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.

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."

 

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."

At any rate, the results of the committee's actions were felt at the PCRC meeting. "There is still something real wrong within the community of police," said community member Carol White. "There is a deeper wound here for this kind of thing to happen. There is a deeper wound that you as a police department must figure out."

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