The latest effort by the city of Minneapolis to impose civilian oversight of police misconduct so far has little to show for it.
In its first six months, the Community Commission on Police Oversight has handled only two cases out of the hundreds of complaints filed with the police department and the Office of Police Conduct Review (OPCR). A city website that's supposed to keep citizens apprised of data about complaints against officers hasn't been updated since March.
Four investigators left the OPCR earlier this year. That has contributed to its struggle to investigate complaints within 180 days, which the city agreed to do as part of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigation in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.
The commission is the fourth attempt at civilian oversight by Minneapolis since 1990. It still depends on cooperation from the police, who investigate some internal misconduct allegations and have seats on the commission's review panels. Chief Brian O'Hara has the final say on whether officers are ultimately disciplined.
This summer, the depleted ranks of the police also meant a delay in the disciplinary process. Two panels tasked with reviewing misconduct cases were canceled this fall because no officers were available to take part.
"We were in a holding pattern for a while," said OPCR director John Jefferson, who pointed to critical staffing shortages and a department restructuring as major hurdles to streamlining cases.
"It's moving slowly, but that should have been expected," chair Mary Dedeaux-Swinton said in a recent interview. "There was nothing in place and we are having to create everything. ... We are setting ourselves up for success instead of making up things quickly."
The 15-member commission formally launched in May. It grew out of weeks of debate last year about how to restructure Minneapolis' lax oversight systems, which were called out in a scathing state Department of Human Rights report for failing to hold problem officers accountable.
The U.S. Department of Justice later challenged the city to cooperate with the commission "to promote robust and even-handed civilian oversight," with priority on transparency.
Citizen complaints against police can be filed in two separate agencies. One is the OPCR, a division of the city's Civil Rights department. The other is the police Internal Affairs division.
In both agencies, investigators forward their completed cases to review panels consisting of three civilian commissioners and two sworn officers. The panels examine the evidence and make recommendations to Chief O'Hara on whether discipline should be imposed.
Commissioners were prepared to start convening review panels as early as July, but there were no officers available to participate, Jefferson said.
Top brass acknowledged that the summer became a kind of "perfect storm" amid a command staff shakeup and continued attrition, which thinned department ranks to historic lows and prevented timely panel training for supervisors.
"It's not that we don't think that this process is important — we think it is extremely important," said DeChristopher Granger, the newly appointed deputy chief of Internal Affairs. "But what we're doing right now is managing a lot of change with not enough personnel resources."
A group of roughly 25 day-watch lieutenants, commanders and inspectors are now eligible to sit on review panels, Granger said, "so going forward, I do not anticipate any further delays."
Internal Affairs is working through a backlog of approximately 125 misconduct cases, with eight waiting to be heard by oversight panels. The OPCR backlog is thought to stretch into the hundreds since unresolved complaints date back to 2015.
Jefferson projected that, once fully operational, the oversight commission could hold as many as four panels a month, though he aspires to double that.
That pace is concerning for a previous leader of the city's civilian oversight process.
"We managed to hold one panel a week in 2004 and we cleared a backlog in 1½ years with a commission of seven," said Michael Friedman, former chair of Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority. "If police staffing is the issue [now], it's another reason to question why police are on the panels in the first place. Given the Human Rights and Department of Justice reports, it's alarming that police accountability mechanisms appear to be getting worse, not better."
For three decades, Minneapolis has struggled to come up with an effective citizens review apparatus to rein in police officers engaged in excessive force or other unacceptable behavior. Three previous organizational structures were shut down.
The Community Commission on Police Oversight emerged as a replacement to the Police Conduct Oversight Commission, whose former members felt their work had been undercut when city leaders and police administrators ignored their recommendations. That commission went dormant in April 2022, after a series of resignations left vacancies that Mayor Jacob Frey and the City Council declined to fill.
The new commission structure was drafted by the Civil Rights department and approved by the City Council in a 7-4 vote last December. At the time, several members of the council's progressive wing pressed to give the commission more teeth.
Its initial rollout did not assuage their concerns.
"There is no indication that this has actually contributed to police oversight in any meaningful way so far, despite the very good intentions and investments of time and energy by the residents who were appointed," Council Member Robin Wonsley wrote in an email to constituents last month. She noted that her office had received "concerning feedback" about internal delays and a lack of public transparency on the commission that seemed to echo the problems faced by its predecessor.
The OPCR is required to publish current complaint data on its website. However, most relevant information has not been updated since at least March. The data dashboard lists 32 complaints filed against MPD officers so far in 2023 — a figure dramatically lower than previous years. In response to a Star Tribune data request, city officials said the actual number of complaints filed this year is 207.
In a recent presentation before the Public Health and Safety Committee, Jefferson blamed the problem on Axon, their new content management system, which is struggling to extract those numbers.
"That is the biggest hiccup right now," said Jefferson, a retired FBI agent appointed in December.
He assured council members that the city's IT staff is working with Axon engineers to address the problem.
Asked in an interview why his staff can't post the correct numbers on the website, Jefferson demurred: "Doing it manually, there probably could be a lot more mistakes happening." Axon did not respond to a request for comment.
Four veteran case investigators transferred to other city jobs early in the year. The exodus left the division with an information gap and a lack of seasoned investigators. During the city budgetary process, the office asked the mayor's office for six additional investigators, but only got approval for three.
"We need more resources to take on this mammoth situation that we're in right now," Jefferson said of the backlog. The city hired Jones Day law firm to assist.
Jefferson has repeatedly said that his department is building everything — from Axon to the oversight commission — "from the ground up," which takes time.
However, there is evidence that more could have been in place at the time that commissioners were appointed in April. A document prepared by OPCR staff and obtained by the Star Tribune outlines a project plan that would have prepared commissioners to sit on review panels shortly after being sworn in. Yet the first panel wasn't held until Sept. 28.
"They should have been able to hit the ground running," said Commissioner Stacey Gurian-Sherman, who has emerged as the most vocal critic of the process.
The slow process has exasperated observers. "They aren't getting anywhere in accomplishing what they are supposed to do," said Dave Bicking, a member of Communities United Against Police Brutality.
The city of Baltimore's new five-member board tasked with examining police misconduct files has reviewed 395 cases since launching in June — and expects that number to rise to 413 by the end of this week, the Baltimore Sun reported on Nov. 2.
"It does seem like we are further behind than we need to be, but I don't think that the public understands the amount of work that goes into a committee like this," said Commissioner Jennifer Clement, the Ward 5 representative.
Vice Chair Latonya Reeves cautioned against making too many comparisons between previous civilian review boards and the current one. She said these commissioners embody a diverse cross-section of the city and are truly dedicated to the work.
"If we're going to continue to think about what didn't work the last time, it's not going to work this time," Reeves said. "All we can do is try to move forward. I want to give it a chance."
Time is slipping away for seven of the 15 commissioners who are already halfway through their terms, which expire May 31, 2024.