Chief Robert Olson has proven to be a master politician
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Police Department

On December 3, Spike Moss called on his considerable source list to crash a closed-door meeting at the Hyatt in downtown Minneapolis. The informal tête-à-tête between a mediator from the U.S. Department of Justice and nine community leaders was organized to go about solving tensions between minority groups and the Minneapolis Police Department.

Moss, notably not invited, barged in near the onset of the proceedings. After a quizzical pause, it was determined that Moss must be ousted. Michelle Gross, who had been spearheading the mediation process, told Moss, a controversial street-level activist on the city's predominantly black north side, that he had no business in the meeting. Moss, by all accounts, left as quickly as he had appeared, mission accomplished: He had seen with his own eyes who was on the anonymous panel.

"I'd had it with all the secrecy," he says.

To this day, the scenario continues to rile all sides. Moss remains upset about being excluded from a process that he feels belongs to him, both personally and politically. Gross has acquired a distaste for anyone who dare delay the process. And sources worry that the mediator, Patricia Campbell Glenn, is growing exasperated with the quibbling that has greeted her since she first visited Minneapolis in August.

On December 9, six days after Moss's surprise visit and a day before mediation was to officially begin, Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson played a divisive trick. He would delay mediation, he told a Star Tribune reporter, until the NAACP and Urban League were included on the community panel. While some in the African American community applauded Olson's stance, members of the nine-person panel, dubbed the Community Negotiating Team, were incensed, wondering out loud whether Olson was trying to scuttle mediation altogether. It's not a far-fetched theory: If the community remains divided over who will come to the table, the Department of Justice could pull out of negotiations. If that were to happen, the chief, one of the city's shrewdest politicians, would not only walk away from the failed process with clean hands: Behind the scenes he could claim to have scored a victory for the MPD's rank and file. Still, in the days after Olson's remarks, the team unanimously agreed not to include the NAACP. (Minneapolis police spokeswoman Cyndi Barrington said last week that Olson would not comment further.)

Ron Edwards, spokesman for the panel and longtime civil rights activist, initially opposed bringing in the NAACP or anyone else at the 11th hour. But now he insists the board should create more seats for community leaders. "It's clear that if that doesn't happen, the mediation won't happen," he says. In fact, during a four-hour meeting on December 17 that was attended by Glenn and more than 20 local activists, Edwards made a motion to essentially double the number of community representatives. But his proposal was defeated 7-2--further convincing Edwards that continued bickering will render mediation ineffectual or, worse, keep it from happening altogether. (For now, it has been delayed until at least January 7.)

All of this, Edwards surmises, is probably just fine with Olson, as it stands to stunt the mediation process from the outset and mar any eventual agreement. "He's playing the NAACP and the Urban League because--and it's not just ego--he's terrified of having to sit across the table from me."


In the four months since Edwards contacted Glenn and asked her to come to Minneapolis, Olson, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and the Minneapolis City Council have puzzled over her presence. For instance, in September the council grilled Glenn in a committee meeting, asking whether she was "a spy" for U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Glenn, a 25-year veteran of the Department of Justice's community relations service, assured the council that she was here to mediate, not prosecute. She explained that mediation in other cities had successfully ended police practices such as racial profiling and excessive use of force, and had increased the power and visibility of civilian boards that review complaints against police officers. Meanwhile, tensions between Minneapolis cops and the community continued to boil.

After several public hearings and some intense lobbying, Rybak and Olson decided to go along with mediation and began naming members of the mayor's office and the police force to represent the city. On November 13, the city council approved Olson's outline for mediation and scheduled a final council vote on the entire process for November 22. Council members also decided that it was up to the community to first pick its own representatives quickly--thereby absolving themselves of any responsibility.

On November 16, Gross, a founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality, and two civil rights attorneys walked roughly 40 prospective board members through what they considered to be a requisite grassroots organizing meeting at Richard Green Elementary School in south Minneapolis. Although the gathering was hastily organized, word about the event spread quickly, and most minority leaders who couldn't attend managed to contact the mediation organizers soon after and throw some names into the hat. Representatives from the NAACP were noticeably absent from the meeting, however, and the lone representative from the Urban League left early. Neither group contacted panel organizers afterward to be included.

"We're not going to show up and demand a spot [in mediation]," explains Keesha Gaskins, third vice president for the NAACP, when asked why her group didn't attend the meeting. "We're the NAACP. We are the institutional civil rights organization in Minneapolis. To leave us out would be a mistake." Gaskins insists that the organization has no desire to delay or derail the mediation process. "The conduct of our police force is unacceptable, and we need for this to take place," she says, adding, "But we're talking about accountability. We have been in conversation with the city for months on this."

The NAACP's longtime involvement with the city, however, is exactly what concerns members of the nine-person panel already in place. They fear that participation by the civil rights organization would make the outcome a product of political insiders determined to maintain the status quo. "Olson controls them," Edwards claims. "[He] wants the NAACP there so they can report back to him."

"That's ridiculous," Gaskins counters, noting that her group recently called for the firing of two Minneapolis cops after the death of a black man in their custody. "We're not friendly to Olson's position; quite the opposite. It's just that without the NAACP, any mediation agreement won't be an important document."

Not surprisingly, in the wake of Olson's demands, other community leaders, such as Spike Moss, suddenly see their involvement as critical. And that has created a whole new set of political obstacles. Standing panel members are concerned about the apparently cozy relationship Moss has with Olson, especially after the two united in the aftermath of the Jordan riot in August. (They wonder, for instance, if Olson was the one who let Moss know about the meeting at the Hyatt.)

But Moss scoffs at the idea that his presence would tip the scales further in Olson's favor. "Olson has an ear and has listened," Moss allows. "But I've been consistent on this for years. I don't want bad cops in my neighborhood. I want mediation to happen."

Aside from moving too quickly for some in the selection process, the Community Negotiation Team has made one other political gaffe: keeping the identities of the board members anonymous. It is only because of various leaks to the media that the composition of the team is known: Two African Americans, one African immigrant, an American Indian, a Latino, an Asian, a member of the GLBT community, and two "police experts."

"Who are these people?" asks Rev. Jerry McAfee of the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis. "Would you be comfortable with secret folk operating on your behalf?" McAfee claims that he sent a letter to Mayor Rybak in April outlining details for his own mediation team.

There is also a current of bruised egos and long-running feuds rising to the surface. "It would be a shame if Chief Olson is successful in using people's egos to stop this from happening," Gross says.

Mediator Glenn is relatively mum about the snafus, stopping short of saying she's exasperated, and maintaining that the Department of Justice will not pull out just yet: "As a mediator, you learn to be very flexible and very patient. We are interested in mediation. That's our mission."

What mission Olson plans to pursue is not quite as clear, but the chief's white noise has drowned out the real issue: The police force under his command keeps getting off scot-free.

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