Listen: Police discipline, a look at how bad police officers are punished

MPR’s Mary Losure reports trunk transport incident and creation of Civilian Police Review Authority (CRA). Segment includes numerous interviews.

Losure presents viewpoints from Clyde Bellecourt, AIM Director; John Laux, Minneapolis Police Chief; David Pearce Demers, professor at University of Wisconsin; Al Berryman, Minneapolis Police union president; Ann Viitala, Civil Review Board president; Tony Miranda, member of Police Officer Federation; and Keith Ellison, director of Legal Rights Center.


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DEMONSTRATORS: Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Racist cops gotta go. Hey, hey.

MARY LOZIER: In may, Native Americans marched through the streets of Minneapolis. It was one month after the trunk incident and activists were outraged that no action had been taken. Today, the situation has changed little. Although the officers made a public apology and were given suspensions from duty, their appeals are still pending. Allegations that with the men in the trunk, the officers took 44 minutes to drive the few blocks to the hospital remain unanswered. American Indian Movement director Clyde Bellecourt, who led the protests, says people in the Native American community are not surprised.

CLYDE BELLECOURT: There's a lot of feelings in the community that nothing can be done with situations like this. And when I talk to different organizations in the community, I always tell them that, hey, you got to still-- I don't care what happens, you got to still get involved.

MARY LOZIER: The complicated process of investigating police misconduct, imposing discipline, and ruling on appeals takes months and even years, and it's done without public scrutiny. Under state law, unless the officer involved chooses to talk publicly about the case, virtually no information can be released until the appeals process is over. Not even the person filing the complaint knows what, if any, action has been taken.

Minneapolis Police Chief John Lock says he's not happy with the process. He says the long delays in secrecy alienate the public and feed its distrust of police.

JOHN LOCK: There is a sense from the public that the chief isn't doing anything. It's all a cover up. He's not taking any disciplinary action. It's smoke and mirrors, and he's telling us he's going to be strong on discipline, but nothing happens. The real frustrating part is I can't talk about what's happening.

MARY LOZIER: Lock says restrictions on what he can tell the public are not the only way his hands are tied. Right now, even if he wants to fire an officer, he can't always do so. He can only recommend that action to the Civil Service Commission, a three-member board appointed by the city council. Locks says the last three officers he has tried to fire have been returned to the force by the Civil Service Commission. He tried to fire one officer for theft and lying, another for a drunken incident in which the off-duty officer fired a gun in the parking lot of the Mall of America, and a third for a long history of violations.

JOHN LOCK: I can't think of a poorer message to send to a workforce that if you foul up big time and the system says, well, you probably did wrong, but not enough to cost you your job.

MARY LOZIER: David Pearce Demers, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, says many cases don't even get that far. He alleges the extent of excessive use of force, theft, and other wrongdoing within the Department is far greater than the public knows. Demers, who has filed three lawsuits against the Minneapolis Police seeking access to their internal files, says the public has a right to see them.

DAVID PEARCE DEMERS: I think the public should have a right to know what's going on in their police departments like they do in other states. Ohio, for example, the local Toledo Blade got access several years ago to all of the internal affairs complaint records in the police department, and they found just scores of cases where police officers were being charged with criminal as well as departmental violations. And in many of those cases, no disciplinary action was taken against the officers.

MARY LOZIER: But the laws restricting public access to information have some powerful defenders. Minnesota's Data Practices Act protects, not just police, but other public employees, such as teachers and firefighters. Any changes in the act would likely be opposed by one of the state's largest unions, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. Minneapolis Police officers Federation President Al Berryman says officers have a right to be proven guilty of some wrongdoing before allegations about them are released to the public.

AL BERRYMAN: My life or another police officer's life, or a teacher's life, or some other public employees life shouldn't be ruined over allegations because once those allegations are out, you don't undo them.

MARY LOZIER: Still, the belief that the police department needed further oversight prompted the Minneapolis City Council to establish the Civilian Police Review Authority, which began operating in 1991. The board has no subpoena power and handles only non-criminal complaints. But Civilian Review board chair Ann Vitala says some police officers resent its very existence.

ANN VITALA: One of the things that we see over and over is a mentality on the part of some police officers that the citizens have no business looking into how the police are performing their jobs. We see some officers openly display on the record contempt for us and for the citizens of this city. That is the kind of problem that has to be addressed if we are going to have effective professional police service here.

MARY LOZIER: But Tony Miranda of the Police Officers Federation says many officers don't like having a civilian board second-guessing their decisions.

TONY MIRANDA: You're asking people to sit-in judgment about something that they don't understand. A couple of them will not ride along in a police car. They will not go to any departmental training. Now, if this person is going to make a decision about if I handcuff somebody appropriately or at the right time, or if I did it wrong or I was too violent, or whatever I did, and they don't even know what I'm supposed to do, how can they make that decision?

I believe that there's people there that make the decision and they do it out of sheer bias and their own racist beliefs and it-- on the review board. And there are people there that don't like the police. They're anti-police people and they're very adamant about it. And I don't like it and our people don't like it.

MARY LOZIER: Miranda, whose job it is to accompany officers to hearings, says the possibility of being hauled up before the board is the number one morale issue on the force. And he says when morale suffers, so does the ability of officers to do their job.

TONY MIRANDA: This is the kind of job that people take because they like the action. They like to get out there and they like to help people, and that's what they're doing. But how long can you get hit in the head with the brick before you go, I'm sorry, but I don't want to do any more. I don't want to go up there on trumped up charges or have being second guessed by people who just don't care for me.

MARY LOZIER: Miranda says he thinks the citizens would be better off if the Civilian Review board were scrapped entirely. Keith Ellison, a defense attorney and Director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, says the Civilian Review board now is ineffective and needs to be either strengthened or scrapped. But he says if it is eliminated, something needs to take its place so that people who have been abused by police have some recourse.

KEITH ELLISON: We certainly cannot return to the days when people only had the Internal Affairs Department to go to, and we certainly can't do nothing. We know what too much police abuse does. There was the Kerner Commission Report back in 1968 said that almost every major urban disturbance, a riot by another name, has been sparked by a, quote unquote, "unpleasant" interaction between the police and the community.

MARY LOZIER: Ellison says it's essential to deal with the problem of police abuse of community members because many young people don't want to listen to calls for boycotts, petitions, and sit-ins. They want more direct action. And he says there's only so long you can keep telling them that a march will solve the problem. I'm Mary Lozier, Minnesota Public Radio.


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