Who Watches the Watchmen?

EVEN IF MINNEAPOLIS'S Police Civilian Review Authority (CRA) is as toothless as its critics on both ends of the political spectrum sometimes contend, the City Council won't win many plaudits for its timing in reopening discussion of the panel's future. Several Council members, led by Steve Minn, have long sought to fold the independent police-oversight agency into the city's Department of Civil Rights, arguing that complaints against the MPD are down, as is citizen interest in the civilian review process. Now the CRA's displacement from its present offices is opening the question again.

The prospect of doing away with the CRA may be arising at a politically inopportune moment:

* The FBI reportedly continues to probe operations at the MPD's Third Precinct. Though sources at the FBI and U.S. Attorney's office have declined comment, the investigation is said to involve claims ranging from misconduct in the treatment of citizens to internal corruption;

* A man died earlier this month in MPD custody, the second such death this year;

* Lt. Mike Sauro, who has so far cost the Department well into seven figures in misconduct settlements and legal fees, was recently reinstated to his Identification Unit post.

Since its creation in 1991, the CRA has drawn fire both from pro-police sources who say the department can look after its own affairs and from MPD critics who say it's ineffectual. The issue last cropped up in December, when the Council approved the CRA's 1997 budget along with a footnote calling for study of whether the board merits funding again in 1998. The topic wasn't slated to come up again until mid-June. Circumstances may have conspired to force the Council's hand, however. Hennepin County recently bought the building that houses the panel's offices, forcing it last week to go to the Council in search of permission to negotiate a new lease elsewhere. That, in turn, prompted a fresh round of criticism from Council members who say there's no better time to move the authority--both literally and in terms of hierarchy--into the Civil Rights Department.

Patricia Hughes, Civilian Review's executive director, says that would be a mistake. In order to bring a matter before the Department of Civil Rights, she counters, a citizen would have to allege that the motive behind the offenses they allegedly suffered at the hands of police was discrimination. While 61 percent of those who file complaints with the board are people of color, the most common allegations involve use of excessive force. Indeed, the agency handled just two discrimination complaints against the MPD last year. In addition, she notes, if Civil Rights was given authority to consider discrimination complaints against the MPD, it would be empowered only to conclude whether discrimination occurred and award money, not to recommend discipline of the officers involved.

Joe Biernat, head of the City Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, says the city can't justify the panel's $500,000 budget in light of the declining number of complaints lodged against police in recent years. The review board received 1,062 calls in 1994, 956 in 1995, and 711 in 1996.

Even though hundreds of citizens contact the authority every year, a much smaller number end up filing formal complaints. According to the agency's annual report, after talking with one of the authority's investigators about their situation, many callers decline to file a complaint. Some are referred elsewhere, and about 100 "contacts" are resolved each year by informal conversations between CRA investigators and members of the MPD.

On the other side of the spectrum are critics who say the agency has a disturbing track record of finding in favor of police. The authority's annual report for 1996 does list a disproportionate number of complaints of use of excessive force in the troubled Third Precinct. Of a total of 37 allegations made against officers in that part of the city last year, 20 included accusations of brutality. The second-highest number of complaints, 29, involved the Fifth Precinct, where 11 incidents of excessive force were reported. But of the 711 citizen contacts it had last year, the authority found probable cause to take action in just 16 cases. Since its inception in 1991, the authority has found probable cause in only 93 cases, and has sustained 48 complaints.

At last Friday's Council meeting, the authority was given the go-ahead to negotiate a lease with the downtown Minneapolis Grain Exchange building. The agency is scheduled to appear before the City Council to defend itself in two hearings in June at which the merger with Civil Rights is expected to be discussed. Council member Joan Campbell says she expects to see support for evaluating the review board's performance, if not for proceeding to dismantle it. Another option might involve leaving the CRA intact and applying the city's civil-rights ordinances to the MPD, which would make it easier for citizens and employees to sue the department for civil-rights offenses--an approach Council member Jim Niland has long advocated. Meanwhile, staffers will also have to return to City Hall for final approval of any lease, which Campbell says most likely will be approved as long as it contains a 120-day escape clause.

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