Minnesota’s top police licensing authority plans to fortify the professional standards for law enforcement officers amid fallout from a Star Tribune series on police misconduct.
In a vote Wednesday morning, the standards committee of the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board recommended adding three misdemeanors to the list of crimes that trigger state review and potential discipline: fifth-degree assault, fourth-degree drunken driving and domestic assault.
The full POST Board is expected to approve the changes in a vote later this month in what would be the first expansion of Minnesota’s standards of conduct for police officers in more than two decades. The independent state regulatory body licenses the 10,750 sworn officers on the job today in Minnesota.
Andy Skoogman, head of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, called the changes overdue, and “a really strong step forward.”
A community activist at Wednesday morning’s meeting, however, characterized them as incremental. Dave Bicking, of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said the three new misdemeanors fall far short of what’s needed to address police misconduct on the job. He noted that prosecutors rarely bring criminal charges against officers for behavior on the job. “They are only talking about taking action when an officer is convicted of a crime,” Bicking said after the meeting.
Bicking’s group is particularly critical of the circular way the POST Board handles complaints filed by citizens, which it routinely forwards to the law enforcement agency that employs the officer in question. His group has protested the POST Board’s lack of action in the past.
The head of Minnesota’s largest association of rank-and-file officers told the committee that his group does not support the changes, but will not oppose them.
Dave Metusalem, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said in an interview that he sees no need for the state to intervene in local employment matters.
“The chief law enforcement officers have the adequate tools to regulate conduct at the local level,” Metusalem said. Local control of police discipline has long been a key tenet of the St. Paul-based licensing board.
Minnesota is an outlier
Wednesday’s actions were prompted by “Shielded by the Badge,” a Star Tribune series published last October, which found that several hundred officers across the state have been convicted of serious crimes such as assault in the past two decades without ever facing discipline by the state licensing body.
More than 140 of them remain on the job after being convicted of offenses such as drunken driving, disorderly conduct, misdemeanor assault, trespassing and reckless discharge of a firearm.
The series also found that Minnesota has one of the lowest police license revocation rates in the country, and that the POST Board hasn’t significantly changed its standards of conduct for police since 1995.
Currently, the board automatically revokes a license only when an officer is convicted of a felony. Gross misdemeanor convictions typically trigger a board hearing for potential sanctions. But only a very select number of misdemeanors trigger any kind of state licensing review.
At Wednesday’s meeting, members took pains to note that lack of POST Board action does not mean charges against officers are not being investigated and addressed by local law enforcement employers. Many officers found guilty of misconduct get fired or suffer other career setbacks, said POST Board Executive Director Nate Gove.
Still, Gove said, sworn officers should be held to a higher standard. Mark Raquet, the board’s standards coordinator, urged the committee to recommend adding the three new misdemeanors.
“I think we’d all agree it’s not 1995 anymore and things have changed,” he told the committee. “It’s time to bring the standards up to more of the expectations of the public.”
The POST Board is considering other changes, including modifying its rules to require that local police chiefs notify the board when one of their officers gets charged or convicted, Gove said. The specifics are still being worked out. Under current rules, the employer doesn’t have an obligation to inform the board of any conviction — or may lose track of the case — if the officer has been fired or resigned.
At the Legislature
The 2018 Legislature is also expected to consider changes in the board’s rules and authority. Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, and a member of the House public safety committee, said there has been broad discussion about occupational licensing of nurses and teachers and which criminal convictions disqualify them. It’s time to look at police, too, he said. Wednesday’s POST Board move “is another indication that it’s a likely time for the Legislature to dig in,” Zerwas said.
Two DFLers on public safety committees — Sen. Ron Latz and Rep. JoAnn Ward — have called for more discussion of the POST Board’s mission and improving its ability to track individual discipline issues. Ward has called the POST Board’s discipline track record “outrageous.”
At a glance
Wednesday’s action: The state board that licenses Minnesota law enforcement officers proposed adding three new misdemeanor offenses to its conduct standards: domestic assault, fifth-degree assault and fourth-degree drunken driving.
What that means: Officers convicted of those offenses would be subject to a board hearing and potential sanctions such as license suspension.
What’s next: The full 15-member board will vote on the committee proposal Jan. 25.