Officer Down

Seven years ago Tony DiIoia was a bright-eyed Minneapolis rookie. Then came the beatings, the lawsuits, and the pink slip.

In 1992 DiIoia received a two-year criminal-justice degree from Lakewood Community College and joined the Minneapolis Police Department. He was attracted to the big city, he says, because he was anxious to get some "real experience"; it helped that the department paid the costs of his skills training. He found the work to his liking, and he proudly points to various letters of commendation and excellence he received during his tenure.

"I was a go-getter and I worked my butt off," he says. "If there was somebody driving around with a felony warrant that nobody could find, I just had this dumb luck where I'd pull them over for a busted taillight or something. Maybe it's a sixth sense from being around law enforcement all my life."

But no sixth sense could have predicted what happened on December 14, 1993. That evening, DiIoia and a fellow officer were working an off-duty security gig at Little Earth, a Native American housing project in south Minneapolis. A group of teenagers were shouting and throwing gang signs in the parking lot, he says, trying to lure a rival from one of the apartments. In the chaos, DiIoia's partner confronted a 16-year-old boy who was wielding what police later termed a "realistic-looking" replica of a handgun.

Unlike the incident in Afton, DiIoia recalls the Little Earth episode in vivid detail. The errant shots fired by his partner. The kid rounding the corner. The gun, raised and pointed his way. "I remember aiming at him," he says. "And I remember seeing the shell casings come out of my gun as I fired. I remember seeing the slide and my gun coming back toward me and the round kicking out. Everything slowed down. That's how wickedly intense it was. They say that's the part that can really mess you up."

The youth, who recovered from his wounds, was later convicted of making terroristic threats. DiIoia received the department's medal of valor. And, he adds with a note of satisfaction, "we didn't get hassled by the press." (The incident only merited a brief story in the Star Tribune, which didn't identify DiIoia as the officer who shot the youth.)

Soon after the shooting, DiIoia began to notice a change in his mood. The transformation both alarmed and puzzled him. "It was a real weird feeling," he recalls. "I knew there was something wrong with me. I remember standing in the grocery store one day and I was bagging up my groceries, and some guy was standing across from me. He was just bagging his groceries, but I remember getting mad at him for being so close to me."

He pauses, then corrects himself. "Not mad. I guess it was that I just didn't want people around me, invading my little area. And I thought, 'Man, there's something wrong with me.'"

After visiting a psychiatrist, DiIoia was diagnosed with depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. He insists that the condition never affected his work. But he chose to keep it private. Nobody needed to know that he was taking antidepressants, he figured. Besides, he says, back then he didn't realize how common depression is.

"Most people will hide it," DiIoia says. "But in the counseling I've received, I was told that a quarter of police officers wind up receiving some kind of medication for depression or some type of mental illness."

The notion that police suffer from unusually high rates of depression, suicide, and divorce is widespread, both among cops and the public at large. But according to Dr. Gary Kaufmann, such claims are not founded in reliable science. "This is stuff everybody assumes to be true, but there's no good data to support it," says Kaufmann, who is the chairman of the mental health division of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Still, Kaufmann continues, depression is common for officers struggling with the aftermath of a shooting or other traumatic experience. In fact, he says, thinking about potential effects may be a stress factor: "Anytime they identify a problem, [cops] put themselves under the microscope. Before a shooting, a police officer might have a bad day and everybody would write it off as a bad day. But after the incident, there's a new element of scrutiny."

Tony DiIoia had more bad days than most. Over the three years following the Little Earth shooting, he was investigated seven times by the city's Civilian Review Authority. Four of the cases were dismissed outright, and three were found to lack probable cause. (The authority does not disclose details about complaints that are not sustained.) He was also the subject of an internal investigation triggered by another shooting: In a 1995 incident outside a north-side apartment building, DiIoia exchanged gunfire with an armed man he and his partner had encountered in a routine walk-through. Nobody was injured, the suspect escaped, and DiIoia says there were no further repercussions from the incident.

But allegations about DiIoia's on-the-job conduct were also leveled in a 1996 police-brutality suit filed in U.S. District Court. According to that complaint, DiIoia, along with two other MPD officers, beat a north Minneapolis man in front of a woman and her four children in March 1995. The suit alleged that the officers Maced, handcuffed, and then pummeled the man with batons and flashlights for half an hour, knocking him unconscious. The case went to trial, but the city settled midway for a relatively paltry sum--about $7,000, according to the City Attorney's Office. "I don't think they should have given them a dime. Their case was a complete joke and they looked complete fools," DiIoia complains.

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