A woman said she called 911 after a stranger punched her in a parking lot, but the police officer who responded never filed a report. A man said he was hanging out with a group of friends in a park when police pulled up, told them to leave and pepper-sprayed them.
Those reports were among at least 66 allegations of St. Paul police officer misconduct through the department's online survey since it launched in 2017, according to a Star Tribune analysis of survey responses obtained through a public-records request.
But because survey responses aren't considered formal complaints, they don't trigger investigations by police. Nor are they shared with the civilian oversight panel that is supposed to review misconduct cases.
The former leaders of St. Paul's police oversight commission, Constance Tuck and Rachel Sullivan-Nightengale, said the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission (PCIARC) should have access to survey results. The two resigned from the commission last month after saying city leaders did not support their work.
"The data from the St. Paul Police Community Feedback database reinforces our concern that a significant number of St. Paul community members have been denied the opportunity to have their complaints about St. Paul Police reviewed by the PCIARC," Tuck and Sullivan-Nightengale said in a statement Thursday. "It also supports our concern that the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD) was not providing the PCIARC with a full accounting of all complaints received."
In a statement, St. Paul Police Spokesman Steve Linders said the survey wasn't intended to be an avenue for formal complaints, which must meet the standards of the state Peace Officer Discipline Procedures Act.
"We cannot open an Internal Affairs investigation based solely on a survey result; we need to follow the law," he said. "This means we need a complainant who is willing to participate in the process."
A police commander reviews surveys that describe a negative experience, and in cases where it seems a policy violation occurred, the respondent is given information about how to file a complaint, Linders said.
In some cases, attempts to reach someone fail, he said, as in the case of a woman who said two officers assaulted her in July 2017 while her toddler daughter watched and screamed. The woman provided her phone number and e-mail address in the survey but could not be reached, Linders said.
Survey results show most respondents described positive experiences with police. In a portion of the survey where respondents rank their interactions and view of police on a scale of 1 to 5, more than half averaged 5 out of 5.
After reviewing 187 responses that included only negative comments (and averaged a score of 2 out of 5), Tuck and Sullivan-Nightengale said more than a third included complaints that would fall under the PCIARC's purview. The commission reviews complaints of alleged acts of excessive force, inappropriate use of firearms, discrimination, racial profiling and poor public relations.
The review commission receives complaints after the police department's Internal Affairs unit has investigated them, and then recommends officer discipline, if any, to the police chief. Access to the survey response database falls outside the scope of the commission's work, Linders said.
Civilian oversight of police has been a continuing source of tension at City Hall, after the City Council in 2016 voted to remove police from the review commission and assign jurisdiction to the city's human rights department. Since then, the human rights director and multiple review commission members have resigned, citing concerns about the police department's handling of misconduct complaints.
In a February strategic planning document obtained through a public records request, commission members wrote that the panel "needs support from the Mayor's Office and the City Attorney's Office, and collaboration from the Police Department, in order to be certain that it is reviewing all complaints within its purview, and receiving a full accounting of complaints filed with the Police Department."
Former Human Rights Director Jessica Kingston, who left her job last year in exchange for a $250,000 settlement from the city, said she repeatedly raised concerns that the police department was blocking investigations of officer misconduct.
The department started offering the survey in 2017 to identify areas for general improvement, and so far has received more than 2,000 responses. Most respondents reported positive experiences with police, whether they were describing a specific interaction or complimenting the department overall.
"I have only ever had positive interactions with the St. Paul police," one respondent wrote. "It is one of the reasons I choose to live here."
Some people used the survey to offer suggestions, such as adding more officers in certain parts of the city or diversifying the force. Some comments were mixed — multiple respondents were unhappy about how long it took officers to respond to their call, but had a good interaction once they arrived — while others were simply left blank.
Of the nearly 9% of survey responses that included negative comments, about a third included allegations of officer misconduct, ranging from rude behavior to physical assault. Several complainants the Star Tribune contacted did not respond or declined to comment. Others could not be reached.
Former St. Paul resident Anthony Streiff submitted two comments in October 2017 about incidents the previous summer — one in which a St. Paul Police squad car followed him and searched two of his passengers after he pulled over, and another in which officers pepper-sprayed him and his friends while they were hanging out at Raspberry Island near downtown St. Paul.
Streiff indicated in the survey that he wanted a response from the department. He said in an interview that he never heard back.
"I wanted to help them create better systems and do better training, and put a stop to these kinds of things," he said. "But not getting any kind of response kind of ... defeats the purpose of it."
According to Linders, "every effort is made" to reach survey respondents who say they'd like to be contacted. He said the department is unaware of any respondents who were not contacted.
Nancy Tannehill responded to the survey in November, nine months after a stranger punched her in a parking lot. After trying for months to get hold of the responding officer, she said, she learned that he had never filed a police report. The experience damaged Tannehill's trust in police, she said, and filling out the survey seemed like the only thing left to do.
"It was one last way that I could try to express myself and how I feel, I guess," she said. "I like to think that I sent the complaint directly to the police department, but I don't know if I did now or not."
Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509