The head of the Minneapolis police oversight commission has resigned, expressing frustration with internal city politics and bureaucracy she said prevents the board from changing police practices.
Abigail Cerra, a former public defender and Minneapolis civil rights investigator, said she joined the city's Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC) more than two years ago to help reform policies covering how officers interact with mentally ill people. She saw the police oversight mission as more urgent after the killing of George Floyd and the unrest that followed, when the city identified the volunteer board as part of its strategy to rebuild community trust.
But Cerra and other commissioners say a combination of inaction and resistance in City Hall has obstructed that work. On several occasions, the commissioners could not meet to conduct business because the City Council and the mayor failed to appoint new applicants in a timely fashion, allowing membership to fall below the threshold for a quorum.
"Really what I was doing — what the whole commission was doing — is spending the majority of our time just advocating and fighting for the PCOC to exist," said Cerra.
Appointed by the City Council in 2019, Cerra took the chair position after Cynthia Jackson resigned from the post last summer, also citing frustration with a futile process.
"It felt like a farce," said Jackson.
Several City Council leaders did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement Tuesday, Mayor Jacob Frey's spokeswoman, Tara Niebeling said: "Mayor Frey looks forward to working with a PCOC chair who collaborates in good faith to fulfill the commission's role in delivering public safety services and providing input on MPD policy."
Cerra's resignation comes six weeks after former mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad quit Frey's Community Safety Workgroup over lack of transparency. A co-chair of that group, Nekima Levy Armstrong, confronted Frey and Interim Police Chief Amelia Huffman at a news briefing after officers killed Amir Locke last month during a no-knock raid. "This isn't what I signed up for," she said.
These are the latest iterations of ongoing complaints that Minneapolis, under decades of mayors and city councils, has never fostered effective civilian oversight of police.
When the city created the PCOC by ordinance 10 years ago, it was part of an overhaul of another civilian-review mechanism that was routinely ignored by police chiefs and city leaders.
The city now calls the commission a credible avenue for residents to bring complaints regarding police and public safety issues. Through public meetings and outreach, the commission gathers input from Minneapolis residents to develop policy recommendations for the city and its police department.
But Cerra said the city does not consult the commission on important police matters, such as the latest department contract or Frey's policy change on no-knock warrants. The city has frequently failed to pay commissioners a $50-per-meeting stipend offered to the volunteer members, which many took as evidence of lack of commitment. And when the commission has asked for information, some city staff told them to file a public records request instead.
"Anytime we wanted anything, we were denied," recalled Jackson, who said the commissioners were also ignored by City Council members and former Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.
In 2020, Cerra and Jackson pushed the city to release police misconduct records they said were improperly deemed private through a process known as "coaching." This gentler form of corrective action is the most common recourse for police complaints found to have merit, but the city classifies coaching as below the threshold of discipline, and therefore not a public record. Cerra called this a misinterpretation of the law and city policy. But the issue got little traction with elected officials, who ignored their appeals to weigh in on the intent of the policy.
Jackson said she and several other PCOC members resigned last summer, feeling they were serving only as window dressing for the city's promises. "We don't do a damn thing," Jackson said. "I didn't want to lend my name to that."
Cerra clashed again with the City Attorney's Office last fall, when she posted on the social media site Nextdoor criticizing Frey and endorsing an opponent, Kate Knuth. City Attorney Jim Rowader said Cerra violated the city's ethics code by using her volunteer position to endorse a candidate. Cerra fired back, saying Rowader didn't apply the same scrutiny to Arradondo, who publicly opposed a city charter amendment during an official news conference the same week. Frey later issued Arradondo a letter of reprimand for the move.
"I think the city attorney is one person who doesn't want me on" the commission, she said.
Rowader declined to be interviewed for this article.
Cerra resigned last week, after she said City Council members neglected to vote on her reappointment when her term ended Dec. 31, leaving her uncertain whether she was even on the board any longer.
City spokesman Casper Hill said the reappointment process for the PCOC will begin later this month.
In her two years on the commission, Cerra said it was never allowed to fulfill its mission. "Not in my time," she said. "I hope they can moving forward … but to date it just hasn't happened."
Jordan Sparks, vice chair, said he doesn't think he will stay on much longer either. "I don't think so," he said. "It's been this incredible exercise in frustration."
Praising Cerra's work on the commission, Sparks said his faith in the former chair is what kept him on the board, which he joined about a year and a half ago. "It's hard to see how we can keep going without her."