Minneapolis city attorneys will be ’embedded’ in police misconduct investigations

A Minneapolis Police Department squad car. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced on Tuesday that city attorneys will soon be “embedded” in police misconduct investigations, which they say will speed up the department’s sluggish disciplinary process and provide greater accountability.

“Having someone there who is consistently able to bird-dog the process to make sure that we’re following up and nothing is sitting on our side of the court, I think is going to be helpful in reducing the amount of time it takes to get through the full investigation and to the final disciplinary measure,” Frey said.

Earlier this month, a Reformer investigation found it takes 539 days on average to resolve complaints that ultimately result in discipline. That figure is based on a review of 195 disciplinary files, which were only obtained through a lengthy and on-going freedom-of-information lawsuit with the city of Minneapolis.

The disciplinary files reveal delays at every step of the process, including weeks or even months for the police chief to make a decision in a case after he receives the investigatory report. Discipline on the whole is rare, with just 2.7% of complaints of police misconduct resulting in disciplinary action between 2013 and 2019, according to the Reformer’s analysis.

City Attorney Jim Rowader said he began looking at how his office could bolster the city’s ability to discipline problem officers when he was appointed to his job in August.

“Ultimately, I discovered that we as a city could do more to improve our internal investigations and improve our disciplinary decisions by engaging the city attorney’s office upstream in the process,” Rowader said.

Frey and Arradondo argued the move will improve their ability to defend their decisions if they’re challenged by the police union and end up being decided by an independent arbitrator. Frey pointed to the fact that about half of disciplinary cases sent to arbitration are overturned or reduced as a key barrier to reform, although arbitration is relatively rare. In recent years, an arbitrator has only decided one or two cases a year involving Minneapolis police officers.

“Good peace officers do not want bad officers on the MPD. They tarnish the badge. They forsake our oath of office and they destroy the great, important work that so many of our men and women do each and every day,” said Arradondo, who led the Internal Affairs unit that investigates police misconduct before becoming chief in 2017.

Arradondo declined to say how many officers he thinks are “bad officers,” although a former deputy chief estimated about 3-6% of officers are unfit to serve.

“I look at it that everyone who wears this badge should be fit,” Arradondo said.

As part of the changes, the city attorney’s office will also provide legal advice to the police chief “at the time of disciplinary decisions” and will review training materials before officers receive them.

The new arrangement may put the city attorney’s office in a difficult position. The city attorney’s office is responsible for limiting the city’s liability in police misconduct cases and must defend the city when victims of police abuse bring lawsuits. And it also prosecutes misdemeanor level offenses, requiring the office to work with Minneapolis police officers.

The changes come on top of numerous other reforms announced by the mayor and police chief in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in May.

Some were spurred by an on-going investigation by the state’s Department of Human Rights into the Minneapolis Police Department for discriminatory practices, including a ban on all neck restraints; requiring officers to intervene if they witness excessive force; and requiring the police chief to make disciplinary decisions within 30 days.

The police department is also required to post new disciplinary decisions to the city’s website, although more than six months after the rule took effect, the department has not yet posted a single decision. The city says no disciplinary decisions have yet been finalized in the past six months, a reflection of how long it takes to discipline an officer and the city’s sluggish pace at providing public information.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.