The Thin Black Line

A veteran cop's race discrimination suit against the St. Paul Police Department raises old questions and new tensions.

Call it the symbolic end of Tony Blakey's career. It was September 1995 and the St. Paul Police Department was hosting a ceremony to honor its 20-year veterans. Two decades on the force is a big deal for anyone, but it was an even more remarkable milestone for the six remaining black members of the police academy's 1975 class, whose hiring was the culmination of a bitter federal lawsuit.

As it turned out, Blakey was the only eligible officer who was not invited to the ceremony. The rebuke was especially painful given how insular St. Paul's black community had been 20 years before. Several in that academy class of '75 had grown up in the Summit-University area, where most of St. Paul's African American populace had moved when the Rondo neighborhood was bulldozed in the '50s and '60s to make way for Interstate 94. Chief William "Corky" Finney's mother worked out of her house there, styling hair for the mothers of many of the neighborhood kids who would eventually join the force. Blakey's own father was a minister in the community.

Blakey was never told why he wasn't invited to the 20-year anniversary party, but if it was an oversight, the timing was poor. Since Blakey had begun asking his superiors to investigate what he claimed was a pattern of race discrimination on the force, he had reportedly become less than popular with the department brass. The acrimony was starting to affect Blakey's even more visible relatives--his brother Jerry, a St. Paul City Council member, and his cousin Art, a Ramsey County Sheriff's deputy assigned to the St. Paul Police Department gang task force.

Tony Blakey, a veteran cop who will be eligible to retire in the near future, is now suing the St. Paul Police Department. His employment contract prohibits him from talking with the news media about the suit or anything else. His attorney, Joanne Jirik Mullen, says that Blakey is afraid that that if he cooperated with City Pages, even by allowing his photo to be taken, it could be used as a justification to fire him and deny his pension. Police department officials likewise refuse to discuss the suit, saying it's a personnel matter. But according to the 16-page complaint Blakey recently filed in Ramsey County District Court, none of the issues he's raised through the years has been investigated. Instead, he claims, he's been made a scapegoat--transferred from his East Side beat, reprimanded for "making everything racial," sent to the department shrink, roughed up by white officers, and in some cases disciplined for the indignities he has suffered.

In the early days, minority cops were routinely assigned the worst beats. It was a measure of what the department thought of them, and a message to anyone who might aspire to follow in their steps. The court-ordered minority hiring of the 1970s was supposed to change that, and the black cops hired then indeed went on to accomplish a string of black "firsts" in the department. But if Tony Blakey is right, the St. Paul Police Department is still a place where African American cops, as one longtime local black activist puts it, have to choose between being black or blue.

Blakey's discrimination complaint paints him as a man with a long fuse. It was 1988, the document says, when he first told his supervisors he thought he was being treated differently because of his race. He and other black officers were routinely assigned inferior squad cars and the worst shifts. The department allegedly did not respond, but Blakey continued to complain about the black cops' plight. His performance reviews continued to be positive--except in the "attitude" category. After a few complaints, Blakey's supervisors began to report that he "reads racial problems into actions by other officers where none exists and he himself has voiced racial bias when dealing with the public."

The complaint has Blakey protesting the same kinds of chronic, nagging problems year after year: All of the coveted overtime assignments were given to white officers; white cops with far less seniority got new squad cars, while African American colleagues got their hand-me-downs; black cops were investigated more often and with less cause than their white counterparts.

Blakey's suit claims the department began slighting him on the job due to his outspokenness. In the few instances where his allegations were investigated, he says he was vindicated but no follow-up action was taken.

It was at about the same time--just a few weeks before things completely blew up--that Blakey's name started showing up misspelled on department documents as "Blackey."

In January 1995, he and several other African American officers on the East Side compared work schedules for the rest of the year and realized they had all drawn bad shifts. One had ended up with his inferior schedule after a white officer had complained about his assignment and requested that it be switched with the black officer's. When the black officers complained, they were told that the assignments were the result of requests made by other cops, all of whom were white.

On January 24, Blakey took his complaints to East Side team Commander Don Winger and Sgt. Michael Toronto. He explained how many black officers were being discriminated against and laid out the incidents he felt proved the pattern. Racial tensions within the squad were running high and it made him fear for his safety, he reportedly said.

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