetary equation. And in theory, if you sue the city enough times, the city takes steps to address that and shield it from further civil liability.

CP: Tell me more about the situation with the city attorney's office recently. So you were dealing with whether the city attorney could have access to a CRA file?

Friedman: They have had access. They just send a paralegal saying, We want this file, this file, and this file and whatever. Lawyers will say there's nothing that bars the CRA from looking at your file, therefore, don't go to the CRA, because your statement could be used against you. There is a perception among attorneys that you don't want to call attention to your case because you might not get as good of a negotiation out of the plea bargain.

CP: One small victory right out of the gate for you?

Friedman: I would hesitate to use the term "victory" because I don't think anyone has been defeated. One of the things I argued that the City Council picked up on is that if the officer's Fifth Amendment rights are protected, then the complainant's Fifth Amendment rights have to be protected also. That's why we can't have prosecutors with access to their files. It's a basic issue of fairness.

CP: What's your sense from the mayor on what the CRA is doing?

Friedman: I met with him once one on one, and I get the sense that he believes it's important. I expressed a concern I had about the new chief believing that civilian review is not an obstacle. I have reason to believe he had respect for what I said. I'm not doing the whole-hearted "Yes, he's totally behind me."

CP: How about [Police Federation leader John] Delmonico?

Friedman: The official position of the union is that they're okay with civilian review. When I first got my appointment letter, I called him and he never called me back. I've also written to [federation attorney] Jim Michels, and he didn't respond to me either. But I'm not personally offended.

CP: How do you change the culture of the MPD?

Friedman: Civilian review is set up entirely as a punitive system. But the larger policy question--and I hope to have a frank working relationship with the next police chief--is what kind of incentives can you create within the police department that would encourage a pride in lawfulness across the board? I think it's possible that there are officers who don't like what they see. And if the police are serious, the police themselves need to come forward and be a part of the process. That's my message to the law-abiding officers. I hesitate to use terms like "the blue wall of silence," because that just inflames people. It could be shorthand in some quarters, but it's not a term I'm willing to use until I see it firsthand.

CP: [Former MPD Chief] Tony Bouza has said to me: The CRA doesn't work. It's a waste of money, throw it out. Get a chief that's serious about internal affairs and that's how you deal with it.

Friedman: I think there are a lot of people who will not go to internal affairs, but will go to Civilian Review, and that will always be the case. He's wrong about that. I don't want Civilian Review to be the end-all. I'm not opposed to other ideas that have been brought up. It might be better if we have an ombudsman. Maybe it's better to have it contracted outside the city. But to get rid of it is a disservice.

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