Coming Home to Roost, Again

Relations between black cops and the Olson administration are likely to take another hit with the release of a citizens' committee report criticizing the MPD

IT'S BEEN ABOUT a year since relations between MPD Chief Robert Olson and his department's black officers' association turned so sour that a citizens' liaison committee was appointed to mediate between the two sides. Now the group is about to release its recommendations, and according to committee member Ron Edwards, they will include advising the black officers both to sue the department and to petition the National Labor Relations Board to recognize the black officers as a separate bargaining unit. And in the meantime, sources report that two or three black officers will announce shortly that they are suing the department individually over issues of discrimination and back pay.

The tensions that have come to the surface during Olson's tenure are a function of the department's checkered history as well as Olson's own handling of race issues. In 1992, after a group of black officers received hate letters through the interdepartmental mail system, a black officer named Alisa Clemons was made the target of a three-year probe by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office. Although they never charged her, Olson's office decided to go ahead and fire her; he told members of the black police officers' association that the evidence against Clemons was "overwhelming." The following year, in April 1996, an arbitrator reinstated her to her job, citing the city's lack of evidence in the case.

Just a week after Clemons returned to the job, the Crisis Response Team, a special unit consisting of black cops who volunteered to help defuse difficult situations involving suspects of color, tendered its resignation. According to black officers, the resignation was a gesture of frustration at the MPD administration's ongoing refusal to address minority concerns, and its undue harshness when disciplining cops of color. "We have complained for years, since at least 1988, about the disparity in discipline," Officer Charlie Adams told City Pages at the time ("Black and Blue at the MPD," 4/17/96). "When black officers get in jams, the discipline they receive is disproportionate."

A case in point was Olson's demotion of Sgt. Don Banham after an altercation with a photographer at the Metrodome. Black cops claimed that white cops in similar situations were treated far more leniently in most instances. Charges against Banham were eventually dropped, and he was restored to the rank of sergeant. The incident further alienated black officers for reasons that were never discussed in public: It was widely believed that Olson was punishing Banham for challenging his handling of Banham's application for a lieutenant's slot in the department.

More recently, the administration's handling of a 1996 controversy over its homicide unit managed to stir resentment both among black officers and homicide detectives. It began with the June shooting death of an 11-year-old boy named Byron Phillips who was gunned down in front of his family's house on Newton Avenue. That episode, along with another Newton Avenue killing around the same time, raised a community cry to find the killers and prompted allegations that the homicide unit was too white to get much cooperation in African American neighborhoods. It was soon announced that a number of black officers would be reassigned to homicide.

"This was strictly a political move on the part of Olson," says Al Berryman, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation. Berryman maintains that Olson's "grandstanding" forced these officers into a no-win situation. "They didn't want to go in there, because it was as good as saying the investigators couldn't handle a case. But if they refused," continues Berryman, "it would appear that they didn't want to help solve the murder." In the end, he says, the officers spent nearly a year in the homicide division but were relegated to low-level duties. "They were never given any meaningful cases. They were used to go in front of the mob." To add insult, says Ron Edwards, the black cops were underpaid for their work. "It's always been department policy," he notes, "that if you're assigned detective work, you get sergeant's rank and pay."

Police spokesperson Penny Parrish says that Olson will not comment on either the past allegations by black officers or the upcoming recommendations. "We've been expecting a report for several months now, but were unaware that it's being released [this week]," she says. Parrish adds that Olson stands behind his record: "We are continuing to promote many officers [of color], and are putting them in positions of profound influence within the department."

 
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