Minneapolis to launch early warning system to identify potentially problematic officers

By Libor Jany for the Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — When former Minneapolis police chief Janeé Harteau invited the U.S. Justice Department to review her department in 2014, the resulting report proposed developing an early warning system to flag problem officers and get them help before they misbehave.

Harteau characterized its findings as “progressive steps we can take to enhance our community relationships and increase public trust and accountability.” But the effort has fallen off course.

Harteau resigned under pressure as chief after an officer fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond after responding to her 911 call in 2017. Now, the so-called early intervention system, or EIS, seems little more than an afterthought. It has gained new attention in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, raising questions about whether Derek Chauvin, the former officer charged with second-degree murder and other charges in Floyd’s death, should’ve been on the department’s radar.

Officials say the program started with promise, but never really got off the ground.

The program has gone through three police lieutenants in five years, and has yet to hire a civilian supervisor, as planned.

There were delays almost from the start, as the department couldn’t settle on a vendor to build the system, said retired MPD assistant chief Kris Arneson: “I think it was started, but didn’t get off the ground.”

Whether the program has been mothballed or dismantled altogether under the current chief, Medaria Arradondo, is unclear, but Arneson said that anytime there’s a change in leadership, some of the previous administration’s initiatives inevitably go by the wayside.

“Chiefs make adjustments all the time, so maybe they found something better,” said Arneson, who served as Harteau’s second in command until her retirement in 2015.

Blong Yang, a former council member who headed the Council’s public safety committee at the end of the Harteau administration, said that any program’s success depends, in part, on where a leader’s priorities lie.

“You can have all these programs, but the people implementing these programs have to believe in them and have to use them or else they’re just programs,” Yang said.

Since Floyd’s death, which has drawn international attention on the beleaguered department, MPD officials have signaled they may relaunch the program.

If they do so, it would be the latest in a series of internal reforms since the launch of a state civil rights investigation of the MPD’s policies and practices. Last week, Minneapolis banned chokeholds and neck restraints and strengthened requirements for officers to intervene if they see a colleague use improper force, under a deal negotiated between the city and the state.

The tentative agreement still needs a judge’s approval. It would also give the public more access to officers’ disciplinary decisions and to limit the number of supervisors who can authorize the use of tear gas, rubber projectiles and other crowd dispersal devices.

Since Floyd’s death, Chauvin’s 19-year MPD career has been dissected and his actions leading up to the May 25 incident examined in part to determine whether authorities had missed warning signs. Personnel records and past news accounts show he was involved with several police shootings, and had racked up both commendations and more than 15 conduct complaints in his time with the department. Almost all the complaints were closed without discipline, records show, suggesting the allegations weren’t sustained.

His Internal Affairs file includes a 2008 letter of reprimand Chauvin received for the two violations involving “discretion” and a squad car camera, apparently in connection with an August 2007 episode, in which a woman accused him and another officer of stopping her for going 10 mph over the speed limit, and pulling her out of her car and frisking her. Chauvin reportedly forgot to turn on his squad’s dashboard camera before the stop, prompting the complaint.

Whether Chauvin or the three other officers present during Floyd’s death and also charged in the case might have come to the attention of supervisors is not known.

Arneson, the retired assistant chief, doubts it, saying that even if the program were up and running it wasn’t intended to be retroactive and thus may not have flagged an officer like Chauvin, whose last complaint was lodged in 2015.

The system is set up to automatically flag officers for certain instances of excessive force, such as kicking a suspect in the head, which would prompt a full review of the officer’s body camera footage. Less severe infractions, such as an officer taking repeated sick days, might also get the system’s attention.

“If an officer was flagged for having so many punches in a year, or slaps or whatever it is, or if it was a critical incident, then we would set up tools to help that employee,” said Arneson, the former assistant chief. “It could be training, a performance improvement plan, mentoring, any kind of mental or psychological testing, counseling, peer support.”

The MPD continues to deal with the fallout from Floyd’s death, which resulted in widespread protests, looting and arson.

In an e-mail to officers over the weekend, Arradondo commended his officers, saying they had “experienced more in the past two weeks than probably at any other time in the history of the MPD or arguably policing in our nation.” He also sought to soothe concerns about growing calls for “defunding” the police department, while adding that more changes were on the way.

“Over the next several days I will be announcing structural and policy changes that are intentional on continuing to make sure we evolve as an organization and one in which those we serve see that we have their best interests at heart,” Arradondo wrote. “Make no mistake some of these changes will be difficult for some of you. Resisting or feeling uncomfortable about change is human nature but rest assured these changes are necessary to make us better not worse.”

In an interview, Deputy Chief and Chief of Staff Art Knight reiterated that Chauvin’s actions that night do not relect department culture.

“What’s lost in this is the family of Mr. Floyd, for him to have the way he died, my deepest apologies to the family of Mr. Floyd,” he said.

“No one should have to die in that kind of a manner, no one should have to be treated this way, and my deepest apology to the people of Minneapolis, because that is not what we’re about. Because I wear the same uniform that Chauvin wears. And when I go out, people look at me and what they say, is he looks just like Chauvin. And I tell people Chauvin does not represent us, that is not what we are about.”

In 2014, Harteau reached out to the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and asked it to conduct a “diagnostic analysis” of her department’s inner workings. The following year, federal officials released a 35-page report calling on the department to rethink its coaching program for officers, expand racial sensitivity training and create a computer tracking system for identifying potentially troubled officers — replacing an old process that critics long had argued allowed bad cops to slip through the cracks.

In all, the report pointed to five key areas where department polices fell short, ranging from ramping up community knowledge and trust of police oversight to addressing inconsistencies on how officers are coached.

But, as recently as last year, department officials admitted that they were still working to implement some of those recommendations.McClatchy-Tribune News Service