A commissioner of a Minneapolis police oversight board wants to unseal a trove of misconduct complaints against police officers, arguing the city has wrongfully withheld these records from the public for years.
Abigail Cerra, a member of the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission, formally introduced the measure at a meeting Tuesday evening, saying the police department has been skirting open records laws — and violating its own policy — through a practice known as “coaching.” This gentler form of corrective action for police misbehavior normally entails extra training or mentorship for the officer. It is by far the most common form of recourse in the Minneapolis Police Department for complaints deemed to have merit.
But the public has never been allowed to review the details of those complaints.
That’s because Minneapolis officials say coaching doesn’t meet the bar of “discipline,” and therefore isn’t considered public information under Minnesota law.
“We have no idea where the problems are, because they’re probably being hidden behind this coaching thing,” Cerra, a former Hennepin County public defender and Minneapolis civil rights investigator, said in an interview. “The city has an obligation to turn over public data — and it probably hasn’t been. You can’t have oversight if you don’t know what’s happening in your own department.”
Coaching is supposed to be used only for low-level violations. Cerra said there’s no way to tell if these complaints are being properly categorized, or whether coaching is invoked to keep officer misconduct shrouded from public view.
“There’s a very real concern about transparency here,” Cerra said in the meeting Tuesday. “What I’d like to see happen is the city follow its own policy.”
An analysis from the police oversight committee examined more than 3,000 complaints filed against city employees, two-thirds of which allege police misconduct. Of those, 39 resulted in official discipline and 334 ended in coaching.
In a statement, city spokesman Casper Hill said coaching is “a valuable tool for swiftly addressing everyday decisions and behavior, like verbal tone and language,” saying discipline is reserved for serious or repeated misconduct, like excessive force.
“While city leadership is collectively committed to instilling greater accountability and transparency in the department, any proposal related to personnel discipline must be thoroughly vetted and discussed. That’s precisely what our team will be doing if the PCOC chooses to advance the recommendation,” Hill said.
Velma Korbel, director of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, defended the city’s classification of coaching as private data. At the meeting, Korbel said the city has been “very intentional in designating coaching as a nondisciplinary corrective action,” as it allows police to address the behavior in a more timely and less formal manner.
Matt Ehling, who advocates for open records as part of Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, said it’s problematic that Minneapolis hasn’t been releasing these records to the public. Based on the language in the statute, Ehling said, it’s “very very clear” that complaints that result in coaching should become public documents. Keeping these records private “evades the intention of the Legislature,” he said in an interview.
Several members of the public tuned in to support the measure, some saying they believe the Police Department must be more transparent for meaningful change to take root.
“You’re absolutely right; something is wrong,” said Chuck Turchick, a frequent participant in Minneapolis meetings. He expressed frustration that it’s taken so many years to address this issue. Kathryn Culbert said the city is facing a critical moment. “Find the simplest way to do these and please just get this done,” she said. “We need to know what happened. We need data, we need facts if we’re going to make any meaningful change.”
The subcommittee of the commission voted Tuesday night to push forward the proposal, moving it to a full committee meeting.
The commission is a volunteer civilian board that makes recommendations about police procedure in Minneapolis. Cerra said she started looking into the coaching designation after failing to find anyone who could define the term since being appointed in January.