The Hit Parade Revisited

In an age of shrinking budgets, the city of Minneapolis is spending more money than ever to settle lawsuits against the MPD

 

If Mansour ultimately receives compensation for his treatment by MPD officers, his would join a long list of settlements and jury awards paid out by the city for allegations of police misconduct. In 1994, City Pages published a story, called "Hit Parade," about the MPD's most notorious and costly cops. What's changed in 10 years? Not much.

Since 1995, Minneapolis taxpayers have coughed up some $10.4 million in 190 cases stemming from MPD actions. Last year, Minneapolis disbursed more than $2 million in damages to aggrieved citizens--the highest one-year total in the city's history. And so far in 2005, the city has agreed to pay out $915,769.37 to 21 plaintiffs in cases against the MPD.

Minneapolis's track record stands in stark contrast to that of St. Paul. Between 1998 and 2004, the city across the river paid out just over $800,000 in 29 police-related lawsuits--barely more than a third of the sum Minneapolis dispensed in 2004 alone. During that period, the city of St. Paul prevailed in 28 other cases. Although St. Paul has a smaller police force than Minneapolis--by roughly a third--that fact hardly explains the massive discrepancy.

"Their officers obey the Constitution more often," surmises local civil rights attorney Robert Bennett, who has won a number of large settlements in MPD cases. "St. Paul has run a tighter ship from a disciplinary standpoint."

MPD Deputy Chief Donald Harris doesn't seem to disagree. "I think there is a confidence level in terms of the way St. Paul police officers approach their work," he acknowledges. "There is a credibility level with that agency as a whole that has definitely never existed within this department. We think we are the absolute best. The rest of the world doesn't really think that."

Conventional wisdom, in Minneapolis as elsewhere, says that police brutality cases are typically the byproduct of a few bad cops, but it's worth noting that the cases in recent years have involved a wide range of police officers. And, in 14 cases reviewed by City Pages that were settled for more than $50,000 each in the last five years, personnel records released by the MPD indicate that one cop was fired. But the rest were never even disciplined. In fact, most of the officers who have cost the city tens of thousands of dollars over the years remain on the force to this day. Some have been promoted to high-ranking posts.

The problem shows no sign of abating. These cases reflect only a small segment of the population who feel they've been mistreated by the cops. Attorney Bennett estimates that he agrees to represent roughly only one of every 50 people who call his office looking to file a lawsuit. For David Shulman, another lawyer who handles such cases, the ratio is approximately one in 20. "A kick to the nuts, in my book," says Shulman, "that's not enough anymore."

The common element in most of the cases where the city has agreed to pay six-figure settlements in recent years is the presence of Bennett. In 2004, three of his clients collected more than 75 percent of the $2 million paid out by the city in civil rights cases. All three cases settled before going to trial. Part of the explanation for Bennett's success is that he thoroughly screens potential clients to ensure that they are credible and sympathetic. He generally won't take on clients who are chemically dependent, mentally ill, or have multiple criminal convictions.

But another common element to cases in which the city has agreed to pay out large settlements is that the plaintiffs are mostly white. This is despite the fact that most civil rights lawsuits are filed by minorities. All three Bennett cases that settled for more than $200,000 last year involved white plaintiffs.

Race can play a factor in cases that go to trial as well. The vast majority of civil rights cases are tried in federal court, where jurors are selected from across the state. This means that it's extremely difficult to get substantial minority representation in a jury pool. Attorney Jeffrey Hassan says that he now avoids filing civil rights cases in federal court in part for that reason. He recently won a $356,000 jury verdict in a case involving a black mother and daughter that he brought in Hennepin County District Court. The city had offered only $75,000 prior to trial. The Minneapolis City Attorney's Office denies that either race or the presence of Bennett play any role in the decision to settle a case.

Any efforts at reform in the MPD will face long-standing systemic barriers. In recent years the MPD's Internal Affairs Division has been largely moribund, rarely sustaining complaints against officers even when their actions have resulted in major payouts for the city. Over the years, IAD has earned a reputation as the place where misconduct cases go to die. The city's cops also have a very strong union, the Police Officers' Federation of Minneapolis, that historically has fought tenaciously on behalf of officers accused of wrongdoing. And the city's Civilian Review Authority--an eight-person panel that investigates allegations of officer misconduct--has been largely ineffective for years, despite an overhaul three years ago.

McManus, who has been on the job for 17 months, acknowledges the department's historical shortcomings. "I don't think that there was enough accountability, in terms of the way we investigated these incidents, in terms of any discipline that was handed out," he says. "And I think the culture got a little bit sideways in that area."

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