In one of those "What were they thinking?'' moments, the Minneapolis Police Department honored several officers with medals this week -- even though they broke into the wrong house and exchanged gunfire with an innocent homeowner.
Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, and the department's awards committee, made a bad call on this one. With all the heroic deeds performed by officers, this particular incident deserved no public praise.
The commendations were given for a police search that took place last December. A SWAT team broke into the north Minneapolis home of Vang Khang, expecting to find gang members and illegal activity. But the 35-year-old homeowner thought the cops were criminal intruders and shot through his bedroom door to protect his wife and six children. Three officers were hit, but were not injured because they were wearing protective gear. The family also escaped injury even though at least 22 rounds were fired.
Police went to the Khang house based on information from an informant. Earlier that day, officers executed two warrants at homes identified by the same informant, and found drugs, guns and several suspects.
Following the incident, Dolan apologized to the Khangs, and the city paid them $7,500 for expenses related to the raid. So the city and the department accepted responsibility for a major mistake, said they were sorry -- yet still thought it prudent to publicly commend the officers involved. That defies logic. Surely the circumstances of a shooting should be part of the criteria for handing out medals.
For their part, the chief and his spokesmen stand by the awards decision. They argue that officers at the scene did nothing wrong and made good decisions while under fire. Minneapolis investigators who put together the case -- who remain under internal investigation -- sought and received a search warrant from the court and directed the SWAT unit. The officers involved simply did what they were told and deserved recognition for their actions.
But a private "attaboy" from the chief or a note in their personnel files would have been more appropriate. A botched raid that frightened an innocent family and nearly got them and several officers killed is nothing to celebrate.
Further complicating matters, family members tell a very different story about how they were treated by officers -- even after it was clear they had the wrong people and the wrong house. The family's lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger, is negotiating with the city attorney's office.
The awards came at the same time the department is under a different kind of fire. Five top African-American officers have filed a discrimination suit against the department.
Together, the suits and the award send a terrible message to the wider community: Not only does the Minneapolis Police Department struggle with internal diversity issues, but it also commends itself when a civilian family of color is mistakenly terrorized.
That's far from an effective way to address police-community relations in Minneapolis.