A look inside the Office of Police Conduct Review

Credit: File photo
Credit: File photo

The Office of Police Conduct Review handled 350 cases in 2014 and received 124 complaints on police conduct in the first two quarters of 2015, according to quarterly reports. In that 18-month period, 11 cases led to discipline ordered by the Police Chief — though discipline may be overturned by the police union’s grievance process.

Police conduct has come under close scrutiny in Minneapolis and the nation, while ongoing protests spotlight officer conduct. In Chicago, 97 percent of more than 28,500 citizen complaints from 2011-2015 resulted in no officer punishment, according to the New York Times.

In Minneapolis, the Office of Police Conduct Review sees a sample of complaints summarized each month. In the December complaints, for example, one complainant said an officer yelled “profane and disrespectful comments” at civilians. When she told the officer he shouldn’t talk that way, he allegedly threw her against a squad car and threatened to arrest her for obstruction. The incident was investigated and sent to a review panel; the allegations were not sustained.

Another complainant said his accident report was inaccurate and said an officer at the scene was not helpful. No policy violation was found.

Another complainant parked his vehicle in a commercial loading zone, and an officer gave him a warning. When the complainant said he didn’t understand — he had a commercial vehicle inside a commercial zone — the officer reportedly yelled at him. A review panel found a policy violation had occurred, and the officer was coached.

“It seems to me the problem is language, and it’s a symbol of disrespect that I think is more widespread than I would have guessed before reading your case summaries and your case synopses,” said Phillips resident Chuck Turchick at a December meeting of the Police Conduct Oversight Commission. “Unlike other people, I don’t think there is massive use of force. I think there is a handful of officers who are probably thugs … and those should be weeded out and probably fired. But I think, just from reading your cases, unless there is massive lying going on by the public, there is a consistent disrespect and leads to situations that become tense and violent.”

Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, explained that forceful language and yelling are part of the “use of force continuum.”

“We do what we do for a reason,” he said.

For example, officers are trained to see everyone’s hands they are dealing with, Kroll said. It’s routine to ask people to take their hands out of their pockets as a matter of safety.

“If you don’t do that, they better be yelling at you or they’re not a good officer,” he said.

If someone doesn’t comply with a straightforward verbal request, he said, the officers’ next steps involve raising their voices or scaring people — police would rather see compliance with verbal commands than use physical force, he said.

“If a person hits you, it allows you to go one level higher,” he said. “…Our jobs are not pretty. Whenever you use force it looks bad.”

If everyone complied with officers’ commands there would be no need to use force, he said.

“People have a lawful duty to comply,” he said.

The complaint process

Out of 350 reviewed cases in 2014 and 124 complaints received in the first two quarters of 2015 at the Office of Police Conduct Review (OPCR), about 20 percent resulted in a supervisor “coaching” officers, according to quarterly reports. A small fraction of cases were mediated. About 39 percent of cases were dismissed. Dismissals are due to factors like an inability to identify an officer, a complaint older than 270 days, actions that don’t amount to misconduct, a complainant’s failure to cooperate, lack of evidence, squad recordings that contradict allegations, or duplicate complaints.

About 27 percent of cases were investigated further. Following investigations, cases that are not dismissed or reassigned to coaching or mediation move to the city’s Police Conduct Review Panel, which issues recommendations to the Chief.

Under the OPCR process between January 2014 and June 30, 2015 the Police Chief ordered five suspensions, four letters of reprimand, six training or coaching sessions, and a prohibition on specific off-duty work.

The MPD Internal Affairs division also investigates complaints; IA complaints totaled 657 between January 2014 and September 2015. 

The chief’s disciplinary measures can be appealed through the police union’s grievance process, which initially involves union meetings with Police Department officials. If that outcome isn’t satisfactory, the Federation can have the issue mediated or initiate an arbitration proceeding. An arbitrator’s decision is binding on all parties.

Kroll said the grievance process might catch things previously missed, like witnesses who weren’t interviewed or mitigating circumstances. Arbitration might take place one or two years after the initial incident, Kroll said. One issue that often comes into play is consistency in discipline, he said, and officials reference past cases.

“Discipline has to remain consistent,” he said.

Police Chief Janeé Harteau said in a recent interview with Minnesota Public Radio that arbitrators tend to make “middle of the road” rulings, overturning disciplinary decisions and giving more chances to officers.

“There are times where police chiefs across this country hold members of the department accountable, and we have arbitrators who overturn that discipline,” Harteau said. “And what the general public gets to see is the final outcome and the final disposition, which looks like no discipline. And so that’s frustration that my colleagues and I have across this country.”

Payouts and discipline

The Minneapolis City Council approved more than $1 million in legal settlements in 2015 related to officer conduct, excluding car accident cases. Settlements do not necessarily require an admission of fault.

Several settlements in 2015 were connected to Officer Tyrone Barze. The city paid out $34,000 related to Barze spraying chemical spray, and $82,000 regarding alleged violations of constitutional rights. The city also paid $140,000 in a case where a Patrick Henry High School student was called in to speak to officers after they exchanged words at lunch. Barze allegedly put the student in a chokehold until he passed out.

“In no other place could you keep your job,” said Dave Bicking, a former member of the Civilian Review Authority and a volunteer with Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB). “This guy is costing the city a fortune.”

CUAPB filed a Data Practices Act request to learn about cases closed with discipline between October 2012 and March 2015, the city’s first two-and-a-half years with the OPCR process. They came up with two cases.

According to the documents: Officers John Chamberlain responded to a November 2012 call on a group smoking in a bus shelter at 3rd & Hennepin. One of the men complained about police lights that were shining on the group. Chamberlain pointed his taser at him. When the man became upset and said he wasn’t doing anything wrong, Chamberlain said he was under arrest. Throughout the course of the arrest, Chamberlain’s partner, Officer Sherry Appledorn, saw him twice place the man on the ground in a neck restraint hold, attempt to close the squad door on him, and place both hands around the man’s neck in a strangulation hold in the back of the squad car. Appledorn called a sergeant to the scene based on Chamberlain’s use of force.

“I just thought it went a little too far,” she said in a recorded statement. “I didn’t understand why certain things were done, and … I didn’t think they needed to be done.”

Chamberlain was given a letter of reprimand and suspended for 80 hours without pay. Additional violations could result in more severe disciplinary action, including discharge from employment.

Data Practices Act documents also show a sustained disciplinary measure involving Officer Robert Schnickel, who was suspended for 120 hours without pay after speeding in Wisconsin in 2013. Schnickel was driving a Minneapolis Public Schools vehicle without authorization and reportedly made rude, derogatory and threatening comments to the Wisconsin officer that issued him a citation, according to the case file.

MPD spokesmen were not available for comment over the holidays.

The Police Conduct Oversight Commission

At a meeting of the Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC) in December, chair Andrea Brown said police conduct is at the forefront of the city and nation’s attention, raising questions that need to be answered.

“We have only begun to change the policies in Minneapolis,” she said.

One PCOC study on “stop and frisk” responded to community members’ beliefs about unjustifiable stops and racial profiling. The study revealed that in many cases, officers did not document the stop, “leading to an erosion of transparency and community trust,” Brown said. The PCOC recommended making documentation of investigatory stops mandatory, including the perceived race of the suspect. The MPD is currently reconfiguring its dispatch software to require a documented reason for a stop before an officer can move to another call.

“Most recently we have heard from community members and their growing concerns about the way MPD officers interact with [people] experiencing mental health issues and emotional disturbances,” Brown said.

The PCOC recently saw a case regarding a man with mild mental retardation and severe expressive receptive delays. According to the case summary, he was attempting to knock on the window of a friend when neighbors called police. When he could not give an officer his address, the officer allegedly said: “Are you [expletive] retarded because you don’t know your own [expletive] address?” The case was dismissed, because the complaint was filed by staff at the man’s residence, and the man was unwilling to be interviewed.

An initial audit of the Minneapolis Police Department’s policies on mental health and emotional disturbances is anticipated by February. One PCOC member recently visited the Duluth Police Department, where social workers help respond to police calls.

The Office of Police Conduct Review could not say whether the recent 4th Precinct protests generated any complaints, as investigations are not public. 

Looking forward

City officials expect to outfit all patrol officers with body cameras by early 2016, designed as another way to promote transparency and accountability.

At a meeting of the Whittier Crime & Safety Task Force in December, police representatives mentioned that some officers are trained as part of the Crisis Intervention Team, learning how to handle mental illness and how to de-escalate tense situations. Sgt. Mike Frye said more than 30 officers recently underwent training that teaches them to take a deep breath, step back and let people vent when necessary.

“We’ve gotten a lot better at that,” he said. “The goal is to not have to use force. That option is always on the table, it has to be.”

“Three years ago, when I became Chief, a lot of what we were trying to do was to include public trust,” Harteau told MPR. “And one of the first things that I asked for was the Office of Justice Programs to come in and take a look at our discipline process. And that was just a step. And now we’re building on it with the National Initiative. These are long-term issues …”.

Minneapolis training through the National Initiative for Building Community Trust & Justice includes “procedural justice,” which focuses on the way police interact with the public. It involves treating people with respect, giving citizens a “voice” during encounters and conveying trustworthy motives. Research shows wide public concern that authorities are fair, and fairness matters more than whether a situation works in their favor. Research also shows that good will between police and the community leads to better cooperation and more law-abiding behavior.

“This makes intuitive sense— people welcome being treated as equals with a stake in keeping their communities safe, as opposed to being treated as subjects of a capricious justice system enforced by police who punish them for ambiguous, if not arbitrary, reasons,” states a National Initiative report.

Police are training on implicit bias, and the next phase of training is in procedural justice, Harteau told MPR.

“We have to do something, and this is just the beginning,” she said.