Rank Discord

The cops are reluctant to talk about it. City officials flatly refuse. Who pushed the "mute" button on the most explosive affirmative-action lawsuit Minneapolis has seen in decades?

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

The Show-Up, the newspaper published by the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis (POFM), is a strange little hodgepodge of items. There are the expected notes about awards and retirements ("Hello pension--Goodbye tension!"), updates on contract talks, snapshots of new babies, and sometimes, inexplicably, full-page encyclopedia-style profiles of exotic animals like cheetahs and polar bears.

In among the fun facts and News-of-the-Weird dispatches from various Minneapolis Police Department precincts, the Show-Up can usually be counted on to provide something a little off-color. Beavis-and-Butthead stuff high school journalists would print if they could. Like the time, awhile back, when the paper ran a snapshot of a man and a woman chatting at a police function, with a cartoon bubble above the man's head proclaiming: "I can see right through your clothes."

All of which only made the story splashed across the front page of the August 1998 edition seem all the more out of place, couched as it was in lawyerly, carefully measured terms. Titled "POFM Contemplates a Lawsuit in Response to Expanded Certification Issue," the unsigned item said that the union was considering suing the city because, a few months earlier, officials had used an affirmative-action program while promoting several cops. Three black officers had been made sergeants as a result, while five others--one Native American and the rest white men--had to wait for the next round.

"We know that there is a danger that this lawsuit will have a divisive effect," the newspaper declared. "We regret that and we have done everything we can do to reassure our members. But you have to remember, we are responding to a divisive action by the city of Minneapolis....The city treats our members differently depending on their skin color."

Charlie Adams, then vice president of the Black Police Officers Association, read the piece as a warning shot. For months the department had been abuzz with speculation about test scores, political conspiracies, and arcane civil-service regulations. And this was more than the usual happy-hour grumbling: At stake was nothing less than the tenuous internal peace of a department plagued for most of its history by racial tension.

Shortly after the Show-Up hit the streets, Adams met with federation president Al Berryman at northeast Minneapolis's Jax Cafe. The labor union, Adams complained, was about to spend his hard-earned dues on a lawsuit that, if successful, would make it harder for women, minorities, and people with disabilities to get ahead on the force. Berryman wouldn't budge, Adams says; black officers he talked to after the meeting also refused to join him in protesting the move.

So, he says, he decided to drop out of the public portion of the tiff. As Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's bodyguard, he was sensitive to suggestions that he might try to bend her powerful ear. Besides, he reasoned, Berryman was embroiled in a financial scandal and under pressure to step down; he was probably just blowing smoke.

Berryman did leave the union post, and he settled in to spend the months until his retirement in the MPD's Child Abuse Unit. But much to Adams's and other cops' surprise, the suit went ahead anyhow. Last July the federation quietly filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, demanding that the officers passed over be granted retroactive seniority and back pay--in other words, that they be treated as if they had been promoted the first time around.

Whether the city has a strategy for defending itself against the suit isn't known. Officials in the city attorney's office, the police department, and elsewhere in municipal government all refused to comment for this story, declining even to answer basic questions about the city's hiring policies and the composition of the police department.

Perhaps that's because the federation, in the eyes of legal experts, stands a decent chance of winning its suit. And if it does, that's bad news for affirmative-action efforts, not just on the police force, but throughout Minneapolis's civil-service apparatus.

"This is not an effort to stop minority hiring elsewhere in the city," says Mark Gehan, the attorney handling the federation's lawsuit. "But it might cause the city to look at its policies." After all, he notes, "it's been quite a while since we've heard about affirmative action being upheld."

 

As Lt. Don Banham pulls a chair up to a small, round table in a third-floor interrogation room at the MPD's Investigations Unit, it's easy to see why he has risen to one of the top ranks in the department. Tall and physically imposing, he speaks slowly and deliberately, without the "ums" and "I means" that pepper most people's conversation. When he gets between his quarry and the door out of the windowless chamber, he must provide a powerful incentive to keep talking.

In his off-duty hours, Banham heads up security for the Minnesota Vikings. He's also the president of the Black Police Officers Association, a group with a fluctuating membership that tends to be strong when the minorities on the force are feeling heat, and slack when they're not. Along with Charlie Adams, he's walked point on some of the department's most divisive battles. The conflict over expanded certification isn't one he'd have picked, he says, but now that it's in full swing he is one of the few willing to speak about it in public.

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