New era for police/community relations in Minneapolisby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
The end of 2008 also means the end of the voluntary mediation process designed to improve police/community relations in Minneapolis. The five-year-long program has expired. But community members who worked on the mediation say there's more work to be done and some say legal action may be needed to finish the job.
Minneapolis, Minn. — The mediation process was sparked by several high-profile clashes between Minneapolis police officers and the public.
The most noteworthy occurred in the summer of 2002 when police accidentally shot and wounded an 11-year-old boy. The incident sparked a violent riot in north Minneapolis.
At the time, Police Chief Tim Dolan was in charge of the Fourth Precinct which includes the neighborhood where the melee occurred.
"When I look back where the police department was back then," Dolan said. "I think we had a lot of things going on that were - where we were in danger of maybe having federal oversight."
Dolan says the department lacked certain accountability measures, such as requiring a supervisor to visit a scene where use of force or an injury occurred. Dolan says the mediation process helped the department fix those gaps.
Dolan was an early member of the Police Community Relations Council. The group was formed in order to make sure the long list of action items contained in the mediation agreement were being followed. The list included changes in police use of force techniques and increasing racial diversity in the police force. Dolan says sometimes the police department shared evidence with community council members -- like squad car video -- in order to combat rumors about police misconduct.
"We had chases, where officers were alleged to have rammed people. And we were able show those videos to them and say, 'Here's the video,' and they could see the video," Dolan said. "And they could go out to the community and say, 'This is not true. This is not what we're seeing.'"
But members of the community relations council want the process to continue as it has. Activist Zach Metoyer, says there's still a lot of work to be done.
"There were things that we had hoped that would come into play as far as police brutality goes. And we have not seen a drop in that within our community," Metoyer said.
The observations of Metoyer and other activists could be a sign that incidents of police brutality are going unreported.
Police officials say the total number of excessive force complaints against officers is going down. They give some of the credit to the increased use of non-lethal weapons like tasers.
However, the city has made some large settlement payments to complainants over the last few years. The most recent being a $600,000 payment to a Hmong family whose home was the target of a mistaken SWAT team raid.
Metoyer says the group is pondering legal action against the city, including asking the federal government to place the department under receivership.
"Do we want to do that? No we don't. No we don't," Metoyer said. "It would be good for us to get back to the table and get things done in a working manner. That would be ultimate thing for us to do."
But some say the community relations council has been ineffective.
"Things are not better - five years later. Things are not better," said Michelle Gross is with Communities United Against Police Brutality.
Gross was a part of a small group who initiated mediation talks. But she declined to work with the community relations council because she didn't think the group was as inclusive as it should have been.
Gross says her group has been getting a steady stream of brutality complaints. And she says if the city was really serious about improving police community relations, they would boost the power of oversight departments like the Civilian Review Authority or the CRA.
"The CRA has been so completely defanged that it's pretty much non-existent," Gross said. "Internal Affairs was never set up to be an accountability mechanism for external complaints. It works fine for internal complaints, but not external complaints."
Early next year, the Minneapolis city council will discuss what the next chapter of police community relations will look like.
Chief Tim Dolan says he doesn't know how it will be done or what the program will be called. But he says it's important that the city keeps working to bring the police department and the people they serve closer together.
- All Things Considered, 12/31/2008, 5:24 p.m.