HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

Civilian Review
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The Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority (CRA) was established by ordinance on January 26, 1990 to receive, consider, investigate, and make determinations regarding complaints brought by the public against the MinneapolisPolice Department.42 The board has seven members (four appointed by the City Council, three by the mayor), an executive director, three investigators (two of the three current investigators are ex-police officers but not from Minneapolis), and three administrative staff. In Fiscal Year 1997 the CRA had a budget of approximately $470,000. The board does not have subpoena power, but its founding ordinance requires that the police department cooperate with the CRA. It has no role in investigating shootings involving police; it does investigate incidents arising from off-duty employment. The CRA can make public the name and rank of an officer named in a complaint, the status of the complaint, and any disciplinary action taken by the chief at the end of the process. There is no linkage between the city attorney's office, when it receives or settles a lawsuit alleging police misconduct, and the CRA.

The CRA's creation was opposed by the then-police chief and police unions, among others. It had a rocky first few years, criticized for being slow, ineffectual, and for having a lower sustained complaint rate than the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) of the police department.43 IAD sustained about 17 percent of citizen's "most serious" complaints prior to CRA's creation, while the CRA had a sustained rate below 5 percent during its first two years.44

The CRA, which is not part of the police department, has a broad mandate, and can look at allegations of excessive force, language, harassment, discrimination, theft, and failure to provide adequate or timely police protection. The CRA reports that only about 10 percent of inquiries by phone or mail result in the complainant filing a formal complaint. Complaints must be filed within a year of an alleged incident of officer misconduct. Within thirty days of receipt of a signed complaint, the executive director decides whether to recommend the case for mediation (a discussion between the complainant and officer involved in the incident, leading toa mutually agreeable resolution), dismiss the case, or forward it for investigation. If the complaint is investigated, the investigation must be completed within 120 days of the date the complaint was signed.

Investigators make recommendations to the executive director about whether there is probable cause that misconduct occurred, and the executive director then makes a probable cause determination.45 If probable cause is found, the matter is usually sent to a three-member panel of the board. The executive director then serves as the complainant's representative at the evidentiary hearing, while the officer's attorney represents him or her, and witnesses are called for both sides. After the hearing, the panel deliberates privately and makes factual findings about what actually occurred, then makes a finding as to whether the complaint is sustained, using a "clear and convincing" standard in reviewing cases.46 The board's panel does not make disciplinary recommendations to the police chief but simply refers the case as sustained or not sustained. The chief is then required to provide his reasons, in writing, for disciplinary actions to the mayor and CRA.47

In June 1997, the City Council created a "redesign team" to analyze the CRA's performance and structure, and in November 1997, the task force released its report.48 After holding focus group meetings, conducting a mail survey, and consulting with experts, the task force made findings and recommendations to improve the CRA's operation. Among the report's findings: many people in the community do not understand what the CRA does, and those with an understanding of the CRA's procedures criticized the lack of openness during the CRA's hearing process. The focus groups and survey respondents also stated that the CRA board needed additional training to better understand police procedures and asked for clearer and more detailed explanations to complainants about why the board or chiefreached their conclusions.49 Generally, the task force called for no radical changes to the CRA, but its review did highlight issues of concern to the community and police.

Also in November 1997, voters approved a measure that subjects the police department to the jurisdiction of the city's Commission on Civil Rights; the police department was previously exempt. As a result, complainants alleging discriminatory treatment by police officers may file a complaint with the commission. The CRA redesign team noted this change and called for improved communications among the CRA, the Commission on Civil Rights, and the police department's IAD to coordinate investigations and share relevant information.

The CRA tracks complaints, sending a report every three months to the chief, IAD, and the relevant supervisor about officers with records of repeated complaints.50 The CRA retains complaints indefinitely, with no set time period for purging files.51

In its 1995 annual report, published in March 1996, CRA reports receiving 146 signed complaints, with 49 percent citing excessive force as the primary characteristic, and in 1996 there were 129 signed complaints, with 44 percent alleging excessive force.52 (The CRA only counts complaints that are formally submitted, not those made in phone calls or informally.) Probable cause of wrongdoing is found in about 10 percent of the cases; in two-thirds of the cases no probable cause is found, with the remainder dismissed, mediated or withdrawn by the complainant. This means that of 129 signed complaints in 1996, approximately fifty-six (or 44 percent) alleged excessive force, and approximately five or six of these would be found as having sufficient merit and would proceed to a hearing. More than 80 percent of cases found to have sufficient merit that go to a hearing are sustained, so perhaps five excessive force complaints would be sustained and submitted to the chief. Unfortunately, the CRA report does not break down its probable cause or sustained rate by type of complaint (such as excessive force), soit is difficult to ascertain whether the number of excessive force cases sustained differs from other types of complaints.

In fact, disciplinary action by the police chief following an allegation of excessive force submitted in a signed CRA complaint is rare. For example, between March 1995 and February 1997 (the first two years of Chief Olson's term) only eighteen cases were sustained - two involving excessive force. In one case, an officer was disciplined with a one-day suspension without pay, and in another involving excessive force, language and harassment, an officer received a five-day suspension without pay. No further information is provided about the incidents leading to the discipline. In the same two-year period, there were 127 complaints of excessive force. Although the complaints filed during this two-year period are not necessarily the same submitted to the chief, it would appear that few complaints result in disciplinary action.

42 Interview with CRA Executive Director Patricia Hughes, August 30, 1995 and CRA annual reports. The CRA handles only allegations that are not criminally prosecutable.

43 David Peterson, "Study: Civilian board upholds fewer police complaints," Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 22, 1993, describing study conducted by the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

44 Ibid. The CRA claims that the comparison was unfair because the CRA was just beginning and did not have strong leadership initially. It was also unclear at what stage the IAD considered a complaint to have been formally lodged, investigated, and sustained, making its sustained rate meaningless. In other words, the sustained rate may be a percentage of the complaints investigated, rather than a percentage of the total number of complaints citizens attempted to file.

45 1996 CRA Annual Report, pp. 4-5.

46 Under state law, the CRA's proceedings are considered part of the disciplinary process, and thus are not public.

47 The CRA gives Chief Olson higher marks than his predecessor for his handling of disciplinary sanctions in cases investigated by the CRA. The CRA was also behind the push for a disciplinary matrix because former chiefs had done too little with CRA-sustained complaints.

48 Redesign team, "Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority," November 1997. The task force was made up of six individuals representing the police department, police federation, CRA board, city attorney's office, and the city's Department of Civil Rights; it was chaired by the city coordinator.

49 Chief Olson generally expressed support for the CRA, but agreed with the review's findings that its board members should receive better training. Telephone interview, January 23, 1998.

50 Although it is of public interest, there is no information about this reporting in the 1996 Annual Report.

51 Interview with Hughes, August 30, 1995.

52 In 1994, 58 percent of the 150 signed complaints alleged excessive force.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch