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Tony Bouza: A former police chief who testifies against police

  • Blog Post by: Randy Furst
  • March 20, 2013 - 10:54 AM

For eight years in the 1980’s, Chief Tony Bouza presided over the Minneapolis Police Department, a quotable, in-your-face who was brought here as a reformer by Mayor Don Fraser.

A former assistant chief in the New York Police Department, Bouza frequently butted heads with members of the Minneapolis force.

Chief Tony Bouza peers at antiwar organizer Marv Davidov during a protest in the 1980's.

Since his retirement he has become even more irascible. For most of the past quarter century, he has been a witness for the defense across the country, testifying in law suits, some of them major cases, on behalf of people who have alleged wrongdoing by police departments.

Bouza, who still lives in Minneapolis, has published a new book entitled, “Expert Witness: Breaking the Policemen’s Blue Code of Silence,” which tells story after story of alleged deceit, misconduct and corruption by police.

A prolific writer of nine previous books, he said in an interview that his new tome is “my most important book,” describing it as “my continuing and futile attempt to reform the police.” He calls police departments “secret institutions very much like the Vatican” who have “a great time exercising power.”

He says that while departments do a lot of good things, they are instititutionally assigned “to control the underclass,” most vividly reflected in their relationship to blacks who he says are targets of stop and frisk and other abuses. He said in most of the cases where he testified, it was on behalf of abused blacks “who screwed up their courage and sued.”

In an epilogue, Bouza writes that he owes an apology to most cops because 98 percent of them do, or try to do their job, their work ranging from mediocre to heroic and brilliant.

“But then there are the 2-percenters,” he writes. “I could actually prepare a list of these misfits in every agency I have worked. The thumpers, grafters, malingerers, psychos, alcoholics, women beaters, and bullies are the objects of my reform efforts.”

He is, say most attorneys who sue police, a rare bird, since there are hardly any big city police chiefs who have so consistently testified against police. Fred Goetz, a Minneapolis attorney, says he can count on one hand “the individuals with Mr. Bouza’s level of experience who objectively review cases of alleged police misconduct and call it as they see it....

“Chief Bouza is unique in that he only does cases he believes in. He is not a hired gun. If he does not believe in a case, if he does not believe there is a serious civil rights violation, he won’t take it.”

Bouza can say things that will get him in hot water. During his tenure as Minneapolis chief he got ridiculed for saying there was no gang problem in the city, even as gangs began to materialize, a comment he later said was a mistake.
Still Bouza has intense admirers.

“With all due respect to Minneapolis, he should have ended up heading the police departments of one of the giant cities, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles to show what he could do,” says Thomas Repetto, former president of the Citizens Crime Commission in New York City. “I like to say he is the greatest police commissioner New York City never had.”

Among the cases Bouza worked on was a 2003 rally in Chicago against U.S. intervention in Iraq, which led to 543 arrests. Bouza calls it a “a police inspired debacle” and the city of Chicago agreed to pay $6.2 million in a settlement.

Bouza wrote that “the most important case I worked on” involved the indictment of two “tree huggers,” environmental activists who were campaigning against the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest. Bouza testified after they were arrested in 1990 on eco-terrorism charges, which Bouza said was wrong-headed.They won $2.9 million from a jury.

You might think Bouza is a softy, who cuddles up to protesters. After all, he became a national story in the 1980s when his wife, Erica Bouza, was arrested several times by Bouza’s own police force when she participated in mass peaceful civil disobedience demonstrations against Honeywell and its military contracts.

But Bouza’s values are not simplistic and can be rather startling. “I am an unapologetic supporter of the use of police violence, even lethal force," he writes in a preface,"but it has to be guided by the law, the standards of reasonableness and the U.S. Constitution. I have presided over clubbings, shootings, gassings, and other assaults by the police. I see violence as a key weapon in the police arsenal and trained cops in the full range of possibilities available to us.

"My only caveat is that the use of force has to be legally justified, measured, and appropriate, and that the weapons have to be in conformance with the law."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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