MINNEAPOLIS, MN -- The city of Minneapolis and its police department are willfully subverting our state’s Government Data Practices Act by withholding public data about disciplinary action taken against police for serious misconduct, according to a new lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Minnesota in state court Thursday.
“(T) he City Defendants have proven that not only will they remain willfully blind to the misconduct of problem officers, but that they will bury these officers’ disciplinary data away from the public by calling it ‘coaching.’ This data belongs to the public, especially when the City Defendants have abdicated their accountability function,” said the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and Ballard Spahr on behalf of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI).
MPD claims it uses coaching (which involves a talk with a supervisor about correcting a problem and a written memo to document it in an employee’s personnel file) to quickly address only low-level police behavioral problems, such as seatbelt violations.
But multiple records show MPD improperly and intentionally classifies disciplinary action for serious violations as coaching, even when a violation is supposed to require suspension. Moreover, the city doesn’t report coaching as discipline, shielding hundreds of cases of police misconduct from public access or scrutiny.
“There is a clear disconnect between official statements of transparency and accountability and MPD policies that intentionally hide public data. The city and MPD are ignoring the intent and letter of the law to deliberately hide bad police behavior,” said MNCOGI Board Member Paul Ostrow. “Public information is a civil right. Police reform cannot succeed when officer misconduct is hidden from the public.”
“Following the police murder of George Floyd, it is disgraceful that rather than increasing transparency around police misconduct, the city of Minneapolis and its police department chose instead to keep hiding discipline from public scrutiny and to make it harder to hold officers like Derek Chauvin accountable,” said ACLU-MN staff attorney Isabella Nascimento. “Coaching is supposed to serve as an early-warning system to spot problem officers, not make it harder to intervene before violations escalate to brutality and even murder. These actions by the city and MPD further deepen a culture of secrecy and reinforce the mistrust of a public who find it increasingly difficult to believe police will be held responsible.”
The lawsuit filed Thursday in Hennepin County District Court against the city of Minneapolis, the city clerk, the city’s human resources department head, and the police chief asks the court to order the city to follow state law and release police disciplinary data. It also asks for damages.
“We understand that there is a place for mentoring in the public sector, and we are not trying to achieve surveillance over every informal exchange between public employees and those they supervise,” said attorney Leita Walker, part of Ballard Spahr’s pro bono team on the case. “But we all know the difference between being mentored and going through a formal process in which misconduct and its consequences are documented in your personnel file. That’s not just mentoring, that’s discipline, and that’s what the public has a right to see, especially when the documentation relates to police misconduct.”
According to Office of Police Conduct Review data, more than 70% of final dispositions resulting in discipline are hidden from the public by being classified as coaching.
MPD has been using coaching since at least 2013. But the practice didn’t show up in the police policy manual or the union contract until Dec. 31, 2020. Before that, the MPD policy manual required that discipline was mandatory when an officer violated MPD policy. The city and MPD quietly removed this mandatory discipline provision from the MPD manual and replaced it with coaching - seven months after George Floyd’s murder by MPD officers.