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ACLU lawsuit alleges Minneapolis illegally withholds police misconduct files

The city buries police misconduct and disciplinary actions from the public, calling it "coaching," the lawsuit states.

Advocates are suing the City of Minneapolis, accusing it of illegally withholding from the public hundreds of police misconduct files, including some that involve officers accused of serious misconduct. 

Under Minnesota state law, complaints against police officers are public documents if the officer is disciplined for their conduct. But a lawsuit filed Thursday by the ACLU-Minnesota – on behalf of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) – says the city is using "linguistic gymnastics" to bypass state data practices law and hide from the public disciplinary action against officers.

The City of Minneapolis since at least 2013 has said it uses "coaching" (one-on-one mentoring) to address low-level officer behavior problems, and has stressed that this "coaching" doesn't qualify as discipline, so it's not public record. 

The lawsuit names the City of Minneapolis, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, City Clerk Casey Carl and Patience Ferguson, chief officer of the Minneapolis Department of Human Resources, as defendants. 

“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,” MNCOGI Board Member Paul Ostrow said in a news release. “Public information is a civil right. Police reform cannot succeed when officer misconduct is hidden from the public.”

More than 70% of final dispositions resulting in discipline are hidden from the public because they're classified as coaching, the ACLU says, citing Office of Police Conduct Review data. 

Related [Dec. 15, 2020]: Survey: Non-white residents feel MPD officers not held accountable for misconduct

Recent investigations, including by the Minnesota Reformer and KARE 11, found similar statistics in that out of more than 2,000 complaints against MPD officers in recent years, only a few hundred were found to have merit. And the majority of those were sent to coaching, so they remained secret. 

Related [March 2013]: Report: Despite 439 claims of Mpls. police misconduct, no officers disciplined

The lawsuit alleges some of the complaints that went to coaching were not for minor things.

For example, the city classified all but one of the 22 complaints against Derek Chauvin as non-public data (they were classified publicly as "closed with no discipline"), which likely means the complaints went to coaching. But court filings in Chauvin's murder trial show multiple allegations that he used excessive force before he killed George Floyd, including that in 2017 Chauvin for 17 minutes knelt on a teenager's back as he said he couldn't breathe.

And former MPD officer Tou Thao, who is charged with aiding and abetting the murder of Floyd, had no discipline on his public record, but court filings by the state show he was written up by his field training officer eight times for dishonest conduct and taking shortcuts to avoid work, the lawsuit says. 

"One mechanism by which to prevent police murders is identifying problem officers before their misconduct can escalate," the lawsuit states. "Yet the 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.'"

The ACLU says the practice of coaching didn't appear in the MPD's policy manual or the union contract until Dec. 31, 2020. Prior to that, the manual required that discipline be mandatory when an officer violated department policy. But, seven months after George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, the City of Minneapolis and the MPD "quietly removed" the mandatory discipline provision and replaced it with coaching. 

“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,” ACLU-MN staff attorney Isabella Nascimento said in the release. “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," Nascimento added. 

The lawsuit asks the court to order the city to follow state law and release its officer disciplinary data. It also seeks damages. 

Bring Me The News has reached out to the City of Minneapolis for comment. 

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