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

 

Around 10:15 at night on March 31, 2003, officers Lee Meili and Matthew Hobbs were dispatched to investigate a domestic dispute in the Morris Park neighborhood at the southern edge of Minneapolis. Upon arriving, the officers found Michael Polley and his wife, who had both been drinking, seated on the front steps of their home.

When the officers asked what was going on, Polley responded by pleading with them to "Just take me--don't take my wife." He then proceeded to open the back door of the squad car and climb in. At this point, according to a complaint subsequently filed in U.S. District Court, one of the officers grabbed Polley by the hair, yanked him out of the squad car, and slammed him to the ground. Then, as Polley lay on the ground offering no resistance, one of the officers kneed him forcefully in the abdomen.

Polley was then handcuffed, bundled into the squad car, and taken to the Hennepin County Adult Detention Center. Despite being in excruciating pain, Polley did not have any visible injuries. He was booked into the jail.

"I don't think they realized how badly they'd hurt him," says Bennett, who was Polley's attorney. "If they can take somebody in who is hurt and get them accepted by the jail, that's a good thing. They don't have to spend four hours or five hours in the emergency room babysitting this person."

But it quickly became clear to jail personnel that Polley needed medical attention. Upon arrival at Hennepin County Medical Center, he was in critical condition, diagnosed with "blunt trauma to the abdomen" and immediately dispatched to the operating room. After he was given anesthesia, Polley's blood oxygen level "dropped precipitously." He was on the verge of death. In emergency surgery, doctors discovered that Polley had a wounded spleen, a tear to his colon, and internal bleeding. Surgeons were forced to remove portions of his small intestine and his colon.

Polley remained hospitalized for seven days. His medical bills totaled $35,000. He missed more than a month of work. He will suffer significant digestive difficulties for the rest of his life. Yet despite the life-threatening injuries he suffered, neither Meili nor Hobbs reported using force during the arrest, as they are required to do. In subsequent depositions, according to Bennett, each of the officers continued to deny that they had done anything to cause Polley's internal injuries.

In June of last year, the city agreed to pay Polley $995,000 to settle the matter--making it the most expensive police misconduct case in the city's history. (The previous high, $980,226, was paid to a man named Craig Mische in 1995 over claims that MPD Lieutenant Mike Sauro had savagely beaten the St. Thomas University student.) Despite the record payout, the personnel files for Meili and Hobbs make reference to no disciplinary action in the case. In fact, both officers have completely clean records.

Polley's reign at the top of the money pile will likely be brief. That's because another Bennett client, police officer Duy Ngo, is currently seeking damages that would dwarf any previous settlement. Ngo was shot numerous times by fellow officer Charles Storlie while working undercover in February 2003. Bennett is seeking $9.5 million in compensation for his client's injuries. No trial date has been set.

 

Through the years, Minneapolis has seen no shortage of police chiefs pledging to set right whatever was wrong at the MPD. Back in the 1980s, Tony Bouza charmed many of the department's critics and earned a measure of celebrity in national policing circles with his open criticisms of police business as usual. He also alienated many city pols and, more consequentially, the rank and file and their union leadership. His successor, John Laux, was to date the last chief promoted from within the department. Laux tried to temper police behavior through quiet, back-channel means, if personnel files are any indication.

Robert Olson, the chief chosen by Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton in 1995, hit town just as a one-year spike in the local murder rate was generating a lot of worried talk about the changed state of affairs in "Murderapolis." Prevailing sentiments at City Hall favored more aggressive policing, not more restraint. Robert Bennett, for one, believes that Olson initially tried to clean house, but grew tired of fighting the police union and its friends in city government. Whatever the obstacles, the city's ongoing payouts amount to a pretty strong argument that no MPD chief in the past 25 years has made a lot of progress toward solving the problem.

When current Chief Bill McManus got to town a year and a half ago, he wasted no time in making a number of high-profile moves seemingly aimed at shaking up the long-lamented internal culture of the department. McManus immediately drew fire from numerous quarters for suspending several high-ranking officers, and in the following months he set about reshuffling top MPD brass. One of his more pivotal decisions concerned how the department policed its own.

McManus appointed Don Harris to oversee a new operation called the Office of Professional Standards. (McManus later promoted Harris to deputy chief.) That project has entailed a substantial overhaul of the old Internal Affairs Division. According to Harris, a 17-year veteran of the force, IAD "barely" functioned when McManus arrived. Only three cops were assigned to the unit, which had a backlog of 150 cases. McManus responded by assigning five more investigators to Internal Affairs and inaugurated a policy whereby every reported use of force by an officer is investigated as soon as possible.

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