Each year, hundreds of complaints of police misconduct — from citizens and from inside the Minneapolis Police Department itself — land before a civilian review board tasked with investigating them.
Only a tiny fraction result in the discipline of an officer.
Instead, the civilian review authority and the MPD have increasingly relied on "coaching" officers accused of misconduct, a Star Tribune analysis of data compiled by the city's Office of Police Conduct Review shows. This gentler form of corrective action for low-level violations has a decided benefit for police. Most disciplinary records are public information, but the department does not recognize coaching as a form of discipline; complaints classified this way are, by state law, kept closed and out of view.
It's possible that some of the 16 misconduct complaints against now-fired Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin that were closed with no discipline, for example, were addressed with coaching.
There is no way for the public to know.
The May 25 death of George Floyd under Chauvin's knee spurred international outrage and renewed calls to restructure or abolish the department. Council members and activists calling for the action often cite union protections — along with the department's unwillingness or inability to discipline its own — as a barrier to changing its culture and improving relationships with distrustful minority communities.
In Minneapolis, the state's largest police force, only about 3% of misconduct complaints result in discipline. That number strikes civilian watchdogs and academics alike as low for a department of nearly 850 sworn officers. Comparisons are difficult, however, because there is no central repository for tracking police misconduct in the United States, and every agency counts things differently, said Susan Hutson, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
Two departments under federal consent decrees show very different results. In Seattle, roughly 20% of citizen and internal misconduct complaints combined result in discipline. In New Orleans, 14% of outside civilian complaints were sustained with discipline in 2018, while 53% of internal complaints were sustained with discipline.
Around the country, civilian oversight commissions are frequently criticized for lacking the necessary authority to hold officers accountable for their actions. Yet the vast majority lack funding for investigative auditors and don't have subpoena power, she said.
"We are sometimes fighting with one hand tied behind our back," Hutson said. "We need unfettered access to all the data. Period."
Imani Jaafar, a lawyer who directs the Minneapolis Office of Police Conduct Review, defended what she called "a very good layered civilian oversight system." Minnesota law does not permit any civilian oversight group to discipline law enforcement officers, Jaafar said, and that is not the review board's purpose. All it can do is try to help ensure a just process so officers are held responsible within the confines of the law, she said.
When asked if the 3% discipline outcome and use of coaching was acceptable, Jaafar said that was a question for the police department. Only A-level violations — such as foul language, speeding through a neighborhood or not turning on a body camera at the start of a call — are eligible for coaching.
Jaafar said her main frustration is the inability to provide information on cases that don't result in discipline, such as coaching cases. Minnesota's public records law does not allow it. That's a "huge problem," she said.
The Minneapolis Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Velma Korbel, who heads the city's Department of Civil Rights, which houses the civilian oversight group, said the low discipline rate and use of coaching are both the result of factors "outside of the Office of Police Conduct Review oversight." She pointed squarely at the discipline matrix Minneapolis police use to sort out infractions.
The state Department of Human Rights investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department underway will look at both, she said. "That is something that absolutely must be looked at in Minneapolis," Korbel said. "I think everything should be on the table. Now is the time."
Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, called the discipline rate "unconscionable." She blames it on the ineffectiveness of the civilian review process, which she said is too dominated by law enforcement and city employees.
Gross estimates the national average for discipline from civilian oversight bodies handling civilian misconduct complaints about 7 to 9%. "It makes us the low end outlier for the entire country," said Gross.
Of the 1,600 police misconduct complaints filed in Minneapolis from 2013 through 2018 — the last year of completed data — only 45 resulted in an officer being disciplined. Most of it was a mix of reprimands and suspensions. Five officers were successfully fired during that six-year period, and one was demoted.
During that time more than 270 misconduct allegations were resolved with nondisciplinary coaching.
In Minneapolis, police officers are sometimes not disciplined even when the city pays significant sums to settle allegations that their use of force crossed the line and violated civil rights.
Tou Thao, videotaped watching Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd's neck, was sued in 2017 for allegedly beating Lamar Ferguson while he was handcuffed, breaking his teeth. The city paid $25,000 to settle the lawsuit. Thao was never disciplined for his actions, according to police records.
The low rate of discipline troubles Michael Friedman, executive director of the Minneapolis Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit law firm specializing in criminal defense and restorative justice. He said he doubts outcomes have changed much since he chaired the Civilian Review Authority, the earlier version of the oversight board that collapsed in 2012 amid concerns about effectiveness.
"That concerns me because I don't think that could possibly reflect the rate of the misconduct that's being noted by investigators," said Friedman. "I have no reason to think that the overall pattern has changed."
Two retired senior Minneapolis police officials told the Star Tribune that the department leans heavily on coaching because it offers an immediate corrective action. It's faster and more effective to stick an officer in the hot seat in their supervisor's office, they said, than to deal with paperwork, combative union representatives and hearings — which often lead to arbitration. A formal internal affairs investigation could take more than a year before discipline happens. By then the officer has moved on.
"It's kinda like if I whacked my dog an hour after he [misbehaved]," said one former senior official, who is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
But others are adamant that coaching shouldn't be used to address deeper problems.
"You can't coach race-based policing," said Merrick J. Bobb, a court-appointed monitor overseeing the federal consent decree that the Seattle police department is operating under.
Bobb and others noted that coaching and its secrecy in Minnesota invite misuse.
"It's not just an administrative workaround; it might also be an intentional way of misleading the public about the true nature and extent of officer misconduct and discipline in the police department," said Metropolitan State University Prof. James Densley.
That's what concerns Friedman. He called Minnesota's public records law "the fundamental issue" complicating efforts to hold Minneapolis police accountable. It says that if an allegation of misconduct does not result in discipline, then all details about who did what are off limits and not open to the public.
"It creates a built-in incentive for police management to let things go so as to avoid public scrutiny for major incidents and preserve their credibility as witnesses," said Friedman.
Bobb was shocked by this provision in state law.
"I find it astounding and disturbing that Minnesota would have a law that prevents citizens from finding out ... what the underlying conduct that was coached was," Merrick said. "One would think that in the wake of the death of George Floyd that coaching and all disciplinary records should be open and transparent to the public."
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683 firstname.lastname@example.org
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648 email@example.com