Police watchdog group says Minneapolis uses legal loophole to keep police misconduct from the public

Police watchdog group says Minneapolis uses legal loophole to keep police misconduct from the public

One Minneapolis police officer made a reckless turn and caused a “preventable” car crash.

In a separate case, an officer failed to turn on his body camera while interviewing witnesses at a crime scene.

Another officer used “inappropriate language” toward a victim of domestic assault and then never wrote a report on the call.

In all of these cases of substantiated rule violations, the officers’ supervisors opted for the same remedy: “coaching.”

Coaching is a form of one-on-one mentoring that the Minneapolis Police Department uses to deal with low-level rule violations — so low, according to the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office, that it doesn’t qualify as real discipline.

The distinction is significant. Under Minnesota law, disciplinary records for police officers must be made available to the public. The city classifies coaching records as private data.

But commissioners of a city-appointed police oversight panel say some of these incidents are not so minor, and they are questioning whether Minneapolis public officials use coaching as a loophole to keep police misconduct records from the public eye.

In 2021, several members of the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission say they will renew the push for the city attorney to reclassify these records as public in an effort to make the department more transparent.

Coaching is by far the most common outcome for substantiated police misconduct, and making these records public would unlock hundreds of records containing detailed complaints against Minneapolis police officers. Summaries of several cases resulted in coaching, lacking key details and the names of the officers involved, were presented at a recent meeting of the oversight commission.

“Police aren’t to be held to a lower standard of expectations. But yet they are,” said Cynthia Jackson, a social worker recently appointed to the commission. “It’s mind-boggling to me.”

Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader declined to be interviewed for this story, but he sent a statement Monday, after this story was published online, saying, “The City is committed to transparency, and must follow state law in releasing information about police discipline cases.” Rowader said other government agencies across Minnesota also “recognize that coaching is not considered discipline,” and not public record, but he did not reply when asked for specific examples.

In a recent letter to the police oversight commission, Assistant City Attorney Trina Chernos explained the office’s position, describing coaching as “one of a few examples of nondisciplinary corrective actions any employer, including the MPD, might take.”

The Police Department manual says coaching may be used in instances where officers behaved inappropriately, but the conduct “did not rise to the level of discipline.”

“Coaching is not discipline,” wrote Chernos. “Coaching offers … a valuable performance management tool for swiftly addressing everyday decisions and behavior.”

Jackson said she’s troubled by summary details of coaching cases, which appear more serious than the city has let on.

In the domestic assault case, the officer arrived on scene to assist paramedics and waited about 15 seconds after knocking on the door before kicking it open, “and it is unclear why he chooses to do so,” according to a description of the body-camera footage. The officer also failed to report the broken door to his supervisor.

In a separate case, a domestic abuse victim said an officer “made her feel threatened” and “forced/coerced her to fill out forms,” according to the discipline summary.

The result: coaching.

“That’s not a minor incident,” said Jackson.

The debate over coaching began last summer, as the city put its focus on rebuilding community trust in the aftermath of rioting over the police killing of George Floyd.

Abigail Cerra, a former Hennepin County public defender who is now on the police oversight board, raised the issue formally at the commission’s meeting in August. She said the city was skirting public data laws by hiding behind the “coaching” designation, and in turn making it impossible for the commission to be an effective police watchdog.

“The city has an obligation to turn over public data — and it probably hasn’t been,” she said in an interview at the time. “You can’t have oversight if you don’t know what’s happening in your own department.”

Open records advocates and police reformers have since joined the call on the city to rethink its legal analysis on releasing coaching records to the public.

“Not only does the City’s position fly in the face of its own rules, but the intentional decision to hide otherwise public information will only continue to erode what little trust the residents of Minneapolis have in their public servants,” wrote Andrew Gordon, deputy director for community legal services at the criminal defense nonprofit Legal Rights Center, in a letter signed by representatives from the NAACP and National Lawyers Guild.

The commission does not have the authority to order the city attorney to open up these records, but it can make a formal recommendation if it votes to do so this year.

Jordan Sparks, who was appointed to the oversight commission in November, said he doesn’t believe all coaching cases should be opened to the public, and there should be an avenue for informal “teachable moments” for police officers. But Sparks said he worries that police are abusing the practice of coaching to keep some cases away from the public.

“In my short time on the PCOC I have seen multiple complaints where allegations against officers appear to be substantiated, and policy violations are upheld after an investigation,” but police appear to ignore the appropriate procedure and send the case to coaching in lieu of formal discipline, he said.

“Since the final word on all discipline lies with MPD and the Chief of Police, and information about why a complaint is referred to coaching rather than discipline is not typically made available, this raises all sorts of concerns about discipline being uniformly and equitably applied and fuels the public perception that the bad actions of police officers are being swept under the rug and buried as ‘coaching opportunities.’ ”

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036

Published at Mon, 18 Jan 2021 17:24:00 +0000

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