Splitsville?

When R.T. Rybak brought Bill McManus to town to head the MPD, both men talked big about reforming the troubled department. But when the chief ran into political resistance, some say, the mayor blinked. Now their relationship has hit the skids, and the fut

After much lobbying, the City Council approved McManus's appointment by a 9-4 margin on January 16, 2004. Council members Barb Johnson, Gary Schiff, and Scott Benson provided the margin of confirmation when they shifted from no to yes on McManus in the waning days before the vote. It looked like the mayor and the chief were in for a long honeymoon. Reporter Rochelle Olson expressed the prevailing sentiment in the Star Tribune's story about the council vote: "The McManus-Rybak tandem is a core relationship for Minneapolis. Rybak now has what he said he's wanted since he tried to remove Police Chief Robert Olson two years ago—a chief he can agree with and work closely with."

Barely a month later, it all started to go to hell.

III.

By the time McManus took office, the Duy Ngo case had become a festering sore in the department's side. Ngo complained bitterly and publicly about the lack of support he received from MPD brass and his fellow officers after nearly being shot to death by one of their own. Nasty rumors about Ngo began circulating around the cop shop in turn. Finally Fox 9 News broadcast one of them in February 2004, reporting that some officers believed Ngo's first wound had been self-inflicted in the interest of avoiding military duty.

On February 25, McManus held a press conference to deny the rumors about Ngo shooting himself. The next day it was reported that McManus had also suspended three senior cops, including chief finalist Lucy Gerold, over allegations of possible impropriety in the department's internal handling of the Ngo shooting investigation. (All three were later reinstated.) A few days later it emerged that there were numerous problems with the investigation, starting with the failure to secure and properly canvass the crime scene on the night Ngo was shot, and the mishandling of a crucial piece of physical evidence (Ngo's bulletproof vest).

The press conference and the suspensions sent a signal that McManus meant to shake up the MPD's status quo, which was ostensibly what he was brought to town to do. The reaction, not surprisingly, was fierce. And while most of the public criticism revolved around the seeming political slap at co-finalist Gerold, McManus was taken to task privately as well. Among the closed-door criticisms, says a well-placed MPD officer we'll call Deep Blue, was a severe dressing-down by a representative of the city attorney's office, who claimed that McManus's words and actions had just increased the city's potential liability in the Ngo case.

"Rybak didn't support the move privately as much as he did publicly," the officer says. "Here was the chief basically admitting that the city was potentially liable in what will probably be the biggest settlement in the city's history. From then on, it was as if the message to Rybak was, 'You better keep tabs on this guy.'

"After that," he continues, "the city attorneys and the council members were all saying, 'This guy is killing us. We're all for a new sheriff in town, but this guy is absolutely killing us.' I know that at that point, Rybak was telling [McManus], 'I need you to talk to these people, I need you to smile more in public meetings.' And McManus was thinking, 'Not only does the mayor not have any backbone, but I gotta play to him and to 13 council members and look happy about it.'"

The incident, Deep Blue adds, "immediately turned the tide against him in the department, right after he got here. I don't know that McManus ever recovered. And remember that Rybak was a glory kid, a novice who beat an incumbent and all that. This was a political lesson for him, too. It was a political punch that said, 'You don't run everything around here.'"

Ron Edwards agrees in retrospect that the division between the two started with the Ngo press conference episode. "I think if you were to look at it chronologically," he says, "that's exactly when it happened. I know that the mayor was enraged by how that played out, with the press and the suspensions and the backlash. Especially where Gerold was concerned, because she was popular with the mayor and his people.

"The thing is, this all caught the chief by surprise. What else was he going to do? He thought he was doing everything he was supposed to. And I think he started noticing then that the situation was not what he had been told it would be. This goes back to a conversation I had with the chief in July of '04, where he talked about meeting the mayor for the first time at a convention they were both at a couple of years earlier. The chief tells the story that they really hit it off, that they were really on the same page philosophically, and had the same approach to things like community policing.

"The chief thought R.T. was a real progressive. But by the time I talked to him in July [2004], he began to realize he had been taken in. The chief would start talking about reform, and the mayor would interrupt. Like it was a charade. This was something different in play than he had been led to believe. The mistake McManus made is that he didn't check out where his guy was at politically. On diversity and race issues, R.T. Rybak is not a progressive, he's not a reformer, he's not a liberal. He doesn't want to get involved in any of this stuff too deeply. When it comes to really fighting social reform issues, he just doesn't have the fight or even the interest. Sometime around mid-'04, McManus started to realize this."

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