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DAVE RONNING TOOLS around the Phillips neighborhood in a beat-up red truck and a battered, sweat-stained Stetson. Known as "Cowboy Dave" to friend and foe alike, Ronning calls himself a transplanted prairie cowboy who has received a "higher calling" to fight crime. But while some in the area applaud his neighborhood patrols and media agitation, an apparently growing number of police and Phillips residents wish he would just go away.
The 39-year-old Ronning, whose varied resume includes stints with the Christian singing group Up With People and as a postage meter salesman, grew up in rural North Dakota. He moved to Minnesota a few years ago and moved to Phillips. It was here that he had his epiphany. "The first weekend," he says, "a bullet came flying through the door. There were three crack houses on my block." Ronning paints a lurid picture of prostitutes jostling for space on street corners with children waiting for school buses. He soon sought out a neighborhood watch group. "The spirit took over," he explains, "and I began to work on a solution."
The Gang Of Good People (GOGP) was founded in August of 1994 with Ronning as its anointed leader--and, according to some, virtually its only abiding member. He began patrolling the neighborhood at night, and would call the police when he saw evidence of drug dealing or prostitution. He went along on crack raids with the Minneapolis police, and claims he has played a part in shutting down some 55 crack houses in his neighborhood. Before long "Cowboy Dave" started to get attention from media, abetted by the steady stream of press releases he issued.
At City Hall Ronning is best known for the letters he fires off to local officials. Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson and Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton are among those who have received his missives, which of late have complained of his treatment at the hands of the Third Precinct. There are signs that some cops have begun to treat Ronning like the nuisance that a number of them believe he is. From March to May of this year, Cowboy Dave was ticketed five times for various violations by cops in his precinct. The first time I ask about it, Ronning claims the cops are trying to put him out of business, but he phones back a few hours later to say he overreacted.
"We aren't going to tolerate his letter writing anymore," says a Third Precinct officer who asked that his name be withheld. "At first, [police] were walking on eggshells around him because of his clout. They were afraid they would get in trouble because he writes letter to everyone. We don't need any more bad press."
But eventually, says the officer, it got to be too much. He rattles off a list of alleged transgressions ranging from unsubstantiated calls to interference with plainclothes investigations. "We have gotten 'shots fired' calls while officers were sitting right at the location and nothing was going on," he says. "Or we get a call that he's spotted two drug dealers and a prostitute and no one's in sight. He hangs out on Bloomington and Lake and calls in the obvious."
Then there is his attitude. According to one officer who ticketed him, Ronning made a pleading reference to the fact that cops don't tag each other. And when it was evident that he was going to get a ticket anyway, the cop claims that Ronning threatened him and his partner: "He said he was going to get us transferred. He threatened our careers with his political connections. Everyone [at the precinct] feels the same way. Some choose to ignore him, and others think he's a wingnut. But we wish he'd go away."
Another issue cited by Ronning's detractors is his apparent lack of followers. "We call it the Gang Of Good Person," says the cop. According to Donald Jackson, a community safety officer with the group People of Phillips, "I've talked to people Ronning claims are part of GOGP, and they say they aren't involved. He uses the term to apply to whoever is around him at the time. But I've never heard of a meeting or seen a committee."
"I've seen it happen before," says POP executive director Joan Vanhalla, who emphasizes that she appreciates what Ronning is trying to do. "Someone has a great idea for a community-based effort, and they charge ahead. But they forget to look and see if anyone's behind them.