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?

In a 1986 Show-Up article titled "The Death of a Police Department," two officers warned that under the system "the administration [could] choose whomever they wished anywhere off the list. No longer did intelligence, physical ability, mental stability or common sense dictate who was hired. Gender and race were the determining factors used by the administration to satisfy the chief's conception of a social ill."

But if affirmative-action hiring got some cops' dander up, it was nothing compared to the subject of promotions. Police departments have been notorious for their good-old-boy networks, and even white officers still grumble that without strict rules, it'd be hard to get ahead without being someone's son or nephew. With job assignments and even working hours dependent on rank and seniority, one person's promotion can mean graveyard shifts for others waiting to move up.

The authors of the 1986 Show-Up article predicted that if expanded certification were ever used to promote people in the MPD--the way it was about to be in other city departments--it would cause "further demoralization of the troops who haven't had an opportunity for promotion and with expanded certification, little chance for one. Try that for social injustice."

 

Twelve years after that article appeared, in February 1998, Police Chief Robert Olson told the personnel department that he needed to fill nine vacant sergeant's positions. Under the Rule of Three, the department would have sent Olson the names of eleven officers eligible for promotion; he would have interviewed them all and made his choices.

But Olson, by then in his third year on the job, faced a department in turmoil. His 1995 firing of Alisa Clemons, an outspoken black officer whom he accused of penning a series of racist letters to fellow cops, had blown up in his face when an arbitrator found there was no evidence against her. (She eventually filed a lawsuit charging discrimination, which the city settled in 1997 for $400,000.)

The episode led to some of the worst racial hostility in department history. In 1996, following Clemons's reinstatement, black officers resigned en masse from the Crisis Response Team, a special unit of black cops created to help defuse racially charged encounters between cops and citizens. The officers said they did not trust the administration. And in '97 a citizen liaison committee issued a report recommending, among other things, that the MPD take steps to promote qualified blacks--possibly using expanded certification. Deputy Chief Gregory Hestness rejected the idea, saying it would cause low morale among any white officers who didn't get promoted.

Like other city officials, Chief Olson didn't return City Pages' phone calls. But the police federation suit alleges that at some point during that February '98 round of promotions, Personnel decided to use expanded certification to send Olson a longer list of applicants. The department submitted the names of 18 officers--those with the top 11 test scores, plus 7 minorities who had passed the test but who ranked lower on the list. On March 8, the lawsuit claims, Olson promoted 6 of the top 11 candidates, all white, and 3 black officers from the expanded list.

As in any other workplace, personnel information is supposed to be confidential at the MPD. But police have the kind of bionic grapevine one might expect of professional investigators. "Every promotional test I've been involved in, as soon as the test is over, people call each other at work and compare scores," says Banham. "It's just amazing. I would venture 98 percent of the people, if you ask, they'll tell you....When those mailbags go out, there're all kinds of phones ringing and scratch pads--literally--with notes about positions and rankings."

Furious over what he'd heard about the promotions, the police federation's Berryman went to Personnel Services director Ann Eilbracht and demanded that she give the officers who'd been passed over retroactive seniority as sergeants. Berryman says a deal to that effect was struck, but subsequently nixed. At the time, he told City Pages that Mayor Sayles Belton had torpedoed the plan; now he says he's not sure how it got killed. In any case, the officers who were passed over were promoted within several months; the court file does not say when, and city officials refused to disclose the information.

Still, Berryman says, it was this episode that prompted him to publish the lawsuit threat in the Show-Up. Back then he said the union's hand had been forced by uncompromising city officials. "We don't want to make the people who got promoted uncomfortable," he explained. "It offends me that I have to have anything to do with this. I've been called, recently, a lot of names. It sticks in my craw."

But whatever people were saying to Berryman's face, what they said outside his earshot was worse.

 

When many of the MPD's black cops first saw the story about the lawsuit in the union newspaper, they wondered whether the whole thing was a red herring. In addition to heading the federation, Berryman was one of the directors of the Minneapolis Police Relief Association. During his tenure, the pension fund invested nearly $16 million (a little more than four percent of its total portfolio) in Technimar, a northern Minnesota start-up that ended up filing for bankruptcy. The federation itself invested some $450,000. Berryman is currently a defendant in one of several lawsuits arising from the situation.

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