Dave Bicking: How politics ousted the Civilian Review Authority's loudest member


Dave Bicking has been a squeaky wheel in Minneapolis politics for years.

A man with a long white beard and hair parted to one side, Bicking has vied for a spot on the City Council twice. He once ran a mere few-hours-long mayoral campaign against R.T. Rybak on the anti-Twins stadium ticket.

Most recently, Bicking became the first member of the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority to seek reappointment and not get it since the board's redesign in 2003, says CRA Manager Lee Reid.

According to Ward 5 City Councilmember Don Samuels, it's Bicking's flare for oft-controversial politics that earned him the boot."It's not a political position, you know, it's a board position," said Samuels in an interview with City Pages after the appointments earlier this month.

Bicking argues that it is the city's politics -- not his -- that led to him not being reappointed to the CRA. The City Council and mayor want the police watchdog board to stay quiet, says Bicking. "They don't want to hear bad news," he says. "They shoot the messenger. Now who's going to be the next messenger?"

Bicking's involvement with the CRA was turbulent from his appointment, which almost didn't happen.

Bicking applied for a spot on the CRA in 2007, knowing his reputation preceded him with the City Council and Rybak and that he likely had no chance. "I figured if they had any other candidate to choose they would," he says.

But the city didn't have another candidate. Just enough people showed interest in joining the board as would fill it. Reluctantly, the City Council approved a list of candidates that included Bicking.

Rybak originally approved the motion. Then he changed his mind. He took the list back from the city clerk and changed the approval to a veto.

"I suspect that it had to do with Dave Bicking's appointment," says Ward 2 City Councilmember Cam Gordon about the veto.

Gordon contacted the city attorney, concerned that Rybak's time to veto the recommendations had already expired.

The city attorney found that Rybak had not run out of time. But because he had already signed off on the list and passed it to the clerk, precedent showed the veto could not stand.

"It's not the easiest way to get on," says Bicking. "By the time I was on the board I was already noted for being the odd guy out."

For the next two years, Bicking was one of the noisiest members of the CRA. He was a major contributor in many of the board's most notable achievements, including the CRA's first-ever performance appraisal of Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan.

Earlier this year, Bicking agreed to speak on a panel that would criticize the reappointment of Dolan.

When CRA Chair Don Bellfield got word, he sent Bicking a pointed e-mail expressing concern that a board member participating on the panel would compromise the neutrality of the CRA. If he did go through with it, Bellfield wrote, Bicking would have to resign.

Wrote Bellfield:

Dave, as I have mentioned in my email; this creates a serious problem for the CRA's mission, credibility and integrity. If you plan to participate, you will need to resign your membership from the CRA.

Bicking participated anyway and refused to step down, launching an inner-board battle between Bellfield and Bicking.

A couple days later, Bellfield wrote an e-mail to the City Council and Rybak criticizing Bicking for commenting on Dolan in an article that appeared in the Star Tribune (full article here).

Steve Brandt, the article's author, wrote a letter to Bellfield in Bicking's defense:

I am told that some of Mr. Bicking's statements to me, and his appearance at the police community forum last week have become a matter ofcontroversy.You might be interested to know that I initiated the contact with Mr.Bicking. I contacted him because he had taken the trouble to notify me on Jan. 6 of the CRA's community forum that was held that night ... I would hope that there is no gag rule on CRA members who choose to explain their duties and the reports of the board to the public.

About two weeks later, Bicking and Communities United Against Police Brutality, a police watchdog non-profit, filed a Writ of Mandamus petition in Hennepin County accusing Bellfield of not fulfilling his board duties. According to the petition, Bellfield failed to make a mandatory report to the City Council about Chief Dolan not disciplining officers in cases sustained by the CRA.

The judge sided with Bicking and Communities United, ordering Bellfield to either make the report to the City Council or appear in court the next day to explain himself.

Bellfield didn't do either.

Instead, Minneapolis City Attorney Peter Ginder showed up in court, arguing that the CRA's performance review of Dolan fulfilled his duty to inform the City Council. A prepared statement from Ginder:

Bellfield furnished the CRA's performance review of Chief Dolan to all council members and the mayor in December, 2009, and the CRA maintains its performance review on its public website.

Bellfield agreed that the performance appraisal fulfilled his obligation to the board. "As far as I'm concerned, that should satisfy any concerns that this lawsuit might have," said Bellfield in an interview after the petition was filed. "I'm at a loss as to what the lawsuit is about anyway."

The judge took the argument under advisement, and has yet to make a final ruling.

By the time the CRA's March meeting rolled around, the escalating tension between the two seemed prime for a blowout. But just hours before the meeting, the CRA's program assistant sent out an e-mail canceling the meeting on behalf of Bellfield, offering no explanation:

At the direction of Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority Board Chair Don Bellfield, the regular meeting of the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority board scheduled for today, March 3, 2010 at 6:30 p.m. has been cancelled.

The move enraged an already heated group of Bicking-friendlies that had amassed in his corner. So they held a meeting anyway.

About 35 people showed up in City Hall that night for a makeshift meeting in the same room the CRA usually meets. One by one, each went around the room and voiced what they wanted to see from the CRA in the future. Most said they wanted Bellfield off the board.

Two months later, the City Council introduced a list of recommendations for the appointments to the CRA. Bicking's name was noticeably absent.

Councilmember Gordon offered up a motion to switch one of the recommendations for Bicking, but no one would second it.

"I think he's an advocate and he's political and I think he's getting his two functions mixed up. I think the general sentiment on the Council is that that's not healthy for the board," said Councilmember Samuels after the vote.

Rybak signed off on the appointments a couple days after the City Council meeting, making Bicking's removal from the board official.

Regardless of the reason, Bicking not being reappointed to the board could prove to be a detriment to the CRA in the future, says Michael Friedman, who served as CRA chair in 2003.

"For him to be removed creates tremendous public distrust, at least for the people who are actually watching it," says Friedman. "Having Bicking go makes it easier to defund the CRA at a certain point because they can say the community doesn't trust it anyway."

About 30 people showed up to the new board's first official meeting earlier this month, many in a show of solidarity around Bicking. A few made cat calls and loud criticisms. Bellfield started by reading a prepared statement about audience courtesy. Someone stood up and gave him an emphatic middle finger.

Now off the board, Bicking says he has high hopes for the new CRA and still plans to offer comment in the meetings. But Bicking's time on the board has left him with a pessimistic outlook on the CRA's future in Minneapolis.

"I think that having a Civilian Review Authority is critical, but oh boy, it does so little of what it's supposed to," he says. "The promise of the CRA is always much greater than what it actually does."