St. Paul's Police-Civilian Review Commission gets rid of the 'police' part


The St. Paul Police Department with 600-plus officers is Minnesota's second largest law enforcement agency. The city's Police-Civilian Commission had a total of 62 complaints filed against cops in 2015.

The people spoke, and they were not happy.

Residents told the St. Paul City Council last month the panel that reviews police misconduct complaints needs major renovation. Namely: Cops shouldn't have two seats on the seven-member Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Commission. 

Their call for change would fundamentally alter a system in place for 25 years. Wednesday night, the council did just that.

In a five to two vote, the panel decided to nix the longstanding composition and replace it with a nine-member, citizen-only board. The plan is expected to be finalized next week.  

"This idea to change who's on the commission has never been about going after police," says Kay Pranis, a longtime resident of the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood on the city's east side. "This is about balance, giving much-needed space in the process of reviewing misconduct complaints from a citizens-only perspective."

A total of 62 complaints were filed in 2015, according to the review commission's most recent annual report. One-fourth were sustained. St. Paul's force consists of more than 600 officers, making it the state's second largest law enforcement agency. 

But the commission can only recommend disciplinary action if it decides it's warranted. Excessive force, poor public relations, or discharging a firearm -- how severe the alleged offense is doesn't matter. The panel acts solely in an advisory capacity, and the police chief is the final authority in every instance. Decisions to dismiss or discipline rest alone right now with Chief Todd Axtell.

In the days leading up to last night's meeting at city hall, residents convened at various locations in St. Paul to talk shop about police and the people.

On the city's East Side, most of the shared stories were about cops being overly aggressive and instances where citizens felt like they'd been singled out by officers for no reason other than race.

It was those kind of personal experiences that led St .Paul citizens to weigh in before the city council Wednesday night. 

Police were also well represented last night by officers wearing St. Paul Police Federation T-shirts.

In a statement released after the city council's vote, St. Paul police union president Dave Titus said "to throw this away by making change for political reasons represents a complete and tragic disregard for our great officers who put their lives on the line every day."

By not keeping officers on the commission, Titus argued, people far less knowledgeable than street cops will be judging the actions of officers in the line of duty. 

"It's time for police and policy makers to trust the community," says Pranis, a retired Minnesota Department of Corrections restorative justice staffer. "The community is not out to get them, but to help create a healthy, constructive police force."

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