The Gang That Shot Itself in the Foot

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

McManus then went on to say that "two months ago" it came to his attention that there was an agreement in place that the awards did not require the chief's approval. The committee's parameters had changed sometime under McManus's predecessor, Robert Olson, leaving the committee to function independently from police administration. "I sat there shaking my head for a couple of minutes," McManus said. His first move was to change the process, immediately installing two of the department's brass--Dolan and Inspector Don Banham--on the awards committee effective January 1. Then the chief said he would refuse to award the medal at a ceremony at Augsburg College on January 5. The matter, it seemed to the chief, had been resolved.

But the following week, at a normal awards committee meeting at the city's Fifth Precinct, the committee presented the award to May. "The next I heard about it was in the Star Tribune," McManus said Wednesday.

Edwards and others believe Dolan was complicit in giving the award, even going so far as to pose for photographs with May at the Fifth Precinct. "I knew that they would be giving the award," Dolan admits, adding that there was no formal ceremony. "But I tried to avoid getting into this situation. I signed the form as 'disapproved.' I'm down in writing as not approving this award."

Sgt. Dan May returned his Medal of Valor last week
Courtesy of WCCO News
Sgt. Dan May returned his Medal of Valor last week

 

On December 1, 1990, Tycel Nelson was at a house party on the city's north side. According to authorities, there was a gang-related shooting at the party that night, and Officer Dan May was the first to arrive. There, he saw a suspect fleeing the scene. According to news accounts at the time, May drew a shotgun and momentarily lost sight of the suspect before engaging in a foot chase. May has maintained that the suspect, whom he later identified as Nelson, waved a gun at him. May, then in his second year on the force, fatally shot Nelson, claiming afterward that he fired in self-defense.

Nelson's mother, Earline Skinner, filed suit against the city. Skinner's attorneys argued that Nelson was in fact running from the party unarmed. Skinner told City Pages in 1991 that her son, who had a criminal record, "didn't want no encounters with no police department" and that "Tycel went out that back door with every intention of getting away."

Some evidence corroborated this theory. For starters, Nelson was shot in the back. Also, May said the suspect he was chasing had a brown leather coat, but Nelson was not wearing a coat, just a black and white striped shirt. Finally, there was no evidence linking Nelson to the gun found at the scene. One eyewitness said Nelson had nothing in his hands when he was running.

Nevertheless, May was cleared of wrongdoing by a police review board and the FBI, and a Hennepin County grand jury declined to issue any criminal charges against him. In July 1993 the city of Minneapolis settled Earline Skinner's lawsuit out of court, paying $250,000 to Skinner, Nelson's infant son, and the son's mother. Most in the black community took this as an admission that Nelson had been wrongfully killed.

For years afterward, the incident remained a hot spot between police and African Americans. To add further insult, the MPD's awards committee had unanimously approved May for the Medal of Valor in 1990. But at the time, the award required administrative approval, and John Laux, MPD chief at the time, rejected it.

This time around, others were swift to condemn the action by the awards committee. "I was surprised at this, and we're not a part of this," John Delmonico, head of the police union, said at the PCRC meeting last Wednesday. "I ask of everybody in this room, 'How did this get resurrected?'" He added that the people behind the award were "using Danny" and that the "rumors about it were making things worse internally." Another officer, Sgt. Rick Zimmerman, concluded, "This is not only a black eye to the committee, but it has diminished other awards and is an insult to all cops who didn't want to see this [come up] again."

One MPD officer, who declined to be named, says the strategy was twofold: "There was a feeling that this was a way to exonerate Danny," the source says. "I go to schools a lot, where the black kids are always talking about how the police are going to shoot them. The question always comes up: Who shot Tycel Nelson? Half of them always raise their hands. They know. They say, 'Danny May.'

"The other motivation was to piss off the community, go behind the chief's back and fuck him," the source continues. "Make it seem like he didn't have control of the department."

Thomas, the awards coordinator, claims that "numerous personnel have brought this situation up from time to time for an award over the years," but denies that he or anyone else had any political motivation. "Let me tell you something," Thomas says. "At no time was there any discussion about the black community or the chief and what that might look like if we awarded this. There was no talk about getting back at them or throwing it in their faces or the chief's face or anybody. That wasn't a motivation."

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