Tevlin: Harteau's not the first chief to deal with misconduct

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2013 - 9:37 PM
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Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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After a series of racial incidents involving Minneapolis police officers, an exasperated chief said to a Star Tribune reporter: “I have a hard time fixing on what prompted so much crazy behavior by so many officers in such a short period of time.”

You might think I’m talking about current Chief Janeé Harteau.

The quote is actually from former Minneapolis Chief John Laux, from the summer of 1994.

Now here’s a quote from community activist Brian Herron in regard to racial relations and Minneapolis police: “I don’t see what’s keeping this department from dealing with the problems that are there.”

The quote is not from the recent news conference featuring Herron outside City Hall. It’s Herron’s response to the incidents that happened under Laux’s watch. In 1994.

Harteau is not the first chief to have to deal with police misconduct shortly after taking the job, and she won’t be the last.

Tough-talking Tony Bouza arrived from New York, only to face outrage by a newly emerging gay community after the vice squad raided the city’s bath houses.

Within weeks of taking charge, Laux saw a confounding number of incidents, ranging from an officer accused of stealing money to another accusation of rape and a botched drug raid that killed an older black couple.

Then there was an altercation between an officer and black college students at a motel, which led to to the clever observation that while most chiefs get a honeymoon, all Laux got was a night at the Embassy Suites.

One reporter called Laux “the Willy Loman of law enforcement,” referring to the embattled character in “Death of a Salesman.”

In the early months of her tenure, Harteau has seen off-duty officers get involved in two separate racially charged incidents, and another in which a black man fleeing police was shot and killed. Video of the two incidents, in Green Bay, Wis., and Apple Valley, shows officers in altercations with black men and making racist comments. Both are being investigated.

Long retired, Laux, 71, lives in Bloomington and is happily planning to celebrate his 50th anniversary with his wife. He said he has spoken to Harteau, but won’t reveal any details of their conversation. He did say he empathized with Harteau and wanted her to know that “a lot of us have walked in your shoes.”

After the first couple of incidents, Laux quickly instituted race-sensitivity training, including some things that had never been tried before. But race relations never really improved much. Laux said part of the reason was that the incidents, though largely out of control of the chief, caused distrust.

“I don’t know if it’s more frustrating or disheartening that 24 years after I was named chief, we still see some of the same things,” Laux said. “You can try to change individual behaviors, but cultural habits might take a generation. And stupid people do stupid things.”

And distrust runs both ways, Laux said.

“Ironically, a lot of the same people are criticizing police today [as in Laux’s day].” (Herron, for example, has emerged a community leader again, a dozen years after doing time for extortion.)

“It would be nice to see some new faces,” Laux said.

While some criticized Laux for being too lax in disciplining officers, he said the perception was false. He also said he was sometimes hamstrung by process.

“Personality has been taken out of discipline,” Laux said at the time. “It’s like, ‘Have my lawyer talk to your lawyer.’ It’s all done through artificial means.”

Laux, who thinks things are better today, tried to fight the department’s bad image by spending “a lot of time in church basements,” talking to people. He also tapped the expertise of chiefs in other cities. He is glad Harteau is doing both.

I agree.

Harteau has seized social media, taking to Facebook or Twitter doing meet-and-greets in the community (or even busting a guy for public drinking). She’s even gotten herself a slogan, “Commitment, integrity and transparency.”

Well, it’s better than “Beat ’em, bust ’em, that’s our custom,” but a slogan won’t be enough for the long haul, and the problems she faces can’t be solved in 140-character tweets.

Harteau has been media-evasive compared to some of her predecessors (former Chief Tim Dolan once invited me to “drop in any time”). Last week she gave a series of 10-minute interviews to local media to talk (vaguely) about the issues, and nothing about the suspicious shooting of Terrance Franklin, who was shot by police in May.

That’s it.

She spent more time listening to the national anthem on stage in the happy (safe) confines of the Ecuadorean festival on Lake Street Sunday afternoon (is this the “transparency” part?).

Standing in the audience, I had no idea if she was working hard to rid the department of its small number of bad cops, or not. But as I stood next to a food stall and watched the national dish — guinea pig — roast on a spit over a hot fire, I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy.

For the chief.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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