Mayor, chief quietly codified change to discipline policy in police manual

The MPD manual was changed to make it clear cops don’t have to be disciplined for all misconduct

By: - October 28, 2021 1:36 pm

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey outlines the city’s safety plan on Feb. 17, 2021 for the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

As a tumultuous 2020 ticked into 2021, Minneapolis officials, including Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, quietly changed the Minneapolis Police Department manual to remove a requirement that cops be disciplined for any misconduct.

Until New Year’s Eve 2020, the police and procedure manual said sustained violations of the MPD code of conduct “shall” result in discipline ranging from written reprimand to termination. 

After the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission questioned how MPD was “coaching” — or verbally correcting an officer — rather than disciplining cops for misconduct, the language was changed to remove the discipline requirement.

The manual now says misconduct “will subject the employee to discipline and/or legal action.” By removing the word “shall,” the department gave itself more leeway to impose discipline or not. 

Officials added a section on coaching, which says it should be used as a non-disciplinary management tool and is not discipline, but can be done in addition to discipline imposed by the police chief. In practice, the department was already using coaching as an alternative to discipline, but the manual change codified it. 

The removal of required discipline and addition of coaching threw a cloak over some police misconduct: Under state law, records of complaints against cops are only public if they result in discipline. Because coaching is not considered by MPD to be discipline, it’s not made public.

Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commissioner Abigail Cerra, a former Hennepin County public defender and employee of the city’s civil rights department, said the change was a disturbing move away from transparency and accountability.

Frey released a statement to the Reformer saying there was no change made to any policy around the use of coaching for low-level offenses — the policy language was updated merely to provide clarity and transparency on how coaching has always been done at MPD.

“There were no practical implications as the language, not the policy or substance, was changed,” he said. “I was aware of this language change and supported the effort to have clear, concise language around departmental policy.”

The changes came amid months of post-Floyd protests, damning exposes on MPD’s culture and demands from across the city for reform and oversight.

Cerra said the oversight commission kept seeing references to coaching, which was presented as discipline for low-level offenses, but a lot of the conduct was fairly serious. When she asked about coaching, she was told it wasn’t discipline so it wasn’t public, and they wouldn’t release any specifics about the coaching cases.

“So that’s when the penny dropped: You’re hiding data,” Cerra said.

Months after the change in the manual, the ACLU sued the city on behalf of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, alleging MPD’s disciplinary practices intentionally coach cops accused of serious violations instead of disciplining them, with the intent to keep the records private. 

Cerra said by making discipline optional, the city is now vulnerable to legal challenges over the disciplinary sanctions it does mete out. In some arbitration decisions, the city loses when there’s “disparate treatment” — meaning a cop is disciplined in a case, when a different cop in a similar case received no discipline.

Paul Ostrow, a prosecutor and board member of the coalition suing the city over coaching, remembers city officials talking about coaching when he was on the Minneapolis City Council. He thought it “sounded great” back then. Now, however, he said, “The primary motivation of creating the classification of ‘coaching’ is to avoid any of this from being public.”

Emails obtained through a records request show Frey, Arradondo and other city officials changed the MPD manual administratively, without any public hearing or announcements, he said.

“To me it’s incredible,” Ostrow said. “If the City Council — even the mayor, too — passed a resolution saying that even with a sustained violation, there’s no requirement that an officer be disciplined, their phones would be ringing off the hook.”

He thinks the lack of transparency is the main problem with MPD’s discipline system.

“The mayor and chief are never going to want to discipline anybody, because if anything makes either the chief, the mayor or the city look bad, they basically have carte blanche for all of that to remain secret and outside of the public eye, so long as they don’t discipline anybody,” he said. “So it’s an absurd circumstance that really needs to be fixed.”

According to a Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights document, about 90% of sustained — meaning validated — complaints against Minneapolis cops are handled through coaching.

City officials have said coaching is done for minor violations, like speeding through a residential neighborhood, but records show it’s been used for excessive force, discrimination and police retaliation, a Reformer investigation found

It’s unclear if former MPD officer Derek Chauvin received coaching. He had 17 complaints lodged against him before he knelt on George Floyd’s neck last year, but was only disciplined in two cases. He was not disciplined when a family filed a complaint in 2017 after he hit a 14-year-old boy in the head with a flashlight twice before kneeling on his back for 17 minutes, despite the boy’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe. Prosecutors also found seven other cases where there was evidence Chauvin used questionable restraints and excessive force.

While Frey has touted reforms like a ban on chokeholds, neck restraints and limits on no-knock warrants and the use of less-lethal weapons on civilians, the change to the manual undermines the reforms, Cerra said.

“From where I sit, this is a very big deal,” she said. “Any policy changes moving forward are weakened by this coaching regime.”

Cerra said the mayor’s office, human resources and city attorney said that in order to make a change, a working group should be established with several entities represented. 

Instead, the manual was changed without that input. 

Cerra said coaching began in 2012, when the Office of Police Conduct Review replaced the Police Civilian Review Authority in fielding police complaints. Not one of the new office’s first 439 cases resulted in discipline of a cop, according to the Star Tribune. Arradondo, who at the time was commander of internal affairs, reviewed complaints along with the office’s new director. They employed coaching for 99 complaints. Arradondo was not immediately available for comment. 

The PCOC — an advisory commission of seven civilians appointed by the mayor and City Council to oversee how complaints are handled but not receive or investigate them — plans to discuss the MPD manual change during its meeting Thursday. 

A previous version of this story misstated the information available about coaching to the PCOC. Coaching has always been considered not a public record, and the PCOC cannot access any specific details about incidents that lead to coaching.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.