Reflection on changes to the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission

The Council recently voted to make substantial changes to the City’s Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission (PCIARC) which I believe will help instill greater public confidence in the process. The PCIARC was established more than 20 years ago in order to bring civilian perspectives into the decision-making process of the Chief of Police – specifically, whether or not to discipline police officers against whom complaints have been lodged.  

There are two other routes by which officers and the City can be held accountable for perceived officer misconduct.  The first is via criminal prosecution by the County Attorney. A prominent recent example was the Ramsey County Attorney’s decision to charge the St. Anthony officer involved in the Philando Castille case. Another route the public has for seeking recompense is through civil court, where they can sue the City and the involved officers for damages done through force or other means.    

The PCIARC has historically been run by a coordinator who works for the Police Department, and the program has been located within the Police Department. The civilian commissioners have been required to first attend the Police Department’s Citizen Academy, participate in ride-alongs in a squad car, and other training designed to help them understand what police are trained to do and why. The make-up of the PCIARC has to date included 5 Civilians appointed by the Mayor (with Council approval) and 2 police officers selected by the Chief of Police. From what I have gleaned, the intention was to include both civilian and officer perspectives in the process of making a recommendation to the Chief about whether or not officer discipline is appropriate.

Here is a brief overview of the overall process for reviewing civilian complaints against St. Paul Police. A complaint is received by the police department and assigned to the Commander in charge of Internal Affairs (IA). IA conducts an initial investigation to determine if enough information exists to pursue an investigation and the complaint is signed and valid. If an investigation is pursued, IA completes the investigation and then hands the results over to PCIARC and the Chief of Police.  PCIARC does a thorough review of the investigation, including having the authority to subpoena witnesses, and then makes a recommendation to the Chief. The Chief of Police then decides whether or not to discipline the officers involved, and this can include rejecting or accepting all or part of the PCIARC recommendation. The PCIARC must operate in relative secrecy as the information shared with Commission members is non-public personnel-related information.    

A 2008 study of the Police Department, the Berkshire Report, recommended transitioning the PCIARC to an all-civilian panel, as by this time that had become the national best practice. The Berkshire Report was an overall review of the entire department and did not go into great depth in its review of the PCIARC. In 2015, amid concerns about police/community relations that were growing around the country, Mayor Coleman decided to bring in another outside group to do a more thorough review or audit of PCIARC.  This audit was conducted by the Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota.  The auditors spoke to PCIARC members, members of the Police Department, and held community forums about PCIARC and the public’s perceptions of how it operates.  

The audit, which can be found here, was completed in early 2016 and made a series of recommendations about ways to improve PCIARC to make it more transparent and to build stronger trust with the community. The recommended changes that are now being made include:

•     moving PCIARC out of the Police Department (to the Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Department)
•    making it easier to file a complaint, including via e-mail, rather than needing to do so in person at the Police Department
•    increasing the number of civilians serving on PCIARC and removing the police officers
•    PCIARC members can attend meetings while completing required training, though they can’t vote until training is completed
•    ending the practice of Internal Affairs making a specific recommendation of discipline to PCIARC and the Chief
•    making the results of PCIARC actions easier to access for the public, by releasing an annual report at a public meeting, and hosting them online (past reports can be viewed here)

Mayor Coleman’s office, represented by City Attorney Sammy Clark, reported to the City Council about these recommendations in April 2016. The Administration decided to act on some changes right away that could be implemented with changes to the City Ordinance that created PCIARC, and recommended to the Council than an additional series of changes be made to the ordinance. While both the Administration and the Council agreed on most of the recommended changes, a majority of Council members at the time did not support removing the police officers from PCIARC. I was one of 2 or 3 Councilmembers that supported removing the officers from the start.  

I supported this change for several reasons. First, it was a professional recommendation that had now been made to the City by two separate outside entities conducting reviews of the current situation. Second, I was concerned that at least some civilians are likely to defer to the expertise of the officers in drawing conclusions about whether or not to recommend discipline. Third, I was concerned that even if the civilians on PCIARC were not swayed by the officers, the public perception of officers influencing the civilians it still problematic. Finally, and most importantly, I believed that in the one part of the review process where we involve civilians, the recommendation should be an all civilian recommendation, considering that the Police Department conducts the investigation and the Chief retains the final decision about discipline.  

After conducting its own set of public and private dialogues about the PCIARC recommendations through the summer, Mayor Coleman’s office recommended a series of changes to the Ordinance that included a compromise on the issue of the officer seats, proposing to make to fill the two seats with Commanders rather than officers.  The idea was that Commanders are more experienced, involved in officer discipline themselves, and perhaps more attuned to the will of the public in such matters than a typical officer.  

Over the past month, as the proposed changes to the PCIARC ordinance have been up for consideration by City Council, we have received a tremendous amount of feedback about the issue of whether officers should remain on PCIARC.  As a result of that feedback, some of my colleagues were moved to change their position and support the removal of officers from PCIARC.  The feedback we received was overwhelmingly on the side of removing the officers.

I am hopeful that this set of changes will improve the transparency of PCIARC and improve the public’s trust in the PCIARC process.  Some members of the police department are feeling quite hurt by this process, and viewing it as an indication that the Council and public do not have faith in them, and that is very unfortunate. I continue to believe that we have a great Police Department made up of men and women working hard to keep our community safe every day. Much work remains to improve the two-way relationship between our Police Department and Saint Paul communities, particularly communities of color.

**More information and resources on Police Community Relations here.**