Minneapolis Police Reforms: Another one bites the dust?

The Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC) is in disarray. Its chair resigned earlier this year, frustrated over the commission’s ineffectiveness. Four of the commission’s nine seats are vacant. The commission has cancelled three of its last nine monthly meetings.

One key part of the PCOC’s work is to research and evaluate Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) polices. It then publishes reports with recommendations to the city. The commission hasn’t published a report since before George Floyd’s 2020 murder, according to the city’s website.

At it’s most recent meeting, April 12, the four members in attendance were expressing frustration that they couldn’t meet their mission due to a lack of resources and limits on the commission’s authority.

PCOC Commissioners clockwise from the upper left: Robert Pineau, Jordan Crockett, Kerry McGuire, and Jordan Sparks.

The PCOC is an advisory board made up of citizen members appointed by either the Mayor or City Council. The City Council created it in 2012 “to assures police services are delivered in a lawful and nondiscriminatory manner,” its website says.

At its April 12 meeting, Commissioner Robert Pineau said the PCOC keeps hitting roadblocks, whether its lack of authority to meet its mission, technology challenges, or a lack of staff support.

The PCOC’s struggles have the hallmarks of the city’s faux commitment to equity and meaningful police reform. That is, big promises backed with few resources and support.

Abigail Cerra resigned as PCOC chair this March, “expressing frustration with internal city politics and bureaucracy she said prevents the board from changing police practices,” the Star Tribune reported.

Kerry McGuire was chosen as new chair in April.

We feel we have a mismatch between what our authority is and what we feel we are charged with.

Commissioner Robert Pineau

A feeling of futility among PCOC commissioners isn’t new.

Back in August, 2016, there was a “growing frustration among some commission members over the difficulty of influencing police policies and practices from outside the department,” the Star Tribune reported. “Critics long have viewed the panel … as ineffective, saying the department has routinely ignored or resisted the panel’s advice on a range of policy issues.”

At the time, police leaders were quoted saying that MPD intended to work closely with the PCOC.

One measure of the PCOC’s more recent struggles is that it hasn’t issued a report since March, 2019.

The PCOC had been putting out between one and three reports per year between 2014 and 2019. Here’s the list of PCOC reports from the city’s website:

Note: Just because the PCOC issued a report doesn’t mean MPD adopted its recommendations. In 2016, then-Commissioner Adriana Cerrillo said the PCOC had no oversight powers, citing the 2015 body camera study.

“Only after months of back-and-forth, Cerrillo said, did the department incorporate some of the panel’s recommendations,” according to the Star Tribune. “Cerrillo said the episode was a ‘slap in the face,’ and that the department’s public insistence on hearing from the community amounted to little more than lip service.”

The PCOC is housed within the Department of Civil Rights, which provides the commission’s staff support.

Pineau said at the April 12 meeting that the department has been cut in recent years and the staff has primary roles in other areas.

The Civil Rights Department has one person doing all of the PCOC’s evaluations on top of all of his other duties, Pineau said: “That is crippling our productivity.”

Commissioner Jordan Sparks said: “The frustration that we feel is not directed at any individual who works for these departments or even at the department. It’s just the whole system becomes so difficult.”

PCOC Commissioners, May 20. Source: City website.

The April 12 meeting’s most contentious issue centered on whether the commission should have access to information on individual police officers, which it currently doesn’t.

Joel Fussy of the City Attorney’s Office seemed frustrated by the question, noting the commission has been talking about this same issue for months.

The Minnesota Data Practices Act prohibits sharing personnel data, he said.

“This is a long settled issue,” Fussy said. “To say it’s unsettled is disingenuous.”

Pineau responded: “We feel we have a mismatch between what our authority is and what we feel we are charged with.”

The frustration that we feel is not directed at any individual … It’s just the whole system becomes so difficult

PCOC Commissioner Jordan Sparks

Fussy said the POC had “a wide swath of authority.” The main area is to review and audit “summary and aggregate data” regarding crime programs, patterns of behavior, and other topics.

Fussy cited the 2015 Body Camera report as an example of the work the commission could do moving forward. “That didn’t rely on private personnel data,” he said.

As I watched the video recording of the April 12 meeting, I was left wondering

  • Problems have lingered for years. How much do city leaders really value the PCOC?
  • Given the loss of membership and turnover, the commission has lost institutional memory. Where was the city support?
  • How long before more PCOC commissioners resign out of frustration?

Commissioner Sparks said he didn’t think he would stay much longer, according to a March 15 Star Tribune article: “It’s been this incredible exercise in frustration,” he said.

What does the PCOC’s situation say to residents about the city’s commitment to delivering police services “lawfully and without discrimination,” especially to BIPOC residents who have suffered the worst of police abuses?

MPD’s data demonstrates significant racial disparities with respect to officers’ use of force, traffic stops, searches, citations, and arrests.

MN Dept of Human Rights 2022 report

Mayor Jacob Frey opposed last fall’s charter amendment that would have eliminated MPD as a required city department and replaced it with a Department of Public Safety, with a public health approach.

Instead, Frey announced in December a new Public Safety Working Group tasked with making public safety recommendations. In March, he proposed creating an Office of Community Safety that would oversee five city departments, including MPD.

No details yet, but it deserves a healthy dose of skepticism.

The city has a long history of failed MPD reforms, with PCOC the latest example.

The city approved a new police union contract this spring, in spite of criticism that it didn’t strengthen MPD’s disciplinary process. This, even though the city’s been paying millions of dollars in police misconduct settlements.

State-driven MPD reforms will move in tandem with city efforts.

In April, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights released a scathing report finding probable cause that the City of Minneapolis and MPD have engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminatory, race-based policing, violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Department will start working with the city “to develop a consent decree, which is a court-enforceable agreement that identifies specific changes to be made and timelines for those changes to occur,” its report said.

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