The Pro-Police Review Board

By Vogel, Jennifer | The Nation, January 6, 1992 | Go to article overview

The Pro-Police Review Board

Vogel, Jennifer, The Nation

The Pro-Police Review Board

The outcry in Minneapolis for an external review process for misconduct complaints against the police has risen and fallen over the years. It reached a new height after a pair of 1989 incidents. In the first, an elderly black couple were killed in a botched January 25 drug raid by Minneapolis police. Cops threw a stun grenade into Lloyd Smalley and Lillian Weiss's home thinking it was a center for drug sales; the grenade started a fire that killed the sleeping couple. A few days later police leaked the claim that Smalley, 71, had died with "traces of cocaine" in his system; no disciplinary action was taken against the officers involved. A week later, the controversy got even hotter when Minneapolis police broke up a party at the Embassy Suites Hotel attended mostly by black college students. Partygoers accused the police of physical brutality and racial slurs.

Protests broke out in front of City Hall, Mayor Don Fraser's office and the state Capitol. Community leaders "rammed the issue down the City Council's throat," in the words of one community activist. That April, Council President Sharon Sayles Belton appointed a twenty-two-member Civilian Review Working Committee to look at police review boards around the country and come up with a proposal for Minneapolis.

The critical question was whether the board would have subpoena power, which - in the view of national experts on civilian review as well as local activists and working committee members - amounts to the difference between a board with the legal means to do substantive investigations and one whose powers are marginal at best. The ordinance passed by the Council actually contained a tentative provision giving the board subpoena power, contingent on the state legislature's approval. But six months after the ordinance was passed, Sayles Belton announced she wasn't going to ask the legislature for subpoena power. "The police lobby would have squelched any attempts to get subpoena power, which they are vehemently opposed to," she said. She added that police have to cooperate with the board as a condition of their employment, and that civilian witnesses would probable come forward on their own.

Both claims are questionable. Although the civilian review ordinance does require police cooperation with any "reasonable requests for information," it doesn't spell out what that means. Nor does it spell out the consequences for failure to comply, except to say the Mayor could be drawn into the fray. As for civilians voluntarily coming forward to testify against police - particularly people from minority communities, where most complaints occur - cooperation is anything but guaranteed. Police forces traditionally have ways of bringing pressure to bear on people they view as agitators.

"Subpoena power is important to reach civilians," says Ann Viitala, a lawyer who served on the working committee and was later appointed to the review board. "People aren't necessarily going to want to come forward and put their name on the line against a police officer. At least if they can say they had to, it can make a difference."

By the time the ordinance was passed, a number of community leaders had already denounced the process. But the Coalition for Police Accountability (which includes members of the N.A.A.C.P., the National Lawyers Guild and Women Against Military Madness) pledged its continued support, calling the draft a workable compromise and a step up from the police department's Internal Affairs Unit.

The group Sayles Belton was deferring to in her decision not to ask for subpoena power was the Minneapolis Police Federation, the city's police union. Historically, the federation has been a formidable - and consistently reactionary - force in the state legislature and in city government. Federation representatives, including attorney Gregg Corwin, have been opposed to the idea of civilian review from the beginning. …

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