MPD Scandals, Continued: A Primer

The Duy Ngo case: McManus bets the farm; Will Olson land on the hot seat?

By Steve Perry, G.R. Anderson Jr., and Paul Demko

POSTED 3/1/04 3:15 PM (CST)

Last Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of Officer Duy Ngo's shooting by a fellow Minneapolis cop--and brought fresh intimations of Minneapolis Police Department scandal involving the case. Here's a summary of what we know about five key questions in the story.

 

What's the backstory?

In the early morning hours of February 25, 2003, Officer Duy Ngo was working an undercover drug stakeout in south Minneapolis's Central neighborhood. According to Ngo, a man approached his unmarked car shortly after 2:00 a.m. and shot him once in the chest. The bullet did not pierce Ngo's bulletproof vest, however, and after a brief struggle Ngo chased the man for a short distance and fired shots at him before collapsing to regain his breath after the slug to the chest. He radioed in that an officer was down.

The first cops to arrive at the scene were Jamie Conway and Charles Storlie. Spotting an armed figure on his hands and knees in the alley, Storlie opened fire on Ngo with an MP-5 machine gun, hitting him at least six times. (Ngo believes he was struck by eight bullets.) Storlie later stated that he mistook Ngo for a suspect.

As the Star Tribune noted in a February 22, 2004 story about the incident, the shooting appeared to have involved two irregularities on Storlie's part: taking the machine gun from his trunk without notifying the MPD's Command Center and failing to make note of a radio dispatch that other cops on duty that night say they heard, indicating that a plainclothes officer was working surveillance in the vicinity.

After three months of recovery and physical rehab, Ngo went public with his story in a May interview with City Pages' Paul Demko ("Shot to Hell," 5/21/03). He was bitter about not only the circumstances of the shooting but also the reaction of the MPD afterward. Ngo pointed out that police representatives released his photo to the media the next day, effectively ending his undercover career--and apparently violating a Minnesota law that forbids the public release of cops' personnel photos without their permission. The MPD did not, however, release a photo of Storlie, the officer who shot him.

Ngo was also outraged at the lack of response from MPD brass: "I had tremendous support from my fellow officers and none from the administration, and they're the people I would expect to be there," he told CP. To make matters worse, a rumor began circulating among cops (eventually finding its way onto a Fox 9 TV news report) that Ngo had inflicted the first wound upon himself in order to avoid pending military duty. Less than a month after the City Pages interview appeared, Ngo filed a civil lawsuit against the city, Storlie, and two unnamed MPD supervisors.

And there matters remained until last Wednesday. That afternoon, MPD chief Bill McManus, just nine days into his tenure, convened a press conference to deny the rumor and--if only by implication--to rebuke department brass, who were compelled to attend, for letting it go unanswered.

A day later, Caroline Lowe of WCCO-TV broke a new development in the case: Deputy Chief Lucy Gerold and two other MPD managers--Captain Mike Martin, who oversees the entire Criminal Investigation Division, and homicide unit commander Lieutenant Mike Carlson--had been suspended from duty with pay after Martin and Carlson had approached McManus with information about an allegedly suppressed internal memo in the Ngo shooting investigation. The next morning, on Friday, Gerold issued a statement saying she was "stunned" at her suspension and had done nothing improper. She wrote that the memo in question had been given to then-Chief Robert Olson.

 

Why were Gerold, Martin, and Carlson suspended?

Procedurally, it was a cut-and-dried matter. The memo under investigation was written by Carlson and addressed to Martin and Gerold. Officers who may be implicated in a pending investigation are routinely suspended, not only in Minneapolis but in most departments. Many are eventually restored to active duty with no imputation of wrongdoing. Politically, the move is far more complicated, owing to McManus's short time as chief and the high profile and positive reputations of the cops involved. See question five, "What if no wrongdoing is found?"

 

What's in the memo?

According to a summary of its contents published in the March 1 Strib, Carlson's memo--prepared in June 2003, a week after Ngo filed suit against the city--describes an investigation defined largely by things that were done wrong and things that were not done at all. Among the apparent flaws: failing to properly secure the scene after the shootings and to collect all the available physical evidence, neglecting to canvass the area thoroughly for witnesses, mishandling Ngo's bulletproof vest and its contents, and losing physical evidence. The report also seems remarkable for the relative degree of scrutiny cast toward Ngo and Storlie respectively. Its final section lists 14 questions that should have been posed to Ngo after the shooting, but the memo has far less to say in its analysis of Storlie's actions.

For purposes of the current Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigation requested by McManus, the only question is whether the document was improperly suppressed. But now that it's come to light, it may also bear major liability implications for the city in Ngo's lawsuit, due not only to its characterization of internal shortcomings in working the case, but also the city's failure to produce it for Ngo's attorney, Robert Bennett, in the course of discovery proceedings.

Among the questions no one seems to be addressing at present is why the Ngo shooting investigation has never been brought to any public conclusion in a year's time.

 

Who is implicated in the BCA investigation?

Of the three cops suspended by McManus, only Gerold has spoken publicly about the case. In a written statement released Friday morning, she claimed McManus "said that he had been told that I ordered an internal memorandum destroyed. This is absolutely and unequivocally not true. I told the chief that it was not true when I met with him. The memorandum was written to me and given to the previous chief." (Her words also contained a hint of possible lawsuits to come: "I want my name cleared and my reputation restored, to the extent it can be[emphasis added], as quickly as possible.")

Gerold's claim that Olson knew about the memo, if true, changes the landscape considerably. If it can be proven that she shared the document with Olson, then the spotlight of the investigation might shift away from the three suspended officers to the former chief himself.

Veteran officers familiar with the administrative workings of the MPD termed it extremely unlikely that Olson could have been unaware of the memo, especially if news reports that he ordered the analysis himself are correct. And one pointed out that failure to treat the memo properly by any of the cops allegedly involved would be deemed "just as serious" a breach of procedure as ordering it suppressed.

Last Friday, at an impromptu Q&A session with reporters, McManus was asked, "Are there other suspects to come out of this?"

"Possible," he replied. "It depends on what the BCA kicks up."

Ngo's attorney, Bennett, told CP that in his view, Olson "is not out of the woods yet." Asked whether the former chief could still become a named party to the lawsuit, Bennett replied, "I typically don't sue people unless I have a specific reason. This may qualify."

But it should also be noted that whether Olson or the others wind up named in a civil suit is a separate question from whether any of them acted, or failed to act, in a manner that rises to the level of criminality. The latter is the only point that matters in the current BCA inquiry.

Contacted by phone last Saturday, Olson refused to discuss the case. "I don't know anything about the investigation," he said, "and it wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on it."

Reached again on Monday, Olson allowed, "If it was a memo to me, I probably saw it." He declined to elaborate further, again citing the ongoing investigation.

Police union head John Delmonico told City Pages on Monday that he has been able to determine that "all four of them [the three suspended officers and Olson] had a meeting after the memo was written [last June], and maybe one before that, where the contents of the memo were discussed."

Delmonico added: "The Hennepin County attorney's office was contacted for the investigation, and they would have known of the memo. They would have to." Pete Cahill, a chief deputy attorney for Hennepin County, confirmed that the county attorney's office became aware of the memo and its contents last summer while investigating whether to pursue criminal charges against Charles Storlie for shooting Ngo. In the end, the office declined to pursue charges.

 

What if no wrongdoing is found?

Last Friday morning McManus met with a small, ad hoc assemblage of reporters from MPR, the Pioneer-Press, and the Associated Press. "Before we get started," he said, "I want to ask you guys something. I've been in this business, on the job, for a very long time. This is standard procedure. I've never seen a media flurry like this. The interest in this--what's the big deal?

"I guess this is a big city, or a bigger city," he went on. "A major city. I didn't expect this kind of media interest. It's way beyond the scope of what I'd seen in the past. It's routine in that any time there's an investigation, you put officers on leave. Any time you have an administrative issue...or an investigation has criminal overtones or allegations, this is routine procedure. The media attention puzzles me."

McManus may have been protesting too much, trying to take some of the charge out of the story, but the abrupt suspensions left some in and around the MPD and city government wondering if he fully understood what he'd bitten off.

"The way I see it," said one, "this can only end badly." If BCA investigators turn up what they deem evidence of criminal misconduct on the part of MPD personnel, then obviously it ends badly for the cops in question. On the other hand, if the BCA finds no criminality in the way the memo was handled, the popular line will be that McManus spent most or all of his political capital earning himself a very public black eye.

And this will be true even if McManus's suspensions were the procedurally correct thing to do, as he claims. McManus is not just any new police chief; he is the candidate Mayor R.T. Rybak selected from a pool that included two popular internal candidates who were women--and one of them has since been suspended in this probe. If McManus's concerns are not vindicated by the BCA investigation, those rank-and-file cops who were predisposed to be suspicious of the new chief because of his tussles with the Dayton police union will have fresh ammunition.

That's not the worst of it. McManus was ticketed for a bumpy ride with the police union by the time he arrived; the fallout in his relationship with the City Council could be far more damaging. Owing to the vagaries of Minneapolis's "weak mayor" system, McManus's patron and ally Rybak has limited power to shield his chief from the wrath of the City Council if its members turn on him.

And the City Council has always been divided on the question of McManus. Six members went on the record backing the appointment when it was announced in December: Barret Lane, Natalie Johnson Lee, Paul Ostrow, Don Samuels, Paul Zerby, and Dean Zimmermann. But that was one shy of the majority required for approval on the 13-member council, many of whose members openly favored one of the local applicants. Not until a couple of days before the January 16 vote was it publicly evident that Rybak would even get his council majority. In the end, Scott Benson, Gary Schiff, and council power broker Barb Johnson swung over and voted for McManus. Four members voted against him: Lisa Goodman, Robert Lilligren, Dan Niziolek, and Sandra Colvin Roy.

Wittingly or not, McManus has wagered a great deal on the outcome of this case: his credibility with cops and city officials; his political viability in his job--and to a considerable extent, Rybak's; and more broadly, the long-range cause of reforming and opening up the Minneapolis Police Department. Those who say that the case will make or break McManus's tenure as chief may be speaking precipitously, but it does not necessarily mean they're wrong. There are many at City Hall who did not really believe the MPD was in need of serious reform in the first place. If McManus's first dustup with the status quo bears no tangible fruit, their hand will only be strengthened.

Local activist and critic Ron Edwards, who supported McManus's selection, believes the new chief is too savvy at both police work and politics to make such a play without good cause. But if nothing comes of the BCA investigation, Edwards cautions, the situation "becomes an instrument for those who don't want to change anything. It becomes an exit for those who want to resist reform. And in that case, this chief could have one of the shortest tenures ever."

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