Report finds barriers to filing police conduct complaints

Minneapolis Police Department responds with training, website tweaks

At the same time as the City of Minneapolis and its police department are beginning to share more data on the complaints made against officers, the system for filing those complaints is being targeted for improvements.

Testing conducted by the Police Conduct Oversight Commission found barriers to filing complaints both online and in-person at the precincts, where testers were unable in 13 out of 15 attempts to actually file a complaint. The commission, a civilian body that makes training and policy recommendations to the Minneapolis Police Department, delivered a report on its findings to the City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Emergency Management Committee on Sept. 28.

“What spurred the study is we had heard some anecdotal reports, including from one of our commissioners, about people having trouble filing (complaints) at the precinct level,” explained Jennifer Singleton, the commission’s vice chair.

Singleton said testers, including attorneys employed by the city, attempted to file complaints via all four available routes: phone, online, in-person at City Hall and in-person at all of the city’s five police precinct buildings. The service testers encountered at Precinct Four was exemplary, Singleton said, but in other cases desk officers provided incorrect information or simply refused to take a complaint.

“A lot of the officers told the testers they had to file in the precinct where the incident happened, which is not true. You can file anywhere,” she said.

Singleton said officers sometimes said they were out of the paper complaint forms, which can be downloaded and printed out from the department’s website.

“We had a couple of instances where officers just were unwilling to help,” she added. “One officer said that it would be awkward for him to take the complaint, and then we had one officer who just walked away and wouldn’t help the (tester). In that instance, another officer did come and help.”

She said it’s the department’s policy that officers, if they are unable to take a complaint at that moment, are supposed to direct a person in how to file a complaint by other means.

Commander Jason Case, who oversees MPD’s Internal Affairs Unit, told members of the Council committee that the department was already enacting change in response to the report.

“All of the recommendations, I think, are something that we’ve taken with a very serious tone and (we) have moved forward on all of them,” he said.

Department supervisors assign the desk officers who interact with the public at the precincts, and Case said those supervisors were scheduled to undergo training in October and November. Training for the rest of the department will take place in 2017 or 2018, he told the council committee.

“We’re definitely looking at how we staff that desk,” Case told City Council Member Blong Yang (Ward 5), the committee’s chair, who said he’d heard from constituents who encountered poor customer service at precincts.

Other recommendations developed by the commission include stocking off-site locations, such as public libraries, with complaint forms and offering a private place at City Hall for members of the public to fill out complaint forms. The latter recommendation is meant to limit the “intimidation factor” of having to file complaints in the department’s Internal Affairs Unit offices, which are located next door to the department’s administrative offices, Singelton said.

The department is also moving forward with “yellow cards” — forms similar to the blue incident cards officers give to interviewees at the scene of a crime or accident. The cards would include detailed instructions on how to file a complaint, Singleton said.

She said the department had already made it easier to find complaint forms both on the city and police websites.

The commission’s report also recommends training for the city’s 311 operators to improve the process of filing a complaint over the phone. During the commission’s test, callers sometimes received misinformation from 311 operators or were connected to operators who hadn’t been trained to take complaints, she said.

On a motion from City Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2), the committee voted to have city staff report back in March on the police department’s progress in improving the complaint-filing system.