Long-simmering tensions between Minneapolis police and the black community are boiling anew in the aftermath of two cases involving off-duty officers accused of making racist taunts and assaulting black men.
The revelations renewed calls for tougher oversight and discipline of city police officers from some activists who contend the city has done little to address racism they say has poisoned the ranks of city police officers since the civil rights era.
Just last year, they noted, the City Council, with the support of the mayor’s office, ordered the dismantling of the civilian agency that investigated alleged misconduct.
“It has always had a hostile relationship and history with the African-American community,” Ron Edwards, longtime civil rights activist, said of the department. “When I was in high school in the 1950s, we would shake our heads about it.”
Five officers are under Internal Affairs investigations for two off-duty alcohol-fueled incidents in Apple Valley and Green Bay, Wis. Two SWAT team members were suspended with pay in one case and two officers pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in the other.
In a statement Friday, Police Chief Janeé Harteau stopped short of saying any of the five would be fired, assuring citizens that her response will be “decisive” when misconduct is found.
Police supporters counter that it would be a mistake to make sweeping assumptions.
“It’s troubling, because I’ve seen so many good people in these programs, that really give it their all,” said Al Garber, an FBI agent who headed the SWAT unit when it was jointly run with the feds. “They are suffering now because of generalizations.”
Council Member Don Samuels agreed. “There are complaints from time to time, but I don’t think that these two incidents reflect the nature of the vast majority of interaction between the Minneapolis Police Department and the citizens,” said Samuels, who is chairman of the city’s Public Safety Committee that oversees police.
Samuels said police training should address character issues and appropriate conduct in all areas of an officer’s life.
$14 million in settlements
The rocky history of the Civilian Police Review Authority (CRA) ended last year, dismantled by the City Council with the strong encouragement of Mayor R.T. Rybak’s top appointees, Velma Korbal, director of the Civil Rights Department, and then Police Chief Tim Dolan.
Several months earlier, the CRA board had declared that it had no confidence in Dolan, complaining that he had rejected most of its recommendations to discipline officers.
Dolan countered that the CRA investigations were substandard. He and Korbal then created a new entity that includes more police input. But some community activists have maintained that police should not be investigating themselves.
“There’s a blue wall of silence,” says Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality. “There isn’t a culture of accountability within the department.”
From 2006 to 2012, the city paid out nearly $14 million for alleged police misconduct. The Star Tribune reported in June that the 12 costliest settlements were for cases that did not result in any officer discipline.
Harteau has touted the new Police Conduct Oversight Commission that is expected to be functioning by September as part of the solution to the problems that surfaced last week.
“My intention is to … utilize that group of community members as a sounding board for ideas about how to build stronger connections and understanding between the MPD and the community,” she said Friday.
Zero tolerance sought
Activist Mel Reeves said Rybak should “institute a zero-tolerance policy on brutality and obvious incidents of racist behavior.”
Rybak spokesman John Stiles repeated the mayor’s earlier statement that he was “appalled and disgusted” by the Green Bay report. “He fully supports Chief Harteau’s … resolve to not tolerate racist speech and acts in the department, take decisive action on proven misconduct and earn the community’s trust,” Stiles said in a statement.
The department also has struggled to recruit minorities, with white police officers making up 78 percent of the men on the force, and 88 percent of the women. The city at large is 63.8 percent white, according to the U.S. Census.
A historical problem
The MPD has been periodically accused of racially biased policing, going back to the 1960s, notes Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. It contributes to an impression, he said, that officers feel they are “above the law.”
The riot that exploded on Plymouth Avenue in 1967 was in part triggered by allegations of police brutality against the black community. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed in Minneapolis in 1968 partly to combat racist treatment by the local police, said Clyde Bellecourt, an AIM founder.
But many officers see the latest incidents as aberrations that do not reflect the department.
“The police are not out of control,” said Al Berryman, a former police sergeant and past president of the Minneapolis Police Federation. “Cops work in areas of high crime, which are mostly minority areas, and most subject to complaints” against officers, he says.
Edwards co-chaired a Police Community Relations Council that the U.S. Justice Department created in 2003 after police fatally shot a machete-wielding Somali man in March 2002 and a riot broke out in north Minneapolis five months later.
“What we continued to discover was a culture of … violence and outright racism,” he said. “This was in every fiber of the department from recruitment to promotion to investigation.” The council expired in 2008.
In 2009, a major scandal erupted that led to the dismantling of the Metro Gang Strike Force, a multi-jurisdictional unit that included the Minneapolis police. Among the accusations was racial bias by police.
“There’s been a lack of consistent, systematic discipline for officers who did things wrong,” says attorney Robert Bennett, who frequently sues the department.
His firm has won huge settlements, including a $3 million payout in June for the death of David Smith, a 28-year-old mentally ill black man who died after a struggle with police in 2010.
Berryman said officers have changed their attitudes, saying cops of different sexes, color and sexual orientation work alongside each other, often partnered together. “Forty years ago, you could get away with being anti-black or anti-gay, or anti-woman, but you can’t anymore. You couldn’t survive.”
Staff librarian John Wareham contributed research for this report.