The Letter of the Law

Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson
David Kern

One late September afternoon, in the midst of a lackluster, losing re-election campaign, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton quietly presided over a meeting in Room 333 of Minneapolis City Hall. It was, she claimed later, more important to her than any campaigning she had been doing that day.

Over the din of jackhammers crushing the pavement on Fifth Street outside, a group of 14, including three Minneapolis police officers, two mayoral staffers, and eight citizens, discussed racial profiling. The hope was to get the Minneapolis Police Department to agree to guidelines preventing biased policing. In all, only four in the group were white--seven were African-American, one an African immigrant, one Latino and one Middle Eastern. Two were women--Sayles Belton and a Minneapolis police officer.

For a little more than an hour, there was lively, congenial debate over recommendations drafted by Ron Thaniel, Sayles Belton's policy aide. The group struggled over points of the policy, including educating immigrant communities on constitutional rights, letting motorists know they don't have to agree to have their vehicles searched, and defining what makes for a suspicious vehicle. But in the end, there was little consensus. The one thing everyone could agree on was that officers should refrain from calling motorists "the n-word" and other racial epithets.

Last January, the Minneapolis Police Department released results of a six-month survey showing that minority drivers in Minneapolis were indeed stopped more often than whites; a similar study showed that in St. Paul, white drivers were stopped most often, but black and Hispanic drivers were searched at twice the rate of whites. Citizens and politicians alike hemmed and hawed about what should be done.

In February, several state lawmakers tried to introduce legislation mandating a statewide racial-profiling policy, but ultimately all that passed was a diluted bill offering squad-car video cameras to police departments that volunteer to collect racial data. In June, with the help of a federal mediator, St. Paul police reached an agreement with local civil rights leaders; the city council approved the plan a month later.

Across the river, MPD Chief Robert Olson, who was reappointed to a three-year term just days after the survey was made public, vowed that the department would address the issue immediately. Sayles Belton and various Minneapolis City Council members called for swift action.

But so far, very little has happened in Minneapolis. What's taking so long?

Since July, the mayor and her staff have been meeting with police officers and community leaders to hammer out some kind of policy, with varying degrees of progress. In late October, the panel finally released its recommendations. Overall, the panel suggests that the MPD should "eliminate racial profiling and inappropriate police conduct by increasing trust and understanding between the police department, communities of color and all citizens of Minneapolis through more effective communications and interaction."

The document, produced by the mayor's office and a small task force, goes on to list eight "issues of concern," along with recommendations for dealing with each. With regard to consent searches, the policy recommends that police create an "advisory document" in various languages to be handed out to let immigrants know they can refuse a vehicle search. For police disciplinary action, the draft recommends a civilian review board. Such a panel already exists, but is frequently criticized for failing to uphold more than a handful of citizen complaints. For civil rights issues, the policy recommends that the city's equally controversial Civil Rights Department and already overburdened Attorney's Office "be charged with hosting community meetings explaining guaranteed constitutional and civil rights to immigrant communities" with "special emphasis on the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments."

The proposal also notes that cops should carry business cards and issue them upon request; that race, gender, and ethnicity should not be used in determining whether to stop a vehicle; and that the MPD should review its policy regarding racial and ethnic slurs.

All of which adds up to pretty much what police are supposed to do under existing law and under the U.S. Constitution, critics complain. Outgoing 10th Ward Council Member Lisa McDonald, for example, wonders why the process is taking so long if officers aren't being asked to do more than respect existing law. "Some of us are kinda waiting for something to happen," McDonald says. "And some of us won't be here much longer." Council members, she complains, "are not in the loop at all, and I think that's deliberate."

Matthew Stark, a member of the citizens' subcommittee addressing racial profiling and a former director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, agrees that a definitive racial-profiling policy in Minneapolis has been too slow in coming. "There are conflicts within the police department internally, and also with the general public and the non-police people that have been supervising it," he says. "It may turn out to be a step in the right direction, but a very timid one.  

"There are correct directions here, but there are parts of the proposal that don't go nearly far enough in regulating police," Stark continues, adding that he is concerned about training police to deal with minorities and immigrants, people he fears have no idea they have the right to refuse to be searched. People often mistakenly believe either that they must agree to anything a police officer asks, or that refusing will be seen as suspicious and be held against them. According to Minneapolis Deputy Chief Greg Hestness, for nearly 15 years MPD officers have had "advisory documents" written in English explaining that people don't have to agree.

Stark, McDonald, and some city hall insiders believe that any new policy regarding racial profiling signed by Olson is going to draw the ire of the department's union, the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. When the statistics were first released, many officers responded angrily to Olson's and Sayles Belton's acknowledgement that the department has a problem with racial profiling.

Most discouraging, McDonald adds, the only person who has had any power to force a change has been outgoing Mayor Sayles Belton, who supported Olson and reportedly rarely pushed him. "I don't think the chief has to be very accountable because he and the mayor are friendly," McDonald posits. "[Olson's] not interested in addressing it [so] there's no reason to believe he'll have to do anything for the new mayor."

Hestness, who was on the task force, understands that some people may be unsatisfied with the baby steps the department has taken on racial profiling. But he's quick to dispute this notion and points out that even just discussing the issue with police officers has its merits. "If you asked me that traffic stops were related to race, I'd say no," says Hestness, a 27-year veteran of the force who spent 11 years on patrol. "But hearing back from committee members directly, I understand now. Listening to these people has driven home to me how demeaning it can be to be stopped for no apparent reason."

Even so, Hestness says the MPD must consider any recommendations with caution. For instance, he says, "Business cards can be a good idea, but is it worthwhile?" Plus, he adds, many of the issues that crop up in racial-profiling discussions are "supervisory matters" that would best be addressed by precinct commanders.

Hestness is more concerned with the overall attitudes of the people who will ultimately implement the policy: the rank and file. "Racial profiling is small in scope," he opines. "I'm not as worried about it as the topic of bias in policing, and these are things that come from the top of the department on down." For example, he says, what if an officer sees a white man in a predominantly black part of the north side in the wee hours? Should the officer apprehend him? "It's hard to know what's right in the heat of the battle," he says. "And these are things we try to deal with internally. I could cut slack for someone using the word 'asshole.' But I could never cut slack for someone using the word 'nigger.' And I would address that."

As for the delay in implementing a policy, Hestness denies that it has to do with the union, though he admits that he has concerns that new guidelines will rankle the MPD's officers. "The federation may take issue with something here or there, but most of these policies are already found in our policies about how we deal with treating people inequitably," he claims. "There's a benefit to [data collection] from an officer's point of view, and we brought good heads from the community to the table who understood that there are process protections for police officers."

That doesn't satisfy McDonald. "Look at what happened in St. Paul," she counters. "They had a stack of papers addressing the issue, [St. Paul Police Chief William Finney] took action right away....At least there they've agreed to use business cards."

Stark, too, disagrees with Hestness. "Look at what we see and read--there is something every day about police departments and race," he says, citing recent scandals in Cincinnati and Los Angeles. "This is a national phenomenon that's been brewing, and we could do something about it. If there were a model here for tight supervision of these people, it would be touted nationally."

Instead, if critics are correct, what's been done will hardly make waves in Minneapolis, despite any good intentions. According to Ron Thaniel, after the task force finished formulating its recommendations in October, the proposed guidelines were sent to Chief Olson. Thaniel assumes that the chief will sign off on the policy before Mayor Sayles Belton's term is up. And because the policy does not need city council approval, responsibility will rest with the police department to implement whatever policies its brass see fit.

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