Waiting for Chief Olson

Federal mediation is delayed; this is a recording...

Most close observers of the protracted struggle to bring federal mediation to Minneapolis couldn't help shaking their heads last week when Police Chief Robert Olson expressed grave concern over allegations that two Minneapolis police officers had assaulted two intoxicated Native Americans and then left them to endure near-zero temperatures.

"Unconscionable," Olson lamented. Then he called for a full investigation.

The irony is that for almost two months, Olson has refused to come to the table in scheduled talks between police, community leaders, city officials, and a mediator from the U.S. Department of Justice. Civil rights activist Ron Edwards, who instigated the drive for mediation, says that the high visibility of the alleged police misconduct set off a flurry of phone calls between Olson and the mediator, Patricia Campbell Glenn--this after the prospect of any talks appeared to be bust. "It will be interesting to see what Olson does with this one," Edwards chuckles. "Suddenly everybody's very interested in mediation again. The city council, the city attorney--everybody's waiting to see what he will do."

What, me worry? Smilin' Bob still won't come to the table.
Courtesy of Minneapolis Police Department
What, me worry? Smilin' Bob still won't come to the table.

Although the bad publicity could theoretically spur Olson to move forward with mediation, a number of hurdles remain. In December, the day before talks were to begin, Olson told the Star Tribune that he would not go forward unless the NAACP and Urban League had representatives in the mix. This set off a rift between a group of community-selected citizens and an emerging faction of longtime community leaders who had been left out of the loop. Then Zach Metoyer, a neighborhood activist selected to be on the original team, left the group in disgust and formed a petition drive, calling for wider representation (more than 3,000 people signed). At the same time, several "traditional" community leaders such as Spike Moss, Clyde Bellecourt (ring leaders of last week's rally in south Minneapolis), and black ministers such as Rev. Jerry McAfee griped that they should be included as well. Members of the original community coalition have repeatedly said none of these individuals are welcome, even going so far as to accuse some of having close ties to Olson. (City Pages' phone calls to Minneapolis police spokeswoman Cyndi Barrington, in an attempt to reach Olson, were not returned.)

Sadly, this infighting has highlighted the serious racial divides that persist in Minneapolis today. The disputes have pitted Somalis against Latinos, Asians against African Americans, men against women. Strange alliances have been forged, strong ones have been broken, and mediation is now postponed indefinitely. One thing most everyone agrees on, though, is that Olson has played the situation beautifully, sidestepping mediation while letting the community bloody its hands.

 

On January 13, the original negotiating team held a press conference at the Hennepin County Government Center. Spokeswoman Pauline Thomas announced that eight members of the group had filed a petition to compel Chief Olson to represent the city in mediation.

"This action has become necessary because Chief Olson has continued to delay the start of federal mediation, allegedly because he has concerns about who will represent the community," Thomas said. "He wants the community negotiating team, which was selected by the community at an open meeting, to accept individuals on the team who he would feel more comfortable sitting down with. ...Ever since the city council directed Chief Olson to begin mediations, he has used all kinds of excuses to delay the process."

Almost immediately there was dissent in the gallery, most notably from Mary Flowers Spratt, from the city's north side, who is one of two alternates on the team. "Many of us don't support this," Spratt claimed. Neither does Edwards, whose name does not appear on the court order. "What will really kill this thing is the lawsuit," Edwards insists.

Edwards also worries that the court order (called a writ of mandamus), filed in the county's Fourth Judicial District, allows for Olson to delay talks even further. "All he has to do now is say, 'Hey, look, I can't sit down and mediate with people who have a lawsuit against me,'" Edwards surmises. "It's a conflict of interest, and Olson can wait it out."

"He could actually settle the suit tomorrow by sitting down with us," counters Thomas. "Ask yourself--what is he really trying to do?"

To begin answering that question, one must rewind to August, when members of the community approached Patricia Campbell Glenn, who has been mediating similar conflicts for 25 years, about coming to Minneapolis to sort out longstanding police-community problems. In September, the mediator appeared before the city council and offered her services.

In October, despite continued misgivings about allowing the justice department to meddle in city business, the council directed Olson to compose a team to represent the police and the city. At the same time, the council put out the word that community members needed to pick their own representatives, and promised that neither city officials nor Olson would interfere in the process.

"How can Olson suddenly decide who can and can't be on our team?" Thomas asks. "He's not allowed to do that. What he's supposed to do is follow the council's directive to mediate."

The last point is not lost on Edwards. "I can't believe the cowardliness of the mayor and city council on this," Edwards says. "They did nothing at the crucial points in December when Olson balked. The city could have forced the issue. Ask them where they've been on this."

Mayor R.T. Rybak is content to wait it out. "I can't say it looks pretty from where I sit, but we asked the community to make its choice of leaders," Rybak says. "I have never believed the mediation process, while helpful, would solve all of our problems. I'm working on the recruitment of more minority officers right now. I don't need mediation to get me focused on the problem."

Campbell Glenn has repeatedly taken a wait-and-see approach. And, while others grow increasingly impatient, Edwards is theorizing that Olson is waiting for another post to open and will be long gone by the time mediation rolls around. Whatever the case, Edwards warns, if mediation falls through, the investigative arm of the justice department will swoop into Minneapolis and put the MPD and city leaders under the supervision of federal authorities. "Ashcroft would love to have his hands on the DFL in this town," Edwards surmises. "The whole point of mediation was to keep Ashcroft out of our business. Well, he's in our business now."

Meanwhile, incidents involving the police and members of a minority community threaten to push tensions to the boiling point. "No matter what happens," Edwards warns, "I don't think this town has the luxury to wait until June or July."

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