The Life of Brian Herron

Brian Herron has battled racism, hatred, and self-doubt. But none of that prepared him for the Minneapolis city council.

The letter soon found its way to the newspapers, launching the only flurry of headlines to mark Herron's tenure in office. "How can the office of the City Council be used to influence judicial decisions?" Ofcr. Hussman asked in the Star Tribune. "Is that ethical? I don't think so."

Herron says he suspected the letter was going to cost him politically. He knew, he says, that he could have avoided the whole brouhaha by calling the judge instead of writing him. But he wanted Ferguson to know he'd kept his word.

Ferguson, who was convicted in November 1996 and sentenced to three years in prison, says he noticed. "It meant a lot to me, for him to be in the position he is [and] to sit down and write that letter," he said. "It didn't say I was innocent or I didn't commit a crime. It just said, 'This young man is trying to change his life and I believe he is trying to change.'"

He still hears comments, he adds, about how far out on a limb Herron went for him. "That's another reason why I've got to continue doing what I'm doing" to straighten his life out, he says. "Because this cost him so much." Ferguson is scheduled to be released next summer, and Herron says he's already trying to think of whether anyone he knows may offer him a job.

The ominous incidents continued. In April 1996, Herron received a letter on MPD stationery signed by the "KKK Kops." The Star Tribune reported that the hand-lettered note warned, "KKK Kops gonna put a gun in yo pocket an a dope bag in yo otha pocket. Don go out alone." Herron turned the letter over the to FBI. (In 1992 similar letters were sent to some 30 black Minneapolis officers. The department accused Ofcr. Alisa Clemons of writing the letters but couldn't provide any evidence to bolster its claims and ended up settling a suit she brought for a reported $400,000.)

Last February shots were fired near the home of Herron's niece while he was visiting her. A young man ran into the house--to escape the crossfire outside, Herron says. According to Herron, the police showed up just as they were reaching to dial 911.

Five days after the incident, KSTP-TV reported that Herron was "once again caught in the middle of controversy." Reporter Jay Kolls quoted unnamed MPD sources who noted that Herron had failed to call police and claimed he appeared "nervous" when officers arrived. "The shooting has not resulted in charges for anyone, including council member Brian Herron," the report concluded.

"What am I going to be charged with? There was nothing inappropriate about my being there," Herron told reporters the next day, calling the report "a thought-out attempt to malign my character." An MPD representative later said the department was looking into the leak; Herron says he never heard the results of the investigation.

All that notwithstanding, Herron's public assessment of police is almost pure Officer Friendly. Cops' performance comes up at nearly every community meeting he attends, and he regularly defends the MPD: "We're judging police on what a few of them are doing," he says. "I would dare to say that the majority are good officers. [But] you have a few who let their prejudices show.

"After I got elected, one of the things young African-American men would say to me was: 'Look at you--you've got a position, you are someone, and look how they treat you.' I try to teach folks in the community, it doesn't matter how you are approached, this is how you should respond."

Herron has also mediated several highly charged public exchanges between residents and police--including the time, last year, when a coalition lead by activists Spike Moss and Randy Staten accused the MPD of covering up errors in the case of Lawrence Miles Jr. (The 15-year-old was shot in the back by police while running from his home with a pellet gun.) "It would have been easier for me to take a position against the police," Herron says. "But I wanted people to be calm, so I took a position in the middle." The Police Federation's Al Berryman praises Herron's role in the debate following the Miles shooting, noting that the council member worked around the clock to gather information before saying anything publicly.

Still, Herron admits that holding office has made him cautious. "There's places I just won't go," he offers, "no matter how legal." His father puts it more bluntly: "One of the things that whites do is to target powerful blacks. Brian has been able to maintain a low profile, and that's been helpful to him. Black people in office are an endangered species, and if you look long enough in anybody's background, you can find something."

Last year, Herron says, the Star Tribune editorial board called him in for a conversation to determine whether the paper would endorse him for a second term. Mimicking his interviewers, he adopts a parental tone: "'Frankly, we're a little disappointed in you. We had hoped for great things from you and [council member Kathy] Thurber.'

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