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.

Such moves are sure to encounter resistance, from City Hall as well as some rank-and-file cops. Even those who support McManus wonder aloud if he isn't committing political suicide.

 

When he was sworn in last February, McManus looked the part of a street-savvy cop, but there were indications that the new chief was more complex than any Joe Friday stereotype. He had spent time as a commander on some of Washington, D.C.'s toughest streets, and his résumé listed a number of community-policing strategies that he had helped design and implement with that department. His wife, Lourdes, was a Latina. A profile of his first days on the job by Strib columnist Nick Coleman depicted a driven man who toured the streets of some of the poorer neighborhoods in his new city and professed a love of hip-hop music. He made dry asides to reporters at City Hall events, and freely distributed his pager number immediately after taking the oath. He seemed a man acutely in tune with his surroundings.

So it was puzzling that he didn't see the backlash coming when he began handing down suspensions. He insisted at the time that he wasn't "politically naive," but many wondered whether he understood what he was up against at City Hall, where several council members had resented and opposed his appointment, and bitterly criticized the suspensions he soon levied. McManus's predecessor, a man widely known as Smilin' Bob Olson, had been a master of city politics, with an affable, aw- shucks bearing that rarely shook up anyone.

In early June, the new chief stood before the City Council to present a department budget proposal for 2005. The presentation was the first real test of McManus's political acumen. He began by telling the council that a five- year budget allotment proposed by the mayor and approved by the council a year earlier left the department about $12 million short on operating expenses. He said this shortfall would force the MPD--through early retirement incentives and a handful of layoffs--to reduce the force to about 640 sworn officers by 2008, the lowest staffing level since the early 1960s.

Then McManus did something audacious, if not outright impolitic. Even in view of the budget duress, he told the council, he would free up some money to create an Office of Professional Standards charged with overseeing the department's Internal Affairs unit. McManus said that he wanted the office to collect all complaints against the MPD, whether they came from a lawsuit, from Internal Affairs, or from the Civilian Review Authority, an independent board that looks into misconduct allegations.

The City Council has been haunted by budget crises for three years, and the idea of dedicating resources to something other than cops on the street seemed sure to elicit protest. Surprisingly, the council members nodded their approval without much skepticism. After the meeting, Rybak remarked that the most important part of the chief's budget was the creation of the standards office.

"If you don't have a good infrastructure, you don't have a good department," McManus says, allowing that the office is "under construction." "This will be our clearinghouse for complaints."

It's a lofty concept for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Internal Affairs is known for rarely sustaining complaints, if they are investigated at all. McManus has repeatedly said that he wants the department to "raise the bar" and earn the public's trust. In fact, McManus told me in May that he'd like to see a day "five, eight years down the road" when the Civilian Review Authority that presently exists would be done away with.

It's a controversial position. The CRA in Minneapolis and review boards in other cities such as New York have been seen as essential watchdogs for problematic police departments. At the same time, the CRA has been plagued by ineffectiveness since its inception in 1991, and even quit taking complaints two years ago. Only recently has the board been up and running again.

"Most complaints come to the CRA and not Internal Affairs," argues Michael Friedman, the chair of the CRA board. "McManus comes in with a strong accountability message. We should be the eyes and ears for him on accountability."

McManus says he understands the continued need for the CRA, but he clearly believes the MPD would be better off on its own. "Professional Standards is designed to be proactive," he says. "We're looking to be more effective and disciplined first. I won't investigate every complaint. But a complaint will come back to me if it needs to be investigated."

Some MPD observers, like attorney Jill Clark, who has represented numerous clients against the city in cases of police misconduct, are wondering if McManus isn't overreaching. "It appears that he's trying to change Internal Affairs to make it into an agency that really investigates police," Clark observes. "All over the country, there are two kinds of IA departments: the kind that work and a series of others, like this one, that become part of the problem. It's a noble idea; it's an essential idea. But is it a realistic idea?

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