The Letter of the Law

What ever became of Minneapolis's promise to stamp out racial profiling?

Stark, McDonald, and some city hall insiders believe that any new policy regarding racial profiling signed by Olson is going to draw the ire of the department's union, the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. When the statistics were first released, many officers responded angrily to Olson's and Sayles Belton's acknowledgement that the department has a problem with racial profiling.

Most discouraging, McDonald adds, the only person who has had any power to force a change has been outgoing Mayor Sayles Belton, who supported Olson and reportedly rarely pushed him. "I don't think the chief has to be very accountable because he and the mayor are friendly," McDonald posits. "[Olson's] not interested in addressing it [so] there's no reason to believe he'll have to do anything for the new mayor."

Hestness, who was on the task force, understands that some people may be unsatisfied with the baby steps the department has taken on racial profiling. But he's quick to dispute this notion and points out that even just discussing the issue with police officers has its merits. "If you asked me that traffic stops were related to race, I'd say no," says Hestness, a 27-year veteran of the force who spent 11 years on patrol. "But hearing back from committee members directly, I understand now. Listening to these people has driven home to me how demeaning it can be to be stopped for no apparent reason."

Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson
David Kern
Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson

Even so, Hestness says the MPD must consider any recommendations with caution. For instance, he says, "Business cards can be a good idea, but is it worthwhile?" Plus, he adds, many of the issues that crop up in racial-profiling discussions are "supervisory matters" that would best be addressed by precinct commanders.

Hestness is more concerned with the overall attitudes of the people who will ultimately implement the policy: the rank and file. "Racial profiling is small in scope," he opines. "I'm not as worried about it as the topic of bias in policing, and these are things that come from the top of the department on down." For example, he says, what if an officer sees a white man in a predominantly black part of the north side in the wee hours? Should the officer apprehend him? "It's hard to know what's right in the heat of the battle," he says. "And these are things we try to deal with internally. I could cut slack for someone using the word 'asshole.' But I could never cut slack for someone using the word 'nigger.' And I would address that."

As for the delay in implementing a policy, Hestness denies that it has to do with the union, though he admits that he has concerns that new guidelines will rankle the MPD's officers. "The federation may take issue with something here or there, but most of these policies are already found in our policies about how we deal with treating people inequitably," he claims. "There's a benefit to [data collection] from an officer's point of view, and we brought good heads from the community to the table who understood that there are process protections for police officers."

That doesn't satisfy McDonald. "Look at what happened in St. Paul," she counters. "They had a stack of papers addressing the issue, [St. Paul Police Chief William Finney] took action right away....At least there they've agreed to use business cards."

Stark, too, disagrees with Hestness. "Look at what we see and read--there is something every day about police departments and race," he says, citing recent scandals in Cincinnati and Los Angeles. "This is a national phenomenon that's been brewing, and we could do something about it. If there were a model here for tight supervision of these people, it would be touted nationally."

Instead, if critics are correct, what's been done will hardly make waves in Minneapolis, despite any good intentions. According to Ron Thaniel, after the task force finished formulating its recommendations in October, the proposed guidelines were sent to Chief Olson. Thaniel assumes that the chief will sign off on the policy before Mayor Sayles Belton's term is up. And because the policy does not need city council approval, responsibility will rest with the police department to implement whatever policies its brass see fit.

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