The Rehabilitation of Rich Stanek

The MPD captain tries to outrun his most formidable opponent—his own checkered history on race—in a bid to be Hennepin County sheriff

On April 1, 1989, Rich Stanek was working as a security guard at the now-defunct Chi-Chi's restaurant in City Center in downtown Minneapolis. At one point in the night, Stanek gave an employee of the restaurant a ride to her car near Loring Park. At approximately 10:00 p.m., Stanek was driving his truck back to his security job when a Cadillac ran a red light at the intersection of 12th Street and Harmon Place. The two vehicles collided.

Stanek, who was an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department and in uniform, approached the Cadillac, which was driven by Anthony Freeman, a native of Liberia who was a permanent resident of the U.S. According to a motion filed by one of Stanek's own attorneys in a 1991 civil suit filed in Hennepin County District Court, Stanek was "dazed and injured by the serious accident." Stanek further contended that Freeman attempted to flee the scene, and that he believed Freeman was intoxicated. Later in the deposition, Stanek offered a seemingly different scenario: Smoke was rising from Freeman's vehicle, Stanek said, and he tried to pull Freeman out of the car before it ignited.

But Freeman's deposition entered into the court record portrays a scene different from both of Stanek's versions. According to Freeman, Stanek approached the car cursing and screaming, and yelled, "Nigger. Motherfucker," when he arrived at the vehicle. Stanek then, according to the plaintiff, smashed the driver's side window. He ordered Freeman out of the car, "collared" him, and delivered two blows to his back and neck before handcuffing him, while Freeman was facedown on the ground. Freeman's complaint went on to allege that Stanek "beat and kicked" him "with his fists, feet, and other police-issued paraphernalia." The Liberian maintained he never resisted, because he knew Stanek was a cop. Freeman—who, according to a depostion provided in the case by the late MPD officer Jerry Haaf, had not been drinking—sought $50,000; the case was settled out of court for $40,000.

The transformed man?  Law enforcement vet and former lawmaker Rich Stanek
Courtesy of Rich Stanek for Hennepin County Sheriff
The transformed man? Law enforcement vet and former lawmaker Rich Stanek

The incident was nearly forgotten until more than a decade later, when Stanek was up for confirmation by the Legislature as the state's public safety commissioner. In April 2004, the Freeman case became newsworthy again for the deposition that Stanek gave in 1992 regarding the incident. In that deposition, Stanek's racial attitudes became the topic of the questioning. He admitted that he had told racist jokes and made derogatory statements about blacks while on duty.

Then the questioning centered solely on whether Stanek had ever used the word "nigger"—which he had, he admitted, "several" times. Stanek went on to convey that he and many of his colleagues in the MPD had freely used the word on the job, and he didn't recall anyone ever being disciplined for it. "I think it's inappropriate to use that word in public," Stanek offered. "When I'm in the confines of my own home or my friends, then I think it's my business.

"I believe it's appropriate in the context [that] I'm entitled to my own opinion," Stanek added later in the deposition. "If I express an opinion or say a word within the confines of my home, that I don't bring it to work, I don't bring it to the job, I don't take it to the public, that's my own business."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had appointed Stanek to be commissioner, said the information "was immediately a concern." Stanek, who did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, issued a statement at the time that said he had "never used a racial epithet in a hateful or angry way toward anyone either during work or at home." Still, there was outrage in the African American community, and a press conference at the Urban League in north Minneapolis where several black leaders called for Stanek to resign. Almost immediately, Stanek did just that.

At the time, it seemed as if the episode might permanently derail Stanek's law enforcement career, if not his political career. (He was a member of the state House from 1995-2003.) "Personally, he scares me," one member of St. Paul's NAACP told the Star Tribune. "Anybody who makes racial statements like he did doesn't have any citizen's rights in mind."

"Using the word 'nigger' is associated with a person so far below other humans that they aren't fit to associate with them. That is what he is calling us," added Keith Ellison, then a state rep.

But despite the outcry, the city of Minneapolis left the door open for Stanek's return to the MPD. Since then, Stanek has quietly impressed critics and colleagues alike as captain of the Criminal Investigations Division. More surprisingly, Stanek is the frontrunner to replace outgoing Hennepin County Sheriff Pat McGowan as the metro's top local law enforcement official, a destiny that would have been unthinkable two years ago. Stanek, a Republican, is facing DFLer Juan Lopez in the general election on November 7; in the September primary, Stanek captured 43 percent of the vote to Lopez's 24.

The most notable aspect of Stanek's campaign is his list of supporters. His lengthy endorsement sheet features some heavies—like outgoing Sheriff McGowan himself, Sen. Norm Coleman, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and various elected officials and public safety unions. More surprisingly, he's also backed by the African-American Leadership Summit and Black Church Coalition, as well as Insight News, a newspaper that covers the black community.

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