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."

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?

"I keep hearing it's a new day at IA, and hope that's right, but I don't think there's enough information yet," Clark continues. "It's tough to investigate investigators. There's got to be real scrutiny if he wants to change things there. It often was the case that the first reaction from the MPD in misconduct was, 'Quick, how do we cover it up?'"

So far, McManus has greatly increased the scope of Internal Affairs. He moved personnel and expanded the number of officers assigned there from three to eight. "My main concern was who's actually running the IA unit," McManus says. He has also made other moves. This summer, he moved the department's SAFE officers-- neighborhood cops who act as liaisons between the MPD and the community--to patrol on the North Side. He has also called for longer logs from officers when they finish their shifts. Protocol for cops when answering a relatively uneventful call, for instance, was to dash off a phrase or two about the incident. Now, McManus has asked for fuller reports that generally run around a paragraph or two.

All of this marks two traits of McManus as chief. He wants the department to be more professional and more responsive. And he wants complete control over what happens at the MPD and how it is portrayed to the public.

 

This summer, McManus made a sweeping gesture toward transparency. For the first time since they began in 1997, the MPD's CODE FOR meetings were opened to the public. Every Thursday in the council chambers at City Hall, precinct commanders brief the department's top brass on the week's criminal activity around the city. Inspectors from each of the city's five precincts give PowerPoint presentations that have map overlays of shots fired, burglaries, and rapes. There are anecdotes of car chases and arson activity.

Under John Laux and Robert Olson, the two previous chiefs, this sort of information was nearly impossible to get from the department. That it's discussed publicly by members of the force is not only remarkable but good public relations: The MPD comes off looking engaged and sensitive to the differing needs in various parts of town. The meetings are a revelation about the trivialities and dangers of regular police work.

But they are also notable for what they say about McManus's managerial style. He's been pegged by one cop as a "guy who likes information," but also one willing to delegate authority to officers he views as "mini-chiefs." At one meeting last month, about 30 officers and onlookers (including, for a time, the mayor) sat in the gallery of the chambers. McManus and four other top administrators presided from chairs usually reserved for council members.

McManus did not run the meeting; that duty fell to Deputy Chief Tim Dolan, a veteran of the force who was on the early list of candidates to replace Olson. Dolan called each precinct commander to the front to give a report. McManus rarely spoke up. But when he did, it was to prod his command staff. He stopped Fourth Precinct Inspector Don Banham's report at one point: "What's your robbery closure rate to date?"

Banham responded that he didn't have the numbers off the top of his head.

"Precinct commanders need to keep their fingers on things like that," McManus continued, without any air of censure, adding that at any time he might want a "case-management review." Such pop quizzes came intermittently from McManus.

Aside from normal management concerns, McManus had good reason to press Banham and some of the other commanders and officers who spoke. Banham was new to his position. So was Dolan, who had previously been the Fourth Precinct Inspector under Olson. Val Wurster, who was new to leading the Second Precinct, was also the beneficiary of a McManus promotion.

In fact, nearly everyone in the room was there because McManus had put them in positions that required them to be there. It became evident that the department's leaders and top brass were very much a part of Team McManus. The chief has made it clear that he wants to surround himself with people he can trust. He had done the same thing in Dayton.

The management shake-up launched by McManus last spring predictably led to dissent and grumbling in the ranks: McManus was playing favorites. But then again, promotions always have that effect, especially in a department that has been, as attorney Clark puts it, "run by the same bullies for years."

Almost all of McManus's promotions have involved persons of color or women. The MPD has long had difficulty recruiting and hiring minority officers, and the recent budget cuts meant that a number of younger officers were laid off, many of them women or nonwhites. But at the CODE FOR meeting, a majority of the officers in attendance were African American. In fact, of the three deputy chiefs and five precinct commanders currently under McManus's command, only three are white males. McManus has made the promotions in top positions--or in some instances, made temporary ones permanent--in seven cases. Similarly, he has surrounded himself with Latino and black officers in the chief's office and aide positions. (One veteran cop surmises that minority officers will also play prominent roles in the Office of Professional Standards, in part "to be groomed for advancement.")

"This is the kind of change that's been needed," says civil rights activist and longtime MPD critic Ron Edwards. "It's been a long time coming to have people of color in positions of authority. Especially given the hit the minority hires took in the budget cuts."

But one Minneapolis cop told me that there's some disdain for affirmative action McManus-style, a point that CRA director Michael Friedman echoes. "There are white officers that I've heard complain about it, and there's a bit of a racist subtext," he says. "I can't speak directly to the appointments, but taking complaints from the community, I can certainly see the value in affirmative action."

Not many will dispute, however, that the cops advanced under the new chief are qualified for their positions. Dolan has long been a favorite in the community and among cops. The African Americans in top positions--Don Harris, Don Banham, and Val Wurster in particular--are almost universally viewed as good cops. "I'm looking for quality people who are up to the task," McManus says of his selections. "If I can find a minority for that, I'll certainly consider that. I want to be balanced. But I don't want to send the message that if you're a white male, you're not going anywhere."

 

McManus has had far less success with his image in the local media. After that first gushing Nick Coleman column, the Star Tribune didn't take long to turn on the new chief. After McManus announced the suspensions, subsequent stories appeared to favor the suspended officers and heavily quoted their attorneys. McManus was forced not to comment specifically because the circumstances were under investigation by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

After the BCA released its report, the newspaper and local TV stations focused on one passage from suspended Capt. Mike Martin, who told investigators that McManus had mentioned retribution against Lucy Gerold. "He said he was going to take her out...a piece at a time," was the way Martin relayed the chief's comments to investigators.

Meanwhile, though, many news outlets declined to report some of the more troubling aspects of the testimony the BCA collected. Namely, that under Olson, the entire Duy Ngo investigation--in which Ngo, working undercover, was shot repeatedly by Charlie Storlie, another MPD cop--was ignored by top brass, that Olson himself seemed disinterested in a memo from Lt. Mike Carlson decrying the investigation from day one, and that the MPD was trapped in a maelstrom of infighting and political maneuvering. (Carlson was the third officer suspended.)

Not long after, the paper was slighting McManus over a lawsuit filed by Capt. Stacy Altonen that claimed she was reassigned as political payback for supporting Gerold's candidacy for chief. And the paper hyped the story that McManus hadn't taken the test for his peace officer's license. Television reports, most notably those by Channel 9, began to question McManus's ability to lead the department if he wasn't wearing the uniform. Channel 11 aired a report that ridiculously pressed McManus for not having a Minnesota driver's license. McManus, aside from insisting he was studying for the peace officer's test, largely did not counterpunch. McManus eventually took the test and passed, four months into the job. (LAPD Chief William Bratton, who is seen as the king of reformers for having turned around departments in Boston, New York, and now L.A., just passed his test in California--two years into his tenure.)

"The media has been very unfair to him, especially the Star Tribune," says the Rev. Ian Bethel. Bethel is the head of something called the Police-Community Relations Council, a group formed in the wake of the mediation agreement between the MPD and community leaders that was brokered by the U.S. Department of Justice before McManus came on the job. "The Star Tribune has been controlled by some of the members of the rank and file, who are good sources for them--in my opinion."

In July, McManus sent a letter to Star Tribune editor Anders Gyllenhaal. In the letter, McManus briefly detailed a number of inaccuracies the Strib had reported in stories involving him. But mostly, he asked Gyllenhaal to rein in one of his reporters who was digging around for dirt. The reporter had gone to great lengths to track down McManus's first wife, apparently to find out whether McManus had physically abused her. The reporter's queries and presumption traveled through the grapevine around City Hall. McManus heard about it from his ex-wife.

Gyllenhaal says the Strib's coverage of the cheif is "not weighted in any direction." "A lot has happened since he came to town and we're going to cover it. We're going to talk to anybody who's got something," counters Gyllenhaal, dismissing the assertion that the paper plays favorites with sources. "It's important stuff he's trying to accomplish, and we're writing about it. We look into everything we can, any tip, anything."

Part of the scrutiny comes with the territory of being the new kid in town, McManus explains, but he felt this had crossed the line. "It goes back to me not wearing the uniform and taking the test," McManus surmises, his voice still sounding a sting. "I suppose the feeling was, there was something sinister going on. If you have a domestic charge, you can't carry a gun. There is no domestic charge. There is no worst-case scenario. I have never laid a hand on a woman in my life." (Gyllenhaal won't discuss McManus's claims, saying, "I'm not going to talk about things that didn't end up in the paper. It's not appropriate.")

Others, like Bethel, also believe that the chief's image problem in the media simply has to do with the way things are done around here. "All of it is coming from the white power structure," Bethel argues. "They're finding out he has backing from the community."

And there's a final theory. McManus bristles when any information gets out to the media before he knows about it, and he immediately sought to tighten up the leaks coming out of the department. (He also has been sensitive about some of the more benign coverage of him.) By making certain personnel changes, McManus has taken some of the media's best sources out of the loop. There is a bit of a paradox here: McManus claims to want a department that's more open, but he's also doing his best to control the flow of information out of the department.

Bethel says the media's treatment of McManus doesn't change the way he's seen in communities of color. "There's a big reason there hasn't been another Jordan," Bethel says, referring to a riot two years ago after an MPD bullet struck a black boy. "There's gang members out there that would back him."

 

Today, eight months into the job, McManus says there were more skeletons in the MPD's closet than he had guessed. "I didn't come in here to be a reformer or a change agent," he says. "That might have been part of it, but it was not the overall mandate." Nevertheless, he says, he saw much in the department that desperately needed addressing and correcting.

Bethel, Clark, and others note that the chief has made efforts to introduce himself or make personal phone calls on a regular basis. He's out there. "I think McManus is interested in the truth," says Jill Clark. "Olson hid in his office. One never got the impression that he wanted to know the truth."

Whereas Olson was politically and even personally beholden to Sharon Sayles Belton and the city's 13 council members, hardly anyone believes that McManus will play political lapdog. Olson, too, expressed a desire to free up SAFE officers for patrol duty, but he never did it, bowing in the end to pressure from neighborhoods and council members. When McManus reassigned the neighborhood cops to the North Side this summer, he did so without much consultation, and many ward leaders cried foul.

Bethel and Clark agree that the police union is another big obstacle for the chief. (McManus says he speaks regularly to Sgt. John Delmonico, head of the Federation of Minneapolis Police Officers, who was less than welcoming when McManus came to town.) "He's got the charisma to win them over," Bethel says. "They're beginning to take him seriously." But he still has doubts about McManus's political fate: "I wouldn't be that optimistic because the institution has been so sick for so long."

Bethel points to the fact that all council members and the mayor are up for reelection next year. McManus is very much Rybak's chief, but Minneapolis's weak- mayor system makes the City Council far more powerful. It's not clear what a shake-up on the council or in the mayor's office would mean for McManus.

"The verdict is still out, and much of it depends on the elections next year," Bethel says. "Police chiefs come and go, but the politics of the city are entrenched. Politics aren't going to change because of McManus."

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