The Watchdog That Never Barks

Can the county sheriff's office impartially investigate the MPD?

A photograph in the March 11 edition of the Star Tribune showed two proud law-enforcement officers posing beside a long table laden with millions of dollars' worth of illegal drugs. The booty came from a bust undertaken by the Minneapolis/Hennepin County Drug Task Force, a group of about three dozen officers from the Minneapolis Police Department and the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office. The men in the photo were the symbolic embodiment of that 14-year cooperative effort: Hennepin County Sheriff Patrick McGowan and Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson.

Under normal circumstances, the drug seizure might have been the day's top story. But the biggest headlines on March 11 concerned the death the previous day of Abu Kassim Jeilani, a 28-year-old Somali immigrant who'd been shot 16 times by Minneapolis police officers after refusing to drop a machete he was carrying down a Phillips neighborhood street. Coincidentally, the shooting--which marks the fourth time since 1999 that the MPD has killed a person with a history of mental illness--will bring Olson and McGowan together once more: Owing to a policy Olson instituted three years ago, Jeilani's death will be investigated by McGowan and his staff.

Across the nation, it's fairly standard for county law-enforcement agencies to scrutinize actions taken by police forces in their cities when any hint of controversy arises. But is it possible for McGowan's staff to impartially investigate their brethren in the MPD, given the agencies' close ties?

In addition to putting their lives on the line together in the joint task force on drugs, members of the two departments work in tandem on a variety of operations, including regional efforts to combat terrorism and organized crime. Additionally, prior to his election as Hennepin County sheriff in 1994, McGowan was a 20-year veteran of the MPD. And while Olson has endured public criticism over the years for his CODEFOR community-policing initiative, and for numerous uses of deadly force by his officers, the sheriff has remained a steadfast and outspoken supporter.

In fact, last year, when a Minneapolis City Council committee was considering whether to renew Olson's contract, McGowan testified on the chief's behalf. According to minutes of the committee meeting, the sheriff stated that he enjoys "an open and honest working relationship with [Olson]. It was [McGowan's] opinion that the Chief is a man of character and would provide leadership to the Minneapolis Police Department and public safety to residents....In conclusion, he strongly encouraged Chief Olson's reappointment on the basis that he is an honorable man, a hard working person, a colleague and a friend."

Even as McGowan was going to bat for his friend, the sheriff's office was investigating two other fatal MPD shootings of people with a history of mental illness. Since December 1999, when Olson first announced that an outside law-enforcement agency would investigate any MPD incident that resulted in death--"to avoid conflict of interest," explains MPD spokeswoman Cyndi Montgomery--the department has invariably turned over the probes to McGowan's office. In all six of those investigations, the sheriff's office has found no wrongdoing or criminal intent on the part of MPD officers.

Hennepin County public information officer Rosann Campagnoli says McGowan knows only one of the six MPD officers who have been placed on temporary leave as a result of the Jeilani shooting: Cpl. Joel Kimmerle, who played in an informal hockey league with the sheriff years ago. "Let me emphasize that it is the sheriff's office, and not the sheriff personally, who is conducting the investigation," Campagnoli notes. "A lot of people in this office spend weeks, sometimes months, collecting an enormous amount of details and data that they deliver to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office for consideration. So it would be pretty hard for anyone to skew an investigation. The integrity of these investigations, both in the past and today, speaks for itself."

But others believe the situation is awkward at best. "Right now we have an antagonistic relationship between large segments of the community and the police, and that can't continue," asserts Minneapolis City Council member Dean Zimmermann, in whose ward Jeilani was killed. "To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, it would make more sense to assign the investigation to another surrounding county.

"I don't know what triggered the decision to put it in the hands of Hennepin County," Zimmermann adds. "You need to have a department large enough to handle this sort of investigation. But now, because of the personal history of the sheriff and his relationship with the police department, I'd be open to a suggestion that it be moved to another county."

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is also concerned. Assigning the investigation to McGowan's office "was an automatic procedure set up within the police department before I was elected," says Rybak. "I think the community wants a fresh look at how we are dealing with oversight when we do these investigations. All elected officials have a responsibility to look at long-term patterns, to see if there is a real or perceived independence that takes place. That's really important, because issues of trust between communities and our police department are paramount. And unless there is a full sense that all police actions have proper oversight, people aren't going to feel totally safe."

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