The Minneapolis City Council on Tuesday passed a controversial ordinance overhauling the city’s existing civilian police oversight process.
The ordinance establishes a new Community Commission on Police Oversight (CCPO), which will have 15 members appointed by the mayor and city council. The commission would also serve as a pool for smaller five-member panels that review individual misconduct cases.
Demand for accountability for police and more robust civilian oversight remains strong more than two years after George Floyd was murdered by a former Minneapolis Police officer. But critics say the new structure still doesn’t go far enough, and demonstrates the city’s lack of commitment to any meaningful citizen oversight over the department.
The goal behind the ordinance, according to city officials, is to fix the city’s ailing civilian oversight structure and give the public more input and insight into the process. The Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC), which hasn’t convened since the spring, currently has six of its nine positions vacant and the terms of the three remaining members are set to expire at the end of the month.
In the weeks since the CCPO proposal passed out of the Public Health and Safety Committee, it has undergone several changes via amendments by council members, many due to issues raised by residents during public forums. Additions included a residency requirement, the monthly release of data related to complaints filed against police and their status, and more access to complaint and discipline records for the commission, among others.
The council passed the ordinance on a 7-4 vote, with Council Members Andrew Johnson and Lisa Goodman absent, but not before spending nearly four hours debating more than 20 additional amendments.
Among the amendments that failed were allowing the commission to conduct performance reviews of the police chief and making the smaller review panels consist of five civilians instead of three civilians and two sworn officers.
“I think we have gotten to a really good place,” said Council President Andrea Jenkins, the proposal’s author, following its passage. “Is it perfect? No. Can it be improved? Absolutely, as with everything in life, and it is our duty to make that happen.”
Community’s lingering concerns
Despite the amendments made by council members following public comment, opponents of the proposal say the oversight commission still does not go far enough to provide citizens with meaningful authority to hold officers accountable.
The smaller review panels would have full access to investigations into police misconduct, but the panel can only make recommendations on discipline to the police chief, which the chief could then ignore, and two of those members are sworn officers assessing their own colleagues.
Before the proposal went before the council, three former chairs of the current PCOC — Abigail Cerra, Cynthia Jackson, and Jordan Sparks — and Nekima Levy Armstrong, a chair of the mayor’s public safety working group, sent a letter to council members asking them to delay their vote until March.
They argued that in order for any new civilian oversight to be effective, the body would require authority to vote on changes to MPD policy, compel the chief to take disciplinary action when misconduct is found and access to more cumulative data on misconduct cases — not only individual cases.
“Derek Chauvin had numerous complaints and confirmed acts of misconduct. Reviewing one or two of the complaints, without knowing about the others, was not enough information to identify him as a problem before he committed murder,” they wrote in an editorial in the Star Tribune. “The new panel won’t be able to identify future Chauvins either.”
Cerra, an attorney who served as PCOC commissioner from January 2020 to March 2022, resigned earlier this year, citing the PCOC’s inability to meet due to the council and mayor’s failure to appoint new commissioners and establish a quorum. She also cited the lack of attention paid by elected officials and the police chief to recommendations and prevention of the oversight body’s involvement in shaping police policy changes.
Paul Ostrow, a prosecutor for 25 years and former three-term council member, said in an interview that while the PCOC had a broad charge to issue recommendations to improve policing, the new ordinance limits the new body to just the disciplinary process. This follows Cerra and Jackson raising the issue of “coaching,” a method the city calls a non-disciplinary tool that allows the city to resolve misconduct cases found to have merit while keeping the records private.
Despite council members signifying the ordinance may be a first step and remains open to improvement, Ostrow said he remains highly skeptical that that’s the case.
“The default position is always ‘Well it’s better than nothing’ and ‘At least it moves the ball forward,’” he said. “But I think the impact of moving forward with this is that we won’t see it again, certainly not from this council and maybe not even the next one.”