City of Minneapolis: Don’t mind the words, ‘discipline,’ not discipline

For more than two years a public records case has slogged through the court with profound implications for how the City of Minneapolis disciplines police officers and what the public ever gets to know.

The case, filed by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) against the City of Minneapolis in February 2021, hinges on whether ‘coaching’ police officers about alleged misconduct should be considered discipline.

Under the state’s public records law, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA), only ‘sustained discipline’ is considered a public record.

But in a letter to Hennepin County Judge Karen A. Janisch, filed with the court Tuesday, Assistant City Attorney Mark Enslin writes that the word ‘discipline’ doesn’t always really mean discipline.

"Suffice it say, neither MPD nor the Federation treat coaching as discipline," Enslin writes matter-of-factly.

"The fact that a few documents may use the word ‘discipline’ in the context of coaching does not transform a process that the relevant parties uniformly treat as non-discipline into something else," Enslin continues.

In other words, don’t mind the words, it’s about the process.

MNCOGI’s attorney, Leita Walker, disputes the distinction that coaching is not treated as discipline within the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).

"We now know that none of that is true," Walker wrote to Judge Janisch last week.

Redacted Documents

"Defendants have produced coaching forms showing that... (redacted)," the remainder of the sentence is redacted, but the context of the letter suggests multiple MPD coaching documents and forms also use the word discipline.

"These documents are available upon request, but MNCOGI objects to their nonpublic filing in light of the public’s right to access judicial records. Privacy concerns can be mitigated via redaction," Walker wrote in a footnote.

Walker argues that coaching has been used across a wide array of disciplines, and not just low-level offenses.

The MPD’s ‘discipline matrix’ goes from A-level, conduct that is isolated and would have a minimal negative impact on operations or image of the department, through E-level, conduct that involves "egregious misconduct," or "a violation of law, policy, rule, or regulation which foreseeably results in death or serious bodily injury."

"Discovery has also revealed the misleading nature of many other statements by Defendants (City of Minneapolis), both to the public and within this litigation, including that only A-level violations can be coached," Walker wrote.

The case, known as MNCOGI v. City of Minneapolis, is barreling towards an Aug. 15 discovery deadline.

The city claims that will be nearly impossible to achieve because MNCOGI’s discovery requests are so overly broad, and involve various ‘custodians,’ those responsible for keeping the records.

"Plaintiff (MNCOGI) has demanded the City search 53 independent custodians, for 48 separate search terms, over the course of 11 years, applying every search term to every custodian," Enslin, the city attorney, wrote.

The city claims those searches came back with a half-million "hits."

"Plaintiff has served a total of 48 requests for production, 28 interrogatories, and 86 requests for admission, covering an overwhelmingly broad range of topics and subject areas far beyond the essential question of whether coaching for B, C and D-level violations in the MPD constitutes ‘disciplinary action’ under the MGDPA, which is what Plaintiff would need to show to prevail in this action," Enslin, the assistant city attorney, wrote.

Minneapolis City Hall (FOX 9)

DOJ criticism of coaching

The MPD’s coaching process came under scathing criticism in the June 2023 Department of Justice (DOJ) investigative report.   

"We found that MPD refers for coaching many allegations that are far from ‘low-level,’" the DOJ report said.

The report describes a 2019 case of "egregious misconduct" where an officer "smacked, kicked, and used a taser on a teen accused of shoplifting."

The officer called the teen a "mother---er," and conducted an interrogation without a Miranda warning.

The case was referred for coaching, but there was no indication any coaching occurred, the DOJ report said.

The coaching process is supposed to occur within 45 days of referral, but DOJ investigators found cases languishing for years that were ultimately dismissed because the "Reckoning Period Expired."

"There appears to be little follow-up to ensure that recommended coaching ever happens," the DOJ report said.

In another case, an MPD sex crimes sergeant used her personal cell phone to contact a sexual assault survivor and inadvertently sent the woman a picture of a "partially unclothed man."

The sergeant was referred for coaching, but there was no indication coaching occurred. The complaint was dismissed four years later because the "Reckoning Period Expired."

’Secret Discipline’

The FOX 9 Investigators took an in-depth look at how ‘coaching’ had become a secret form of discipline within the MPD, allowing troubled officers to slip through the cracks.

Public records show the Minneapolis police chief has traditionally used coaching as often, if not more, than other forms of discipline such as suspension, written reprimand, or termination.

Even the MPD Discipline Manual lists disciplinary options as "coaching, oral reprimand, written reprimand, suspension, demotion, and termination."

The city claims ‘coaching’ is a less stigmatizing way to improve officer behavior on low-level violations but has repeatedly claimed that it wasn’t used with more serious offenses.

But that wasn’t the case with Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd.

Chauvin’s discipline record shows 17 separate investigations before the murder of Floyd, yet he was disciplined in only two cases, with a letter of reprimand.

The other 15 investigations were "closed with no discipline," and presumably involved coaching. 

It is unknown if coaching was used in those cases because it is not a matter of public record.

Several of those cases formed the basis of a federal civil rights case against Chauvin.