Mr. FixIt

Minneapolis Police Chief Bob Olson came to town with a reputation for pleasing pols and infuriating cops. And he's surpassed himself on both counts.

One reason is that here, every drug raid is performed as a high-risk operation. Officially, that's because cops must assume that where there are drugs, there are guns. But ERU cops say they suspect that "dynamic, no-knock entries" are also used as a political pacifier: Nothing like a midnight battering ram to show neighbors that something is being done about the crack house down the street.

The cops' term for that kind of operation is "eviction warrants"--actions that serve to kick people out of a house, and little else. A spot check last year of 49 ERU warrants indicated that only half yielded any kind of arrest, and only one-fifth resulted in criminal charges. "The department is unduly endangering citizen and officer safety for no reason other than to further political agendas," ERU supervisors warned the administration in a recent memo. "The department is using high-risk search warrants to solve neighborhood livability issues. This is a short-sighted solution and is used because it is cost effective for the department and there is no concern for people's lives."

None of this, ERU officers say, should have been news to the chief. In November 1995 Deputy Chief Greg Hestness, himself a veteran of the unit, sent Olson a memo warning that the ERU was suffering overload. But nothing happened. Meanwhile tensions built in the unit over what members considered administration meddling, including the removal of a popular supervisor.

The kicker came during a raid on a suspected marijuana dealer's house last November. There was gunfire, and one officer was shot in the neck. He lived only because he happened to be wearing a special high-collared bulletproof vest. It's not clear to this day whether the bullet came from inside the house or from another officer.

Not everybody was sympathetic when the ERU cops finally marched on City Hall. One sergeant calls their action "terroristic tactics, holding the city hostage to get what they want." But even critics acknowledge that the underlying problem is serious. "This is dangerous work, and we don't even know how effective it is," Hestness says. "[The concerns] are being given a very thorough going-over. There's a lot of work being done. And we're on the verge of working something out."

That was two weeks ago. By CP's deadline, the ERU had received a letter promising that its concerns would be addressed; Olson sent a copy of the letter around the department with a note saying the dispute had been resolved. Kroll says the ERU cops still aren't happy, but they've been told they are subject to discipline if they quit their assignments. "It just seems that the chief doesn't want to commit to anything," he says. "He had Deputy Chief Bill Jones sign the letter. And we don't know if he'll turn around down the road and say something different."

You hear that kind of thing a lot around the Police Department these days. Even Olson's supporters say they're not always sure whether the chief is just brainstorming, or actually making a commitment. They call it evidence of a creative mind; his critics say it just means they can't trust him. Either way, the confusion is nowhere more apparent than in Olson's dealing with one of the most persistent problems facing the department: its relationship with communities of color and its own minority officers.

In June 1995, 11-year-old Byron Phillips was fatally shot on the porch of his family's Newton Avenue home. The homicide unit did double time looking for his killer, but couldn't come up with a suspect; soon, word got out that people in the neighborhood weren't talking. Community activists warned that this was a recurring problem, brought on by the department's lack of investigators of color. The story hit the news, and politicians took notice.

Olson says he realized something had to be done. "We found a couple of bright, black officers who had assignments right in those neighborhoods and knew those folks, and we detailed them over there for the summer to help out. They went house to house and did a great job, and then they went back to their jobs."

That, a lot of people say, was precisely the problem. The young officers detailed to the Phillips investigation had neither the rank nor the experience to join the homicide unit permanently. "It was a sham," charges community advocate Ron Edwards. "All it was was crowd control and public relations. They were out there to make sure that the white officers weren't hassled and so that Olson could tell the press he was doing something. But he wasn't doing anything about the real problem."

The real problem, says Edwards, is the same it's always been: The department isn't doing enough to recruit minority cops and to support those it does have. The complaint is a longstanding one, but it reached new urgency under the Olson administration. Two months after the chief took office, a Community Response Team composed of black cops walked out, charging members were "being treated like Negroes." And within his first year, Olson demoted or fired several popular black cops, including Alisa Clemons (whom he accused of sending racist hate mail to officers including herself, a charge not supported in an appeal she filed and won) and Don Banham, president of the Minneapolis Black Police Officers Association. Members of the group say they kept pleading with Olson to discuss those and other concerns. By last summer, they gave up and asked a community panel to mediate.

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