Oversight commissioner urges opening of more Minneapolis police records

A Black Lives Matter sign in front of a police station.
A protester holds a Black Lives Matter sign in front of the Minneapolis police 1st Precinct on Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Many more complaints against Minneapolis police officers could become public if a member of a city panel gets her way.

Abigail Cerra, who sits on the Police Conduct Oversight Commission, said the Minneapolis Police Department is not following its own rules when it comes to correcting the on-the-job behavior of officers.

The police killing of George Floyd last May has led to a proposal supported by a majority of the City Council to disband the Police Department and replace it with a community safety department that would not be required to have sworn officers. As Minneapolis leaders debated the plan, Cerra was taking a close look at the policy already on the books.

An attorney and a former public defender, Cerra said the Police Department is improperly reporting hundreds of low-level infractions, such as officers driving too fast through neighborhoods.

In those cases, officers would typically receive an oral reprimand by a supervisor, part of a process that the department calls “coaching.” But Cerra said written records of these are not publicly available. For the public to have access to that data, complaints have to be sustained and accompanied by disciplinary action.

Cerra said Minneapolis police’s own policy manual and civil service rules regard coaching as discipline, but in practice, the department does not. That means the majority of complaints that the Office of Police Conduct Review receives aren’t public information.

“If we want to do some really true, genuine oversight, we need to know what’s happening within MPD and what kind of disciplinary issues, if any, exist. And if this data is locked down and no one can review it, then that that really undermines the city’s ability to do oversight,” the commissioner said.

Cerra wants the department to treat coaching for low-level violations as discipline and make the relevant records public. But the police oversight commission is only allowed to make recommendations and can’t force the department to do anything.

The Police Conduct Oversight Commission is expected to take up the proposed recommendation next month after a subcommittee approved it Tuesday.

A police spokesperson declined comment. A spokesperson for Mayor Jacob Frey referred questions to city spokesperson Casper Hill. In a statement, Hill said city leaders are “collectively committed to instilling greater accountability and transparency in the department.” Hill says if the committee advances the recommendation, it will be “thoroughly vetted and discussed.”

Attorney Isaac Kaufman said most police contracts do not treat coaching as formal discipline. Kaufman spent a decade as general counsel to Law Enforcement Labor Services, a union that represents officers in suburban police departments.

Kaufman — who has not worked for the Minneapolis Police Federation — countered that Cerra’s proposal could have unintended consequences.

“I imagine you’re going to see a lot of these low-level infractions go through the grievance arbitration process,” Kaufman said. “It’s going to be expensive and time-consuming. It would change the labor-management relationship significantly.”

But Michelle Gross with Communities United Against Police Brutality said the change is long overdue. Gross has tracked complaints for years and contends the Office of Police Conduct Review classifies some as low-level to keep them out of the public eye.

“It shows you the history of an agency that is charged with oversight that is doing an extraordinarily poor job of overseeing police and addressing police conduct issues. And because these issues don’t get addressed, therefore we have incidents like the George Floyd incident,” Gross said.