Agreement at Last

Federal mediation of MPD-minority troubles concludes: Now what?

Thursday's signing of a federally mediated agreement to change some policing practices brought a camaraderie between cops and community leaders that has been rare in Minneapolis. At one point that afternoon, while the City Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services committee was considering approval of the 24-page document, street activist Spike Moss and MPD union leader John Delmonico stood arm in arm in the council chambers.

Some 70 onlookers noticed the pair's newfound chumminess and broke out in waves of laughter. "Now this," Delmonico shouted, "is truly historical."

Cheeky hyperbole aside, city leaders and activists have reached what appears to be at least a symbolic turning point in decades of racial tensions in Minneapolis. Nearly a year and a half after those tensions came to a head with a riot in the Jordan neighborhood, prompting a mediator from the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved, there was a sense of relief last week that something had finally been accomplished.

Signed, sealed, delivered? No one is sure whether the agreement will really change the culture of the MPD
G.R. Anderson Jr.
Signed, sealed, delivered? No one is sure whether the agreement will really change the culture of the MPD

Earlier Thursday, nearly 100 people had gathered for what by all accounts was a celebration, the ceremonial signing at the Urban League in north Minneapolis. Mediator Patricia Campbell Glenn called the accord one of the most comprehensive agreements she had negotiated in her 25 years with the justice department's community relations service. Police Chief Robert Olson talked of "starting to see [policing] issues through the community's eyes." Even a hardened cynic might have been moved to see Olson and the Rev. Ian Bethel, the community group's co-chair, mist up during a long embrace.

The agreement certainly reflects an air of earnest diplomacy that somehow surfaced after seven months and more than 30 contentious meetings. The preamble, a joint statement from the 18-member Community Unity Team and the Minneapolis Police Department, condemns "cultures of brutality and violence" on the force. Both sides pledge to "improve the level of professionalism, training, and racial and gender diversity at all levels of the Minneapolis Police Department" and decree that cops "uphold the law and take action without regard to race."

It's pretty remarkable language considering the MPD's long history of turning a blind eye to such issues. But what all of this means is unclear. After months of delays, insider politicking, and one incident in which a community negotiator accused cops of physically abusing him, there's reason to believe conditions of the agreement are tenuous. "This is not an end to anger and frustration," the preamble concludes. And Olson, who leaves his post in three weeks, took pains more than once to say the agreement was a starting point, a blueprint, and that "the work is just beginning."

 

That's not to say there aren't calls for real change in the agreement, which will have an initial run of five years. "Use of force" policies, like officers using a choke hold on suspects, will be scrutinized more. The police also agreed to use different "maximal restraint techniques" and "less lethal" weapons whenever possible.

There's a component regarding "mental health issues," which calls for more training for officers to deal with the mentally ill or disabled. (The document also sets parameters for "psychological fitness" of police officers, who may now be examined by one of at least three psychologists.) And at least 14 community groups have been cleared to take citizen complaints against the police.

In short, the federal mediation agreement is ambitious. It's also a bit vague: As City Council Vice President Robert Lilligren noted in the public safety committee hearing, many components, such as diversity training and improving racial attitudes, "are difficult things to measure."

"This is intangible stuff, centered around the quality and tenor and color of training," he added later.

So how enforceable will the dictates of the agreement actually be? One community source who was privy to the negotiations says the community's recourse in the event of violations would be to contact the Justice Department and re-initiate more mediation. But the source admits community negotiators wanted something stronger--the right to contact the civil rights division of the DoJ to initiate thorough investigations of future troubles.

And there are more concrete concerns, especially when it comes to funding. Some rank-and-file cops note that the department's concession for officers to take foreign language classes is a nice gesture, but wonder where the money will come from. And there's little belief that day-to-day duties will change significantly.

Others are even more circumspect. "The devil is in the details, and if the money doesn't exist, there's no process," argues Pauline Thomas, who originally helped spearhead the mediation movement, but walked away a year ago when she felt the city had exerted too much control in choosing community leaders. "My history in working with the city is that money is always the piece used to not implement something." (The agreement will likely be approved when it goes before the full council on December 15.)

Mediator Glenn promises that "there's more than just paper in the agreement," and Olson asserts, "There's no window dressing here." Olson, who says he believes all the training changes will be in place by May 2005, has indicated that there is already a lieutenant's position on the force dedicated to overseeing many aspects of the agreement. Still, insiders note that many unresolved budgetary questions--and there were many raised during the talks--will ultimately rest with the mayor, the City Council, and whoever becomes the new chief.

Despite these obvious concerns, it's been some time since such a major piece of city business has drawn such widespread praise. Much of this has to do with the proposed establishment of what Olson calls "the heart and soul of this agreement," the Police Community Relations Council. The PCRC will be made up of 30 members, 18 chosen by the Unity Community Team and 12 MPD personnel, including the chief. The group will oversee and monitor implementation of the mediation agreement.

In fact, the group will hear out any grievances from either side, something that's bound to happen as events move forward and Thursday's goodwill fades. But for now there seems to be a mutual determination by each side to tend to its own affairs. As Bethel said on Thursday, "We really don't want the Justice Department in our backyard again."

 

Clarifying what the mayor wants in a chief: With so much of the mediation agreement hanging in the balance, the choice of a successor to Olson is as critical as ever. It is, as Robert Lilligren says, "a roadmap for the new chief."

Two weeks ago in this column, I wrote that Mayor R.T. Rybak had said he wanted the chief to be a person of color or a woman. He later phoned me to say otherwise. "I never said that; I said I want a diverse pool of candidates," he says. "What is important is that a person that has this job can work with this city."

He's right. So far as I can tell, Rybak never expressly said what I attributed to him. But it still bears noting that his choice for an interim chief when he tried to oust Olson in April of 2002 was a woman, MPD Deputy Chief Lucy Gerold. And the Oldani Group, the company hired by the city to conduct the search, has a reputation for finding minority and female candidates.

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