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Federal panel begins Minnesota police civil rights study

ST. PAUL -- A federal study of relations between Minnesota police and their communities has expanded from Hennepin County to statewide.

A Minnesota advisory committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Monday, Oct. 31, decided the discussion should not be limited to the state's largest county.

"I would want to include folks from communities outside of the metro area," said Director Velma Korbel of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, who heads the 15-person advisory committee heavy with Twin Cities members.

Korbel said she does not know who to include, but got support from others on the panel when she suggested the expansion.

A draft of a document outlining the committee's task focused on Hennepin County, but a Civil Rights Commission worker said the staff would like to explore issues throughout the state.

The police civil rights study, due to be completed next July, comes after police shootings of young black men in Minneapolis and Falcon Heights.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has established his own committee to look into community-police relations. It is due to deliver a preliminary report in February, early enough for the Legislature to consider any changes it recommends.

The federal committee is looking into a range of potential civil rights violations that law enforcement officers may commit, ranging from the constitutional protection of not to deprive a person of "life, liberty or property without due process of the law" to a law that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Committee member Rob Vischer, University of St. Thomas School of Law dean, said that he wanted to make sure the study includes recognition of law enforcement officers' broader duties today than a decade ago. He said police now need to deal with issues as varied as terrorism and counseling.

He did not agree with the tone of some of the committee's draft project proposal.

"It was a little too focused on police misconduct..." Vischer said. "What I don't want the discussion to be framed as is 'how do we rein in these misbehaving police?'"

On the other hand, Denise Huynh said that she is concerned that the proposal could appear "too neutral." The committee, she said, should look into "how police need to support human rights."

After Vischer voiced his concerns, the committee added information from President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing that includes requirements such as considering police safety and wellness.

To draw up effective recommendations, he added, law enforcement personnel must buy into them.

The committee next meets via teleconference Dec. 8 to discuss more about how to conduct the study, including who will be asked to testify about the issue.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.