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Joey McLeister • Star Tribune file,

Counterpoint: Police union's influence certainly won't inspire trust

  • Article by: Paul Zerby
  • January 1, 2014 - 2:00 PM

John Delmonico, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, opposes Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s plan to have the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigate officer involved shootings in Minneapolis (“Why Minneapolis police union opposes outside investigation,” Dec. 26). The federation represents a powerful and important voice. Indeed, as earlier reported by the Star Tribune, Gov. Mark Dayton acted to derail Minneapolis’ plan after speaking with Delmonico. It is difficult to credit Dayton’s action to anything other than bowing to the naked political power of the federation.

Delmonico asserts that “the federation’s opposition is not related in any way to a belief that investigations by the BCA or any other agency are more likely to result in an outcome unfavorable to Minneapolis officers.” The heart of Delmonico’s argument is that such a move would “undermine public trust.” Under his reasoning, virtually any policy change made for the purpose of restoring public trust in the police would undermine the police because it would carry a message that the police cannot be trusted without making the change.

Admitting that a problem exists and taking steps to address it is the surest way of remedying mistrust. There is, unfortunately, already mistrust between police and members of the community. An Aug. 28 Star Tribune story said that of 439 cases of complaints against Minneapolis police officers, only 17 were sent to a conduct review panel, and only seven of those merited possible discipline. The same article reported that between 2006 and 2012 the city paid out $14 million for claims against the department. An independent judiciary, or apprehension of that judiciary, in those cases brought results less favorable to the police officers than the department’s internal discipline, upon which the public is asked to place its trust.

This is not a new situation. When I ran for the Minneapolis City Council in 2001, then as now the city expended millions and millions of taxpayer dollars in settling lawsuits against the Minneapolis Police Department. Many community members made obtaining subpoena power for a civilian board a litmus test for a meaningful review authority. But there were real or perceived legal difficulties in granting the power without specific mandate from the Legislature, where the federation was seen as a powerful opponent of the idea. It never happened.

The mistrust between the police and community grew so bad that in 2003 the Department of Justice dispatched a federal mediator to Minneapolis to assist MPD and community members and organizations in reaching an agreement respecting Minneapolis police practices. There was even talk of putting the department into a DOJ receivership. An agreement was signed on Dec. 4, 2003, by then-Chief Robert Olson and organizations ranging from the Minnesota State Baptist Convention, the Minnesota O.I.C. State Council, the American Indian Movement, the Barbara Schneider Foundation, The City Inc., the Minneapolis Urban League, OutFront and the Urban Coalition. The agreement created a Police Community Relations Council to deal with multiple issues including the use of force and community relations. The PCRC is no more, and Clyde Bellecourt, an American Indian Movement leader who cochaired the PCRC between 2004 and 2008, was quoted by the Star Tribune on Aug. 11 as saying: “Nothing has really changed [with the MPD]; we’re back to day one.”

What has been described as the “police code of silence” by retired Minneapolis officer Michael W. Quinn in his book “Walking With The Devil” may make it difficult for the police to police their own. When Minneapolis hired Bill McManus from outside the department as its new police chief, I supported Mayor R.T. Rybak in naming him over other qualified candidates within the department. I thought it might be easier for McManus, coming in with no preexisting relationships, to act against “bad apples.”

McManus, however, had a military model of chain of command in which he would administer discipline preferably with as little interference from civilians as possible — not unlike the attitude today of some of the armed forces on dealing with sexual harassment within the ranks.

Chief Harteau has sought advice from outside the department. Outside assistance in the disciplinary process — for example, from Hennepin County — is in no way unprecedented. In turning to the BCA for help in the disciplinary process, Harteau is proceeding in one of perhaps the least threatening ways possible. The federation has made its case, and it does not hold. The governor should give Harteau and the BCA the opportunity to implement the agreement they agreed upon before the federation’s intervention.

Paul Zerby is a former member of the Minneapolis City Council.

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