Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau made what might seem like an obvious call last week by firing two officers who were videotaped using racial slurs and being unruly with other cops.
There’s no question that the white officers engaged in “conduct unbecoming.’’ But too often the complexities of relieving bad cops of their duties have prevented dismissals that would be standard operating procedure in the private sector.
Even these firings, with clear-cut video evidence, are not yet a done deal. The officers can appeal, and it’s possible the chief’s decision could be overturned. There have been other cases in which a Minneapolis or St. Paul police chief tried to fire an officer, only to have the decision reversed in arbitration.
That shouldn’t happen this time. The dismissals came following an investigation of a June 29 incident in which officers Brian Thole and Shawn Powell, who are both white, scuffled with a group of African-American men after leaving a Green Bay, Wis., bar.
The Minneapolis officers, who are both military veterans and part of the department’s SWAT team, also used racial slurs while berating local police who were gathering information about the incident and made disparaging comments about Harteau’s sexual orientation. Some of their behavior was captured on videotape.
The officers were not charged with a crime in Green Bay, but that department reported the incident to Minneapolis police, prompting the internal-affairs process that led to last week’s firings. The officers have been on paid administrative leave since July.
As veterans and union members, the pair have two appeals options. They can challenge their dismissal through the traditional union procedures, usually arbitration, as provided under the Minneapolis Police Federation contract. Or they can appeal under provisions of the state Veterans Preference Act.
Because of this and other high-profile cases that have strained police-community relations over the years, Minneapolis cops have a reputation for racial profiling and using excessive force.
If Thole and Powell had kept their jobs, that reputation would have been reaffirmed. Allowing their behavior to go unpunished would have undermined the terrific work that the majority of good cops do every day. And it would have damaged Harteau’s credibility as she works to bring cultural change and higher standards to the department.
Taxpayers are demanding better, too. A Star Tribune news analysis found that the city made $14 million in payouts for alleged police misconduct between 2006 and 2012.
A few weeks before the Green Bay incident, three other Minneapolis officers were concluding court proceedings over a similar situation. The off-duty cops were accused of getting into a fight and using racial slurs outside an Apple Valley bar in November 2012. The white officers were reportedly among a group of white men who followed a group of black men into a parking lot. One of the black men was knocked down and beaten, and racial slurs were used, according to the Apple Valley police report.
Two of the cops pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. Charges against the third were dismissed, although all are still the subject of an internal-affairs investigation and action from the chief is pending.
The Apple Valley and Green Bay cases reignited historical complaints of racial intolerance by Minneapolis police. Community activists called for a U.S. Justice Department investigation, and the Green Bay videotape brought condemnation from city, neighborhood and union leaders.
Harteau clearly made the right call on Thole and Powell. Cops who behave the way they did in Green Bay and use slurs against groups of people they are sworn to protect and serve are in the wrong profession.