Tensions threaten Minneapolis council of cops, citizens

  • Star Tribune
  • February 15, 2008 - 10:27 PM
Thanks to the Police Community Relations Council, Minneapolis police and residents have racked up a series of successes against violent crime, including this week’s quick arrest in the slaying of a 4-year-old boy.

But even as it celebrates its effectiveness, this fractious group is on the brink of unraveling.

Long-running infighting and recent flare-ups with Police Chief Tim Dolan are threatening to undo the 4-year-old council and the landmark federal mediation agreement that created it. In the past month, four of the 18-member community side — ironically called the “Unity” team — took an indefinite leave from negotiations.

Now time is running out. The voluntary agreement expires in 10 months. Of 120 “action items” the group was assigned to address — ranging from police officers’ use of force to diversifying the police department — 75 are not completed.

As city officials hope for progress, some community activists are pessimistic.

“The sad part about this is that the entire city loses,” said Michelle Gross, vice president of Communities United Against Police Brutality.

On Monday, the Unity team plans to meet and discuss what role they will continue to play in the process.

When the historic agreement to improve relations was signed in 2003, Minneapolis police and community activists were all hugs and smiles. The agreement, brokered by the U.S. Justice Department, was designed to dampen tensions aroused by the fatal police shooting of a machete-wielding Somali man in March 2002 and fanned by a riot in north Minneapolis five months later.

The Police Community Relations Council (PCRC) is the centerpiece of that mediation agreement. At monthly meetings, community activists and police representatives have identified ways to improve city livability. For example, a North Side store recently agreed to stop selling “Don’t Be a Snitch” T-shirts after the issue was brought to the group’s attention.

The council’s community side has proved valuable at times, helping police defuse tension and providing key witnesses to solve high-profile murders such as the killings of  teenagers Charez Jones and Courtney Brown  the past two summers.
Yet the relationship has always been strained. In the past four years, the group has mostly argued. In 2006, the community faction gave then-interim chief Dolan a vote of no confidence.

Things worsened in December, when five black police officers sued Dolan and the police department for racial discrimination. That suit plus disillusionment with the PCRC’s lack of progress were the main reasons Spike Moss said he and three other longtime activists decided to walk away from the council temporarily. The others are Alfred Flowers, the Rev. Mary Flowers-Spratt and Zach Metoyer.

“The black officers had to sue because we couldn’t get our process done quick enough to help them,” Moss said. “We’ve lost connections to officers we could trust to get things done.”

The walkout disappoints Duane Reed, president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, who recently joined the community team.
“If you’re at the table, you can expose and make transparent the things that are wrong and correct them,” said Reed. “I respect everybody in the group, but you can’t hide behind a boycott and then make claims against the police.”

'Shame on you’

But months before the walkout, trouble was brewing. At a Jan. 10 meeting, members of the Unity team tried to oust Ron Edwards as co-chair, but several team members refused to participate.

Tempers between the police and Unity teams flared during a special Jan. 25 meeting called by Minneapolis Urban League President Clarence Hightower. “Shame on you,” Dolan said, chiding Flowers for wanting to leave the table.

“Shame on you for wasting four years and not getting anything done,” Flowers replied before storming out. Dolan later apologized to Flowers and said he let his “Irish temper” get the best of him. They hugged.

Still upset last week, Flowers said the community team is discussing legal options against the city. He wondered “why anybody would still be sitting at the table, unless it’s for personal, selfish reasons.”

Hightower was one of nearly 40 people who worked a cantankerous seven months with the Department of Justice on the mediation agreement in late 2003. He wants the parties to strongly consider all options before walking away.

“We worked so diligently to bring this structured dialogue together. It’s the one way to hold the police department’s feet to the fire,” he said.

In 2006, when the Unity team removed the Rev. Ian Bethel as co-chair after the Dolan vote of no confidence, pundits predicted that the team would unravel without Bethel as the voice of reason.

Edwards, a co-chair with Clyde Bellecourt, said the community team has been fragile from the get-go, “particularly when you talk about how much effort members really want to put into completing the agreement.” He said poor attendance by several community members led to meeting once instead of twice a month.

“Right now, we are letting the members figure out what they need to do,” he said.

'People want an agreement’

City officials are watching. In an update last week,  Lt. Larry Doyle told the City Council’s Executive Committee the police department believes another 48 actions are complete, but they haven’t been resolved by the entire council.

Mayor R.T. Rybak suggested that with time expiring, the group should break into subcommittees to handle the remaining actions. “People want a completed agreement to happen,” Rybak said.

The biggest areas of the agreement so far involve use of force and how officers handle suspects with mental illness. Other areas yet to be discussed or resolved are the officer disciplinary process, cultural training, hiring a diverse police force and creating a forum for ongoing dialogue after the agreement expires.

Two people who were initially at the mediation table but left blame the group’s lack of progress on egotism, the belated response from City Hall and the Justice Department’s failure to hold the city accountable.

“I had very little faith in this from the beginning. I saw it coming based on whom the city would agree to deal with, who wouldn’t push them too hard, that’s when I knew it wouldn’t be as credible,” said Michelle Gross, of the anti-police brutality group.   “They started in a position of weakness and that’s how they’re going to end up,” she said.

Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, said Rybak’s initial apathy towards mediation “undermined this to where it is today.”

While repeating his respect for all involved, Reed of the NAACP said he doesn’t want to continue spinning his wheels and not getting the work done.

“I have many other issues I could be handling in the community.” • 612-673-4465 • 612-673-1790

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