ST. PAUL, MN — As new members are set to be appointed to a police review board, St. Paul officials say they’ve been working through challenges with the reconstituted panel. But the police union calls it a “disaster of a system.”
Eight months ago, the St. Paul City Council voted to remove police as members of the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission. On Wednesday, the City Council is scheduled to approve eight new community members to the board that reviews misconduct complaints against officers, though the panel’s influence remains to be seen.
The commission votes on whether officers should be disciplined for policy violations and forwards recommendations to the police chief. A decision on discipline then falls to the chief.
At a time when community members are particularly concerned about police officers being held accountable, there may be additional grounds for an officer to appeal his or her discipline if there are problems with how the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission is operating.
The ordinance change moved the commission’s supervision and administration from the police department to the St. Paul Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Department (HREEO) in February, and city emails show concerns came to a head in June. The leader of the St. Paul police internal affairs’ unit, Senior Cmdr. Rob Thomasser, emailed the police chief then and told him he believed “consequential errors are being made.”
Thomasser described the June meeting of the commission in the email, saying technology problems meant commissioners could not access the police department’s policy manual to review it in the context of complicated cases they were deliberating.
Thomasser also raised concerns about HREEO’s intake process for complaints against police officers, saying it did not appear to meet rules outlined in state law, in some cases. Minnesota law says a complaint should be in an individual’s own words and needs to be signed. A spokesman said Tuesday all complaints received by HREEO that are under investigation have been authenticated.
Police Chief Todd Axtell wrote back to Thomasser in June, saying he was “incredibly disappointed with how this is going. … (T)his process has to work for our community and officers — too much is at stake here.”
The mayor’s office stepped in and instructed the commission to not meet in July, so HREEO could be sure that the next meeting ran smoothly, and last week’s meeting did, said Deputy Mayor Kristin Beckmann.
Department leaders have also been meeting to ensure the intake process for complaints against officers is in compliance with state law and to discuss a new part of the ordinance — commissioners are now allowed to take testimony from individuals who filed a complaint against an officer. Beckmann expects to hear recommendations from city staff by the end of August, before the newly staffed commission meets for the first time in September.
“The commitment I’ve made to the chief is we will have a process and a set of commissioners and a deliberative body that will produce results that he can have confidence in as he’s making his decisions about discipline,” Beckmann said Tuesday. “We are on the path to do that.”
COUNCIL SLATED TO APPOINT NEW COMMISSIONERS
Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, said he believes the City Council should not move forward with confirming commissioners until the panel is on steady ground. Council President Russ Stark said Tuesday evening that he didn’t have a response to Titus’ comment.
“Both citizens who file a complaint and officers who respond deserve a fair and legitimate process. Mayor (Chris) Coleman’s current one is neither,” Titus said. “… All these warning signs and symptoms are being ignored, but this system is being designed to railroad cops and the engineers of this are Mayor Coleman and (City Attorney) Sammy Clark. This turned into a political monster and it’s just a complete disaster.”
Coleman and Clark strongly disputed Titus’ assessment.
“It’s unfortunate that the Federation president continues to try to divide our community at a time where we need to come together,” Coleman said in a statement Tuesday. “One of the reasons St. Paul has such a great police department is because our officers and commanders have earned and kept the trust of the residents of St. Paul. As an early adopter of a strong police/civilian review, we know how that process can build trust. Given the national conversation about policing, it is imperative that we do everything possible to maintain confidence in our department.”
The city attorney also underscored that the final say about discipline still falls to the police chief under state law.
“Working to give the community more of a voice in that process is not the same as railroading cops,” Clark said.
Axtell said Tuesday that he still has deep concerns about the commission, but has been consulting with other department directors and is looking forward to having issues addressed.
COMMISSION NO LONGER HAS OFFICER MEMBERS
The Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission has been around for more than 20 years in St. Paul, but drew a great deal of attention last year. HREEO Director Jessi Kingston said she was thrilled that a diverse pool of 80 to 100 people applied to be commissioners this year.
After the city commissioned an external audit of the panel, which recommended removing officers from the commission, Coleman and Clark advanced a compromise proposal last year — it would have increased the number of civilians on the commission from five to seven and kept two officers on the commission, though required they be of the commander rank.
But community members packed City Council meetings to urge them to remove officers from the commission. After the council voted in November to keep officers on the body, they changed course in December. The ordinance that passed has nine members on the commission and none are allowed to be officers.
Scott Swanson, who just completed his term as a commissioner, said not having officers on the panel in recent months has been difficult.
“They added an extraordinary perspective of what their work involved and were quite frequently critical of other cops,” he said. He added that he never believed the notion of some community members that officers who were commissioners were “somehow intimidating” other members.
Another person who recently left the commission, Dianne Binns, said she believes removing officers was the correct decision.
“I was kind of disappointed in how commissioners relied on police for information, so in this case they’re going to have to use policies and procedures and not be influenced by anyone but themselves in making decisions,” said Binns, who said she stepped down as a commissioner to avoid any conflict with her role as St. Paul NAACP president.
COMMISSION’S WORK HAS FAR-REACHING IMPLICATIONS
While the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission is advisory and the police chief uses his own judgment about findings and discipline, the process matters, said Angie Nalezny, St. Paul human resources director.
“Any procedural failure chips away at the perceived fairness for the officer,” she said in response to Pioneer Press questions. “Many disciplines are grieved and move on to binding arbitration. In arbitration, the city has the burden of proof under the just-cause standard. One of the cornerstones of just-cause is that the investigation and resulting decision is fair and objective.”
If a public employee is disciplined in Minnesota, the information becomes public after the appeal period, but the cases under review by the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission are not public yet.
The commission used to meet at St. Paul police headquarters, and HREEO sought to have their meetings in community spots because a portion of their meetings are usually open to the public.
“I think being accessible is important to being transparent,” Kingston said.
The June meeting was in a gymnasium, but Thomasser wrote that it was not secure and people wandered into the room during confidential deliberations.
“I know we had some lessons learned at the June meeting, but we didn’t have those issues at the August meeting and we’re ready for September,” Kingston said.
A HREEO staffer detailed in a July email to Beckmann that they’d followed up with stakeholders and experts, debriefed commissioners, reserved space to meet at City Hall for the remainder of the year, and ensured the technology they needed would be working for their meetings.
Mayor Chris Coleman’s eight appointments to the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission go to the City Council for approval on Wednesday. Seven would begin their work right away, joining two people who remain from the previous commission. One would start in January, when a current commissioner’s term is up. The following information about the new proposed members was provided by the city, which strove to select a diverse membership:
- Daria Caldwell, St. Paul Public Schools teacher, African-American
- Kristen Clark, Hamre, Schumann, Mueller & Larson patent attorney, other ethnicity
- Sasha Cotton, city of Minneapolis senior public health specialist/youth violence prevention coordinator, African-American
- Eric Forstrom, U.S. Bank group product manager, Caucasian
- Kaohly Her, previously St. Paul Public Schools Board of Education administrator, Asian
- Richard Heydinger, retired (previously senior adviser to University of Minnesota president, vice president of external relations at U of M, senior partner in Public Strategy Group, and other roles), Caucasian
- Rachel Sullivan-Nightengale, no employer listed (has master’s degree in teaching English as a Second Language and has taught ESL), Caucasian
- Constance Tuck, retired as chief equity and development officer for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, African-American