How's He Doing?

In just eight months, chief Bill McManus has alienated the media, the pols, and the MPD rank and file. He must be doing something right.

In late August, the local Fox TV affiliate, KMSP (Channel 9), aired videotape from an arrest at a house party near Lake Street two weeks earlier. It showed a 10- year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department striking a Latino man while he was kneeling and handcuffed. Longtime critics of the MPD were hardly surprised, and the story passed after fleeting media coverage.

Chief William McManus, then half a year into his post, called for an immediate internal investigation. This too jibed with the usual script. What police chief wouldn't call for an investigation, if only to dispel the public outcry?

But before the report even aired, McManus went to the community to address a south Minneapolis congregation made up largely of Latinos. After Mass at Incarnation Catholic Church, the chief first apologized for not being able to give his remarks in Spanish. He told the crowd he was happy that video footage existed so that he could address the incident directly.

McManus went on to reenact parts of the incident as he understood it, taking pains to say that allegations of misconduct were merely allegations at this point. But he then went on to demonstrate the angle at which Officer Victor Mills's hand struck Joel Matos Ramos in the face. He took care to explain that the officer's blow was apparently struck with an open hand, and that he understood what this signified: In some Hispanic cultures, for a man to strike another man with an open palm suggests that the victim is less than manly.

For those gathered, the chief's performance was a revelation. "Never before have I seen reaction immediately," Victor Martinez, a Hispanic community activist, told the Star Tribune. "For the first time, somebody put an urgency into a case of this kind. Before it was kind of 'let's pretend it didn't happen.' But now we know somebody is going to listen."

"I wanted them to be prepared for what they would see," McManus explains now. More to the point, he wanted to show them that Chief Bill McManus's MPD would not be indifferent to matters like these.

 

One of the great ironies of being a police chief is that one's reputation is built largely in times of controversy or crisis. McManus drew kudos at the church, but it was one of the few public displays of affection he's received on the job so far. That reporters favorably covered the appearance at Incarnation Catholic was notable, since McManus has repeatedly taken a beating from most local media outlets.

To a large extent McManus has brought the spotlight on himself, intentionally or not. There was the suspension of three high- ranking officers a month into his job--most notably Deputy Chief Lucy Gerold, who had been a candidate for the chief's post. There was the lawsuit brought by Stacy Altonen, a high-profile captain within the department, after she was reassigned by McManus. Following these moves, a backlash ensued in local media. The Star Tribune and Channel 9 took McManus to task for putting off a peace officer's test required by the state for him to wear the department blues (a story angle, it should be noted, that was avidly shopped by an attorney for one of the four cops caught in the crosshairs).

Despite his rocky reception in the press and at City Hall, McManus has steadily gained credibility in communities of color for being accessible and sounding the right notes about justice and police accountability. At the same time, he has impressed some officers within the department for being involved and invested. And he has shuffled personnel and implemented new policies designed to bring a new culture to the MPD from within and without. (This, predictably, has led to some grumbling among the rank and file.) Far away from the negative publicity, McManus has been sending a message that during his tenure, a change is going to come.

And this should be no surprise. The Minneapolis Police Department--though not as openly corrupt as the LAPD, nor as overtly racist as the department in Cincinnati, to cite two examples--had acquired a bad reputation over the previous two decades. Around the city and nationwide, the MPD has been viewed as a department where investigations of police misconduct gather dust, minority citizens are routinely mistreated, and policing practices are woefully out of date. Internally, a culture of little discipline and political backstabbing had created an atmosphere high on cynicism and low on morale.

Mayor R.T. Rybak understood the image problem as well as anyone when he chose McManus. Whether the choice was one of political expediency or genuine concern for a better police department, Rybak's pick was certain to shake things up, for better or worse. When he was chief in Dayton, Ohio, McManus had his share of run-ins with city power brokers and the local police union.

Since arriving in Minneapolis, McManus has forged ahead with his department makeover. He says that transparency and integrity are top priorities. Toward that end, he has begun restructuring how the MPD investigates its own actions. As one observer told me, "He's done more in the last six months than has been done in the last ten years."

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