Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
March 2023 should mark a much-needed turning point for policing in Minneapolis.
First, more than 160 applications poured in before the March 20 deadline from residents eager to serve on a 15-member board that, once again, will attempt badly needed oversight of the city's Police Department.
Then came Friday's unanimous City Council vote to approve an agreement with the state Human Rights Department that will transform the way the department investigates crimes, uses force against citizens, and handles officer accountability and discipline.
Citizen involvement will be critical to a successful transformation of Minneapolis policing — one that enhances public safety and rebuilds trust between officers and those they are sworn to protect. If it's successful, the streets will be safer for citizens and the hundreds of police officers who patrol them.
It was gratifying to see the gusher of applications coming in from Minneapolis residents eager to serve on the board. It's been years since any city committee or commission has generated that kind of interest.
The new Community Commission on Police Oversight (CCPO) was created last year by the City Council, with a structure devised by the city's Civil Rights Department. It takes the place of two earlier oversight groups: The Office of Police Conduct Review and the Police Conduct Oversight Commission. Both were criticized as ineffective. The oversight commission had so few active members last year that it failed to reach a quorum and was unable to meet for months at a time before finally going dark.
The Office of Police Conduct Review, which had also come under fire, had been an attempt to replace the old Civilian Review Authority in 2012. The CRA had been made up of citizens appointed by the mayor and City Council, and its determinations were referred to the police chief. The OPCR, by contrast, could, among other actions, mandate mediation between the officer and citizen or refer for further investigation. Neither, as it turned out, was able to compel lasting change.
Minneapolis Civil Rights Director Alberder Gillespie said that this time, the new board will "provide a critical forum for the public to have meaningful engagement in police oversight." There will be one person appointed for each of the city's 13 wards by council members. Mayor Jacob Frey will get two additional appointments, with all nominations being approved by the council and mayor.
In its latest iteration, the oversight commission will hold public meetings and review allegations of misconduct. It will have direct access to investigative cases. Members will have the ability to recommend a finding of merit, along with corrective measures.
The sheer number of applications for these posts shows that Minneapolis residents retain a vital interest in having law enforcement that is both effective and accountable.
Since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a veteran Minneapolis police officer in 2020, the city has overhauled its public safety structure. It now has its first community safety commissioner, Cedric Alexander, a past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement executives. Frey also appointed a new police chief, Brian O'Hara.
The agreement with the state is the result of nearly a year of negotiations that began after the Human Rights Department charged the MPD with engaging in a pattern of illegal, racist behavior in the wake of George Floyd's murder and widespread calls for police reform.
Under the terms approved Friday, police officers will no longer stop motorists for broken taillights, will not search a person or vehicle because officers smell marijuana, and will no longer use chemical irritants for crowd control. It also has provisions dealing with mental health resources for police and early intervention for officers involved in dangerous conduct.
More changes could come when the U.S. Department of Justice, which began a broad investigation of the MPD in the wake of Floyd's death, releases its findings. The department could come under a consent decree calling for additional reforms.
Even before Floyd's death, the Star Tribune Editorial Board advocated for police reform in Minneapolis. The board has also backed efforts to rebuild the depleted department by improving officer recruitment and working conditions.
Much has changed in Minneapolis policing and public safety, but the overhaul is still in its early stages and more important work is ahead.