$2 million bias settlement between officers, Minneapolis derailed

  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • July 31, 2008 - 5:50 AM

A proposed $2 million settlement of a lawsuit by five black Minneapolis police officers alleging racial discrimination by the city and the Police Department is off the table.

That revelation, contained in a notice filed Wednesday in federal court, came less than a week after the Minneapolis City Council adjourned without voting on the proposed settlement.

The one-page notice, signed by the judicial assistant of U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Richard Nelson, gave no reason why the settlement failed. Nelson ordered the parties to the suit not to discuss the case publicly after a story appeared in the Star Tribune last week.

The notice doesn't preclude the possibility of a future settlement. A trial date has been set for October 2009.

"In light of the city's recent conduct, we agree with the magistrate judge's decision to declare an impasse," said John Klassen and Andrew Muller, attorneys for the plaintiffs. "We look forward to litigating this matter through trial because we believe the citizens of Minneapolis need to know the full extent of the 20-year history of racial bias and discrimination at the MPD, which bias and discrimination has intensified under Chief [Tim] Dolan and Mayor [R.T.] Rybak's administration."

The City Council met Friday in a closed session to discuss the possible settlement. After the meeting, Council President Barbara Johnson read a brief statement to reporters that said that city attorneys had given the council an update on the suit and that the council provided them with direction. She said the city planned to report back to the magistrate.

Heading into the closed session, some council members thought there would be a chance to vote on a settlement, sources said.

Three hours later, the meeting, which was attended by Dolan, ended with no vote taken. In essence, the gathering had turned into an informational session.

Sources familiar with the litigation said the settlement would have provided $2 million to five plaintiffs who allege a long history of discrimination in the Police Department. The five sued the city and Dolan in December, alleging that discrimination became more institutionalized after he was sworn in as chief in 2007.

The settlement also would have created a unit headed by a deputy chief to oversee diversity and race issues, the sources said.

Critics of the department had praised the possible settlement as a step toward changing the culture within the Police Department.

Two of the officers who filed the suit, Lt. Don Harris and Lt. Lee Edwards, were demoted by Dolan. A third officer, Sgt. Charlie Adams, was transferred from the homicide unit because of what police leadership described as a series of alleged incidents of insubordination.

The other plaintiffs are Lt. Medaria Arradondo and Sgt. Dennis Hamilton. The officers involved each average about 20 years with the department.

The plaintiffs' attorneys said Wednesday that they believe the citizens of Minneapolis should be gravely concerned about what they say is a practice of retaliation by the Police Department against those who challenge racial discrimination.

"Our only misgiving with the present failure to settle this case is that the representations of the city during the settlement conference are irreconcilable with the city's actions taken subsequent," they said.

The trial involving the five black officers could be preceded in October with the discrimination trial of Minneapolis Sgt. Giovanni Veliz. Nearly three years ago, he alleged in a lawsuit that he had been harassed and passed over for promotions because he questioned the department's compliance with a federal agreement to improve police-community relations.

The October 2009 trial would come during an election year when the mayor and all 13 council seats are up for grabs.

Discrimination suits against police departments are usually filed by low-ranking officers, said Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association in Washington, D.C., which represents 15,000 officers. "These officers are in the best position to see longtime patterns of discrimination," he said.

"The idea of a special unit to oversee the diversity efforts reminds me of consent decrees ordered by court, many of which had the police departments reporting back to the judges with evidence of what was being done," he said. "I get calls every week from police chiefs asking if we can help them recruit minority officers."

A $2 million settlement wouldn't have been adequate compensation for the officers if the discrimination allegations are true, Hampton said.

"It's like a man who lost a leg and then gets an artificial leg: It doesn't make you whole," he said. "But the development of the unit as part of the settlement will make major structural changes that they need. I commend these officers."

Jeremy Hanson, Rybak's spokesman, said that the judge had advised Rybak not to comment. Dolan did not return calls seeking comment. • 612-673-4465 • 612-673-1790

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