Under Investigation

Another in-custody death raises questions about the MPD's ability to police itself

Just before 7:00 a.m. last Wednesday, Lorenzo Doby was running down the 2400 block of Harriet Avenue South, screaming. Doby jumped on top of a car that was moving down the block. He jumped in the air and landed on his face in the street. He banged on windows. He punched a female passerby.

When Minneapolis police arrived on the scene, after getting numerous 911 calls, a tussle ensued. According to MPD spokesman Ron Reier, officers Maced and handcuffed Doby in an attempt to subdue him. Doby then complained of shortness of breath. He was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center, where the 28-year-old black male was pronounced dead.

The fact that Doby died while in police custody is not particularly novel: He's the fourth such casualty since August. In fact, the case is strikingly similar to that of Walter Burks, a 36-year-old black man who had an altercation with MPD officers at a SuperAmerica near Loring Park. In that instance, police were summoned after Burks entered the store screaming for help and grabbed one of the employees. After the cops arrived, they sprayed him with a chemical irritant and twice shot him with a taser gun. Burks also died at Hennepin County Medical Center. The death was ultimately ruled a heart attack brought on by cocaine use; the officers involved in the incident were cleared of any wrongdoing.

What's unique about the current investigation is that, at the direction of new Police Chief William McManus, it's being handled internally, by the department's homicide unit. In recent years, in-custody deaths have been farmed out to the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office for scrutiny in order to avoid appearances of partiality. But McManus made the case at a press conference Wednesday that such a firewall is not necessary. "I have full confidence we can investigate these cases fairly and objectively," he reportedly said. St. Paul police already investigate in-custody deaths internally.

Not everyone is so confident in the Minneapolis department's ability to police itself, however. "We've got serious problems with that," says Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality. She notes that the homicide unit has drawn criticism for its investigation into the February 2003 shooting of officer Duy Ngo, who was initially assaulted by an unknown perpetrator and subsequently shot numerous times by a responding officer. Ngo's initial assailant has never been located, and an internal memo written by one Minneapolis officer heavily criticized the investigation. "This is the department you want to do this?" Gross asks rhetorically.

Some defense attorneys share her skepticism about the new plan. "I don't ever think it's a good idea, especially in a death case, for an agency to investigate itself," says Robert Bennett, who is representing Ngo in a civil lawsuit filed against the city. Marshall Tanick, who frequently handles police brutality lawsuits, argues that the cops should consider conducting internal and external investigations. "Having two agencies look at it, while at first may seem awkward, has some advantages," he says. Tanick believes such a process would enhance the department's credibility: "It has some advantages even for the police department."

MPD observers were often dissatisfied with the probes conducted by the sheriff's office. Not one of the investigations of recent in-custody deaths that the department handled resulted in criminal charges against an officer. The chummy relationship between former Police Chief Robert Olson and Sheriff Patrick McGowan was frequently noted by department critics. (See "The Watchdog That Never Bites," 3/27/02.)

But Gross says the sheriff's office was responsive in at least one respect: providing access to public documents. This has not been true of the MPD. In the last year, on three different occasions, Communities United Against Police Brutality has had to secure advisory opinions from the state Department of Administration in order to get the police to release public data. "As poor a job as the sheriff's office has done, we've at least been able to get documents," says Gross. "I don't know what the hell it's going to be like if the cops have all the documents."

 
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