Judge allows union to intervene in ACLU lawsuit over MPD coaching records

City is fighting the release of cop coaching through discovery

By: - December 15, 2021 9:02 am

A Minneapolis police squad car in front of the burned out Third Precinct police station blocks off Minneahaha Avenue for a street festival in October 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

A judge has ruled that the Minneapolis police union can intervene in a lawsuit intended to get the Minneapolis Police Department to release records on police officers who are “coached” for misconduct.

In September, the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis filed a motion to intervene in the case to protect its members’ interests. The union represents about 800 police officers, sergeants and lieutenants.

“Although the city currently opposes the release of non-public data, without the federation’s intervention, there is nothing to prevent the city from changing course,” the union’s attorney wrote in a court filing. 

In June, the ACLU sued the city on behalf of a government transparency group called Minnesota Coalition on Government Information after the city denied its request for  coaching information. 

Hennepin County District Judge Karen Janisch ruled on Dec. 1 that the union can join the suit. 

The suit alleges the MPD intentionally refers police officers accused of serious violations to coaching — which involves training or meeting with a supervisor — to keep the records private. 

Under Minnesota law, records of complaints against police officers are only public if the cases result in discipline. The city contends coaching is not discipline, so the records don’t have to be released. 

The city says coaching is only used for minor violations, like speeding. But records show coaching has been used for allegations involving excessive force, failure to provide protection, discrimination, and police retaliation and harassment, a Reformer investigation found. 

The ACLU has said more than 70% of complaints against officers that result in discipline are referred to coaching.

And since the city and union contend coaching isn’t discipline, employees aren’t allowed to grieve coaching decisions. The city is trying to get the judge to throw out the case and is fighting the ACLU’s attempts to get coaching data through the discovery process. 

The ACLU objected to the police union intervening in the lawsuit, saying it didn’t have an interest in the matter unless the court found coaching is discipline. 

“The federation’s motion begs the question: Why would it object to the disclosure of data involving petty transgressions?” the ACLU wrote in court documents. “The federation has, perhaps unwittingly, buttressed plaintiff’s central argument: that coaching is not just reserved for minor and lower-level infractions but that it is used to conceal much more serious misconduct that defendants and the federation both hope never come to the attention of the public.”

The union contended in a Sept. 21 filing that if it doesn’t participate, “the city may wield this suit as both a shield and sword to inhibit the federation’s ability to challenge any settlement or ruling of this court and prevent the federation from grieving the coaching memoranda.”

The city took no position on the union’s involvement in the case. 

In her order, Janisch wrote that the union has an interest in whether the coaching information is released, and what kind of measures might be taken to protect the identity of employees if it is. She noted that if she finds the coaching is discipline, she couldn’t order its release until the disciplinary action is subject to arbitration and finalized. The ACLU disagrees, saying in a recent brief that is likely to be litigated.

In other words, the data would go through the same lengthy process that drags out MPD disciplinary actions. Over the past decade, it took MPD an average of 539 days to resolve complaints, according to disciplinary files reviewed by the Reformer last year.

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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. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.

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