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Complaints Against Cops Frustrating but Necessary


Thursday, July 3, 2008
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Although it may take years for complaints against Minneapolis police officers to be resolved, and only a few result in any disciplinary action or victim compensation, city officials and civil rights activists encourage immigrants to file formal complaints.

“Interactions with police officers should be appropriate, and your rights respected,” said Michael Weinbeck, former chairman of the Civilian Police Review Authority (CRA), a city agency that investigates complaints against Minneapolis police officers. “If that doesn’t happen, the government should be accountable for that.” 

Like other immigrant groups, Africans in Minnesota rarely file written complaints.  City officials and civil rights advocates say that may be because most immigrants come from countries where it is dangerous to complain about the police. 

“There’s a general fear of police in the community,” said Saeed Fahia, director of Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota.  “In Kenya [for example] if they arrest you and beat you up and nobody would care.” 

Fahia said oftentimes, immigrants don’t know their rights, and are unaware that they can file complaints.

The city of Minneapolis has not funded a community outreach worker position at the CRA, as mandated by a 1990 law that formed the agency, said Michael Jordan, director of the city’s Civil Rights Department. Jordan and other city officials agree that immigrants seldom file complaints.

Jordan says an outreach worker could help. The CRA has only two full-time investigators, and a citizen board to review complaints.  Samuel Reid, who manages the CRA, said he does some outreach himself but an outreach worker would foster trust in the community.  

“We need to build personal relationships in the community, and someone going out to reach out to folks at community centers, and community meetings to build that relationship,” Reid said.

According to the primary agencies that investigate police misconduct, the Minneapolis Police Department, the Civil Rights Department, and the CRA have received over 682 complaints since 2006. Depending on the agency, complaints take an average of six to 22 months to get resolved.  

Filing with the police department may lead to the disciplining of an officer, though that’s unlikely.  (Of the 20 allegations sustained in 2006, two resulted in a letter in the officers’ files, and 10 in suspensions.)  Filing a complaint with the Civil Rights Department can also result in a financial award or a negotiated settlement with the police department if the complaint is upheld.  Civil rights activists maintain that the frequency of sustained complaints at all the agencies is far too low.  

But filing complaints is still very important.  If you have been mistreated by police, and don’t file, but decide to sue the city with a private attorney, you may be out of luck.  

“I’ve watched that into play out in the judiciary process,” said Ron Edwards, a Minneapolis civil rights advocate.  “The judge will say you didn’t exhaust your administrative appeals.”

Creating a paper trail can also aid the next person who complains, notes civil rights attorney, Eric Hageman with Flynn, Gaskins & Bennett.  Hageman recently won a $4.5 million dollar lawsuit against the Minneapolis Police Department. He said not filing complaints means that “if there is a merited pattern, a historical pattern of abuse, we wouldn’t know.”

The city of Minneapolis has faced criticism from minority communities for years over mistreatment of by police.  The last major upheaval in 2002 came after two shooting incidents. In one, police killed a mentally ill Somali man wielding a machete, and in the second incident, police accidentally shot an 11-year-old boy in North Minneapolis, nearly sparking a riot.  These incidents resulted in a federally mediated agreement between police and a group of community activists.  The agreement made certain the police would distribute complaint forms in seven languages including Somali and Oromo.

But Fahia of the Confederation of Somali Community said police mistreatment is not the most pressing issue in the African immigrant community.  The Somali community has some very basic misunderstandings about the justice system in the United States, he said.  For example, Fahia said, if prosecutors tell an immigrant he will be released if he pleads guilty to assault in a domestic abuse case, the immigrant could be making a disastrous decision.  The offer might sound good on the surface because of its immediate promise of freedom, but the accused man probably may not realize that “he could be deported for a gross misdemeanor,” Fahia said.  But Fahia also hears about situations where Africans believe they are right, and police acting within their established procedures.

Fahia cited a recently case of a woman who was arrested involving a fight with her sister.  According to Fahia, she was booked into jail, and told to change in front of male officers, which is against Islamic law.  “She said she was mistreated, but the police said she was not cooperating,” Fahia said. “How do you resolve that?  They [police] were within their rights.”  

Weinbeck, the former chairman of the CRA, said the city needs immigrants to step forward with complaints in situations like that.  He recalls a similar case involving a woman being told to take off her head covering.

“I think it was helpful for the city to grapple with the issue, to look at needs of communities, to respond to cultural issues, and religious issues,” Weinbeck said. “Otherwise there is no impetus for discussion. Someone has to bring it up, and demand that the government respond.”     

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