Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Police Policies

The taser-related death of Quincy Smith, which has been ruled a homicide by the Medical Examiner, has highlighted an increasingly important issue I have been working on for some time: the Minneapolis Police Department's Policy and Procedure Manual.

This document lays out the rules that Minneapolis police officers are to follow. Both the MPD's Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) and the Civilian Review Authority (CRA) hold officers accountable chiefly to this document.

The problem is that MPD has, over the past two years, made at least two major changes to this document that, in my strongly held opinion, are bad for residents and bad for the City as a whole. I am also concerned about the process that is being used, or not being used, to make these changes, especially those changes that have to do with the Use of Force. In partiocular I am concered that changes are not first brought to the Council or CRA in any formal way.

The first of these changes that was brought to my attention was an amendment to the policy regarding disciplinary use of squad car video. The purpose of this video, which turns on when sirens are activated, is to keep everyone honest. It serves as evidence of crimes committed by suspects and also of any instance of a police officer violating the law or police policy. The change prohibits MPD supervisors from initiating disciplinary proceedings against an officer based solely on evidence on tape, without a complaint against that officer. A hypothetical situation: an officer uses excessive force against a suspect, and is caught on tape. The suspect is too intimidated to make a complaint. Despite the clear evidence that the officer used excessive force, his/her supervisor's hands are tied, and the incident does not result in discipline.

This is terrible policy. It opens the City up to significant liability, if an officer has a known history of bad behavior which has been documented on film, and then ignored. More importantly, it decreases accountability, flying in the face of the Chief's commitment to develop an "early warning system" for officers with behavioral issues. If this policy question had been brought to the CRA or the Council, we could have given that feedback. But neither body was asked - the change was made quietly, adn as far as I can tell, completely within the MPD.

The second change has to do with taser policy. Back in 2006, the Council directed MPD to make significant changes to the section of the Policy and Procedure Manual regarding tasers. These changes were driven by recommendations from the CRA, and included such good policies as:

  • Only one officer should use a taser against a given subject at a time

  • Tasers may not be used on a subject's head, neck, face, or genitalia

  • Tasers shall not be used on passive subjects or as a come-along tool

  • Officers should use a taser for five seconds and then stop - tasers should only be used for more than ten seconds if the subject continues to be serious threat of bodily harm to the officers or citizens

  • Tasers may only be used on children, visibly frail persons, women who are known to be pregnant, and people with known heart problems when other hard empty-hand control methods (hitting with fists, for example) have failed or deadly force is justified

  • Tasers may only be used against drivers of cars or bicyclists wheh deadly force is justified

As you can read here, all of these policies have been removed from the Manual. Again, MPD did not come before the Council or the CRA before making these changes. I find this change even more problematic, for a number of reasons.

First, the Council weighed in on these policies when we approved funding for more tasers. We basically directed that these policies be placed in the Manual. This issues points clearly to a lack or authority the Council has over police policy.

Second, the 2006 CRA Working Group Report makes clear that the Council expects MPD to solicit input from CRA on major policy decisions. Far from doing so, the MPD has actually failed to inform CRA that the changes have taken place. This leaves the CRA holding officers accountable to policy that is no longer valid.

Third, again, this policy opens the City up to significant liability. For example, Quincy Smith's death may have been brought about by two or more officers using tasers on him at the same time. This would not have been a violation of existing MPD policy at the time of the incident. However, it is clearly a violation of the policy that the Council directed MPD to enact. Given these facts, if Mr. Smith's relatives decide to sue the City, what is our legal defense?

Fourth, and most importantly, this policy puts Minneapolis residents at risk. We do not know exactly what happened between Quincy Smith and the MPD officers present at the time of his taser-related death. But I do know that once, Minneapolis residents were protected by a Council action from tasers being used on their faces and genitalia, or used against them if they are not resisting, or used against them by more than one officer at a time or for more than ten seconds. Now, without a Council action or any public discussion, those protections are gone.

I find this unacceptable, and I am working with some of my colleagues to find a way to change it.


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