Current oversight called ‘complaining to police about police’
Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB) President Michelle Gross says the now-failed ballot question that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a department of public safety was divisive as a proposed charter amendment and would have been ineffective had it been approved and gone into effect.
“That ballot question was not police reform,” Gross said. “That wouldn’t have changed anything about the police except give them a new name and a different boss.
A lengthy history of failed police reform preceded Floyd’s death and the controversial ballot question that followed it. It’s “not random” that the murder of George Floyd, a trigger for racial justice protests around the globe, happened in Minneapolis, said Dave Bicking, a CUAPB board member.
According to Bicking, efforts counterproductive to the pursuit of an efficient form of civilian review and consistent disciplinary actions against officers who commit misconduct have allowed a police culture to persist that is void of accountability and rife with abuse.
Evolution of Mpls police oversight
Until Oct. 1, 2012, the Civilian Review Authority served as a measure of oversight for police in Minneapolis. Bicking served on the CRA from 2008 until 2010.
“That was truly a civilian body,” he said. “It did not have police officers in it. If someone filed a complaint, it went to civilians for review.”
The CRA was created by ordinance in January 1990 to investigate claims from the public against the police. It was weak, underfunded, and allowed a backlog of cases to pile up. But the system also had its strengths.
“They did a good job of investigating and sustaining cases,” Gross said. “It was just that the police chief wouldn’t discipline those cases.”
The next form of police oversight in Minneapolis managed to be even more dismal and ineffective than its predecessor. “It’s about as far from civilian review as you can get,” Gross said.
The current system, the Office of Police Conduct Review (OPCR), is a hybrid police-civilian body, rather than solely a civilian body. It took the place of the CRA.
The OPCR’s review panel is composed of four members—two civilians and two sworn panelists, including an officer with the rank of lieutenant or higher and an individual assigned by the chief of police or the chief’s designee. Bicking described the current system for handling civilian complaints as “complaining to the police about the police.”
The panel makes a determination about the merit of the complaint but not about the level of discipline. Next, the case goes to internal affairs, where a panel of officers can override the determination made by the hybrid panel.
The officer accused of misconduct then has the chance to share mitigating factors at a hearing before the case eventually goes to the chief, who can also override the determination by internal affairs.
“You have a process that has a huge number of steps, any one of which can kick out a complaint,” Bicking said. CUAPB data shows that the OPCR has not been a vehicle for improving police accountability.
At the time of George Floyd’s death, nearly eight years after the current system had been in place, nearly 2,800 complaints had been filed by the public. Twelve of them resulted in disciplinary action against the accused officer.
“That’s less than one in 200,” Bicking said. “Why would anybody bother to go through the work of filing a complaint if they knew the chances were less than one in 200 of any discipline?”
Half of the discipline was a written reprimand, and the most severe disciplinary action against an officer was a 48-hour unpaid suspension. Bicking said the purpose of discipline is not to act as a form of retribution against an officer but to correct actions of misconduct and deter similar actions in the future.
“There’s nothing that can be done to reform the OPCR into true civilian review,” said Gross. “It needs to be scrapped and started over again,” “Something that scares people away from problem conduct is actually disciplining that problem conduct. And that’s an area where we fail in the biggest way.”
Effective police reform
Although the ballot question sparked division among advocates for police reform, Gross hopes those on both sides of the issue can come together and continue pressing for real change. “What I hope is that these people will not go away, that they will stay involved, and that we can work together on a path forward,” she said.
Bicking and Gross say true civilian review is an important component of successful police reform. The panel should be made up of civilians, be adequately funded, have subpoena power, and be able to require recommended disciplinary action.
“In other words, we need to give civilian oversight more power,” explained Gross. Another important component of police reform, an Early Intervention System, would track citizen complaints, use of force reports, disciplinary records and officer performance, then use predictive modeling to flag officers in need of support to prevent misconduct.
Bicking pointed out that a disciplinary reset could also lead to more accountability. Currently, “past practice” allows officers to evade discipline if similar cases of alleged misconduct have previously gone unpunished. Under this system, a lack of previous discipline justifies the failure to apply discipline in the future.
Gross pointed out that police should not be involved in mental health crises or be responsible for handling homelessness. It’s crucial to “get cops out of the business of doing things they shouldn’t be doing in the first place,” she said.
The Treatment Advocacy Center estimated in 2015 that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter.
Nearly 18 months after the murder of George Floyd made Minneapolis an international focal point for police violence, and to a lesser extent for its reform efforts, there is no system in place to ensure that officers who brutalize the public automatically face discipline.
“There are just a ton of things to do to address police culture that would actually make meaningful change,” said Gross. “And the city council and the mayor have failed to do every last one of them.”
Niara Savage is a contributor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.