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Minneapolis Police Under Fire Over Discipline Process

The ACLU and a local transparency group say the practice of sending officers to coaching, an ill-defined non-disciplinary action, after infractions keeps the public in the dark.

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Government transparency and civil rights advocates filed suit against Minneapolis and its police department Thursday over a disciplinary practice that they say unlawfully prevents the public from getting a complete view of officer misconduct. 

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, or MNCOGI, represented by the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and national civil litigation firm Ballard Spahr, said in a complaint filed Thursday morning in Hennepin County court that the police department uses coaching, a “non-disciplinary corrective action” which city officials say is meant to address minor police infractions, to cover up more serious disciplinary issues. 

“From the beginning of 2013 to the end of the first quarter of 2021, the Office of Police Conduct Review received approximately 2,538 complaints against MPD employees. Of those, 741 complaints were directly recommended for 'coaching.' Two hundred twenty-six of these complaints actually resulted in an officer being 'coached,'" the lawsuit said – about 70%, ACLU staff attorney Isabella Nascimento noted in a Thursday press conference. 

“In addition, after investigation, the joint supervisors recommended to the chief of police that discipline be imposed in another 136 complaints against MPD employees,” the lawsuit continued. “Of those, the chief sent 48 of the cases to coaching—meaning that the city defendants are now taking the position that they need not disclose the details of those violations.” 

The coalition's lawsuit went on to note that if coaching was taken into account, about 14.26% of complaints result in discipline. Without coaching, it said, that rate drops to 3.5%, well below national averages. 

MNCOGI and the ACLU also pointed out that coaching was imposed for infractions that would ordinarily have required suspension, citing three incidents of such found in their data request. They said that the city sought to legitimize this practice retroactively in December 2020, removing sections of the MPD’s policy and procedure manual that mandated discipline for violations of the department’s code of conduct and laid out categories delineating the severity of discipline required. 

“It certainly seems, to be quite candid, a bit of a smoking gun,” MNCOGI board member Paul Ostrow, a former Minneapolis City Council member, said of the city’s decision to change the policy. 

As examples of the problems this could create, MNCOGI presented the cases of two officers whose names are now known worldwide: Derek Chauvin and Tou Thao. Chauvin, who was convicted in April of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for the killing of George Floyd, was a 19-year veteran of the department with at least 22 complaints and internal investigations, according to the lawsuit. All but one of those, the coalition claims, were listed as “closed with no discipline” in public records. 

The coalition accuses the city of violating the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, or MGDPA, by not releasing disciplinary data upon request.

“It is entirely possible that each of the twenty-one complaints against Chauvin that were ‘closed with no discipline’ resulted in ‘coaching,’ the complaint said. “Due to the city defendants’ self-serving labels and refusal to comply with the MGDPA, however, the public has no means to find out.” 

Thao is set for a March 2022 trial for aiding-and-abetting charges related to his role in Floyd’s deadly arrest, during which he kept bystanders away from Chauvin and Floyd. In the first year of Thao’s nine-year career with MPD, according to the lawsuit, he was written up eight times for dishonesty or taking shortcuts to avoid work, but all data on those incidents was withheld from public records request responses. He was also the subject of at least six complaints, five of which were also closed without discipline and one of which was still open. 

Those “shortcuts,” the complaint argued, should have been “D-level” offenses, meriting suspension under the MPD’s discipline matrix. 

If those incidents were made public data, Ostrow said, they could have revealed issues with the officers’ conduct long before Floyd’s killing. The what-ifs, he said, were innumerable.

“We will never know what would have happened, what movements might have been generated, what laws might have changed, what political implications might it have had” if those records were accessible, he said in an interview.  

The complaint put it in economic terms, citing multimillion-dollar settlements paid out to Floyd’s family and to that of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who was shot and killed by Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor after calling 911 in 2017.

“These deaths, and the record-setting settlements that resulted, were preventable,” it said. “Low-level misconduct is predictive of officers’ potential to escalate to criminal, even deadly, conduct in the future.” 

“This data belongs to the public, especially when the city defendants have abdicated their accountability function,” the complaint continued. “The public is ready to take up this accountability mantle if only the city defendants complied with their obligations under the MGDPA rather than subvert its purpose by playing semantic games.” 

At the press conference, Nascimento reiterated that point.

“It’s making it harder to spot police with a pattern of violent, or escalating, acts,” she said. “The city should not be able to hide this information simply by calling it by some other name.”

A spokesman for the MPD said all requests for comment on legal issues should go through the city attorney’s office, which did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. A call to the Minneapolis Police Federation, the union representing MPD officers, was also not returned.

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