The Human Shield

John Delmonico defends those who serve and protect. Whether they deserve it or not.

In January 2006, 15 officers from the Minneapolis Police Department closed ranks in the basement of the New Beginnings Baptist Church in south Minneapolis. They joined an equal number of representatives from the Police Community Relations Council. Though a cold snow graced the ground outside, the air in the cramped cellar of the church was thick with sweat.

The topic at hand: a Medal of Valor that a 13-member MPD committee had awarded to Sgt. Dan May just six days earlier. The honor stemmed from a 1990 incident in which the officer fatally shot a 17-year-old, unarmed black boy named Tycel Nelson as he fled a house party in north Minneapolis.

Community reps from the council, many of them African American, felt that the MPD's insistence on heralding May smacked of arrogance and even hostility. In their minds, it made a mockery of Nelson's death. Voices raised and carried.

Then John Delmonico spoke up. The head of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation, the union that represents the rank and file, Delmonico owns a reputation as the quintessential cop's cop. He has backed hundreds of officers in the face of misconduct allegations—even defending officers who he knew were guilty.

But when he spoke up at the meeting, tensions dissipated.

"I was surprised at this, and we're not a part of this," Delmonico said. "Does anybody think that there's anything to be gained by going through with awarding this medal?"

Other cops fell into line. By the end of the meeting, the two sides reached an agreement. The next day, May returned the award.

From the outside, it looked like Delmonico was going against type. Here he was, bowing to public pressure and throwing a cop to the wolves.

But that wasn't the full story. It turns out Delmonico and May came up together in the department, and still count each other as friends. What looked like a concession to activists was in fact a clever way to protect his friend from further public scrutiny.

"I was talking to him during the whole thing," May says. "He said that he'd always do his best to protect officers, but for the good of the department, it was best to put the medal behind us."

Delmonico can be a hard guy to figure out, but there's one core principle that overrides all others: He's there to protect the cops, whether they deserve it or not.

"What bothers me with this whole incident was that Danny May really tried to move on emotionally, psychologically, and on the job—it was really tough for him," Delmonico says.

Sitting in a conference room at the offices of the police federation in northeast Minneapolis, Delmonico exudes calm from the waist up, even as one of his knees bounces up and down like he's playing a phantom kick drum.

"Danny May never asked for the medal, and he had done a really good job moving on. That was my perspective," the union boss says. "When the shit hit the fan, it was going to be Danny May left hanging on a limb."

First elected president of the police federation in 2000, Delmonico has been the one constant in a troubled department. Three chiefs have led the MPD since Delmonico took over the union.

Whether at press conferences, City Council meetings, or high-profile shootings, Delmonico has no trouble finding the spotlight. Though this could be said of the cop bosses in most major cities, here in Minneapolis, Delmonico's influence dwarfs that of the actual police chief and most other city leaders.

With more than 900 members, the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation is the largest law-enforcement union in the state. There are 10 elected members on a board of directors who, in concert with Delmonico, advocate for cops in every area: fighting disciplinary actions from the brass, negotiating with city leaders for more generous contracts, and lobbying the Legislature at the Capitol. The union has a heavy hand in endorsing candidates for city and statewide offices. According to the union's website: "The Federation takes a very active role in putting a public face on Minneapolis police officers."

That face, of course, is Delmonico. He looks every bit the part of the bully union boss. With his Italian surname, broad-stroke mustache, and sheer size—he stands nearly six feet and weighs 300 pounds—nobody fills out the department blues better than Delmonico. The 50-year-old, 19-year vet of the department can look intimidating, and those who have tangled with him know that in many circles, his word is law.

"We consider John Delmonico the unelected mayor of Minneapolis," says Michelle Gross of the activist group Communities United Against Police Brutality. "He and the federation have that much power. With its endorsements of judges, council members, the mayor, the sheriff, and candidates for other positions, the federation exercises significant influence over every area of local government."

Bob Bennett, an attorney in town who has represented plaintiffs in some of the city's highest-profile police brutality suits, sees the federation as an impediment to justice.

"It's all about the union in this town, sometimes at the expense of good policing," Bennett says. "Whenever there's a new chief to come in and change the department, there's a problem from the union."

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