The Gang That Shot Itself in the Foot

The May medal: How the MPD managed to embarrass itself and reopen old wounds

Last Thursday, Sgt. Dan May of the Minneapolis Police Department returned a Medal of Valor he'd gotten just a week earlier. Most such citations go unnoticed by the public--in fact, a ceremony where other officers received commendations in early January barely registered with many inside the MPD--but the medal given to May drew heavy media attention and community outrage. The award reopened memories of an incident in which he shot and killed a fleeing 17-year-old in 1990, an event that colored relations between the MPD and local African Americans for years to come. Even May seemed ambivalent about accepting the award immediately afterward, telling the Star Tribune's David Chanen that "nobody needs to open old wounds in the community."

But the fact that May no longer has the medal does not necessarily, as he wrote in a January 19 letter to MPD Chief Bill McManus, "put this matter to rest." Many in the black community--and, it should be noted, a number of cops--considered the gesture to be a concerted effort to "stir shit up," in the words of Assistant Chief Tim Dolan. In fact, questions about how and why May had been nominated in the first place--a year ago--still linger.

"The concern is that this case is 15 years old," Dolan says, adding that there is no statute of limitations on events that might lead to commendation. "It shouldn't have been reopened, regardless of the facts of the case."

 

According the MPD'spolicy manual, "Any MPD employee may initiate an award recommendation." A form is filled out and sent to the commander of the person recommended; from there the form goes to an administrative assistant of the chief, who assigns the recommendation a log number and forwards it to the awards committee. After reviewing the facts of the case, the committee sends its decision back to the administrative assistant. "The Medal of Valor," according to the manual, "may be awarded to any MPD employee for an act of bravery that demonstrates obvious self-sacrifice in the face of death or serious physical injury."

The chief is supposed to make a final decision, though the policy manual does not note whether the chief has the right to veto any award--which became an issue when McManus and Dolan both noted their disapproval, and the award was given anyway.

The MPD's awards committee has 13 members--11 cops and two civilian employees of the department. According to MPD records, the roster for last year's committee, which reviewed the May incident, consists of:

Lt. Richard Thomas, coordinator
Officer Bruce Johnson, committee chair
Sgt. Bruce Folkens
Sgt. David Gray
Sgt. Todd Gross
Sgt. Robert Kroll
Sgt. Myron Taylor
Officer Mike Geere
Officer Hilary Glasrud
Officer Mike Killebrew
Sgt. Mark Swanson (Park Police)
Debra Fields (civilian)
Deb Davidson (civilian)

According to Lt. Rick Thomas, a recommendation to consider May for the Medal of Valor came to the committee, "from an officer in canine who has worked with Danny May," on January 30, 2005. A month later, on February 24, the committee had voted unanimously to grant the award. "The committee operates in an objective fashion," Thomas insists. "We make every attempt not to get into the politics of any case. We reviewed this one, and it met the criteria."

(One committee member, Deb Fields, points out that the inital review of each case is "blind," in that no officer names are disclosed--something Thomas doesn't mention. Still, others point out that details made it clear it was the May incident being reviewed.)

From there, according to accounts from McManus, Dolan, and several others, the form sat with other files in the chief's office. Dolan says he was acutely aware of the ramifications of giving such an award, and immediately made it clear to the chief that the award should not be approved. "We sent it back to the committee and said the administration would not approve this," Dolan recalls. "We had some conversations with the supervisors there, figuring it was a moot point without our approval."

Thomas, for his part, says he doesn't recall Dolan raising any concerns with him; Dolan says he talked with Officer Bruce Johnson. Johnson did not return phone calls for this story.

Word got around outside City Hall that the committee had granted May the Medal of Valor. Ron Edwards, a member of the Police Community Relations Council, says he first became aware of the award in the springtime, and immediately went to the chief to demand he quash the award. "In May, I went with [ MPD Sgt.] Charlie Adams to inform the chief about this," Edwards says. "We were under the impression that it would not go through, and that he had called on Dolan to not approve it."

This account was echoed by McManus last Wednesday at a PCRC meeting. Addressing some 25 members of the MPD and the community, McManus pieced together his version of events. "Sometime when the weather was warm, it could have been spring or summer, I became aware of the award," McManus recalled. "My response was, 'I'm not going to approve it.'

"That was the last I heard of it until a couple months ago," the chief continued. "I assumed that killed it. I ignored it. I believed my concurrence was needed for it to go through." McManus offered that "the package sat on my desk" and he again reiterated that he "ignored it," thinking the issue was dead.

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