Gun Smoke and Mirrors

The only surprise last Thursday night, when a riot broke out at the intersection of Knox and 26th Avenues North, is that anyone was surprised.

Tensions between the Minneapolis Police Department and city residents were already sizzling when the summer started, especially in neighborhoods like North's Jordan and South's Phillips, where cops pound the pavement with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. In March the MPD fatally shot a mentally disturbed machete- wielding Somali man on Chicago Avenue, aggravating community members and piquing the interest of the U.S. Justice Department, which is conducting a preliminary investigation into the department for evidence of systematic police brutality.

When Mayor R.T. Rybak tried unsuccessfully to fire Police Chief Robert Olson in mid-April--a move that cost both men in political capital--neighborhood activists began wondering out loud whether their mayor was just another fancy talking suit or, worse, a political wolf in progressive's clothing. After all, two months before going after Olson's head, Rybak recommended that the city save $357,000 by eliminating the Civilian Police Review Authority (CRA), which despite its chronic ineffectiveness was the only place outside of a courtroom people could take complaints about police behavior. (Among those most excited by the announcement were members of the Minneapolis Police Officers' Federation, who backed Rybak at the polls and who are loath to admit that there is ever a bad apple in their blue and white barrel.)

Within days, the mayor, pushed by the city council, pulled back and professed a desire to strengthen the CRA. The city assembled a 24-person committee, made up of activists, elected officials, and police representatives, to hold a series of public hearings on police brutality. In late July, the committee made its recommendations for reform. Never mind that they had to come up with a better system on the cheap ($200,000 last time I asked City Coordinator John Moir); that only half of the original members attended the last committee meeting (the rest all but called it a sham); or that Rybak himself failed to show up for the fireworks (he sent a representative). When pressed, Rybak could deliver the requisite sound bites. He could talk about how important it is for people to listen to one another. He could talk about common ground. He could stall.

Rybak's rhetorical shtick is neither entirely insincere nor ineffective. When Melissa Schmidt and Martha Donald died in a shootout at a public-housing complex late last month, Rybak immediately went to the scene to speak with residents and call for calm. He did the same thing last Friday, when he cleared his calendar to tour North with high-profile black activists such as Spike Moss. In the community caring and sharing department, Rybak is twice the leader Sharon Sayles Belton was. That said, when it comes to the very real rift between police and the citizenry, it is time for the mayor to put the city's money where his mouth is.

Having a well-funded, independent Civilian Review Authority with the power to call witnesses, render objective decisions (for and against the police), and dole out punishment is an essential first step in the cooling process. As it stands, people on the street are now questioning even the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Officer Schmidt, not to mention the shooting of a 19-year-old man two weeks ago, or that bungled raid in north Minneapolis last Thursday. When officers use deadly force or accidentally injure innocent bystanders, it is reasonable for people to demand due process. As it stands, many believe the system and the media that covers it are rigged. How much this perception squares with reality depends on the color of your skin or where you live; Rybak, whose modus operandi is often all about perception, must respect that.

Day to day, defense attorney Keith Ellison explained a week before the Schmidt shooting, folks just want to know that they have somewhere to turn when an officer uses profane language, spews racial epithets, or jumps to conclusions based on race. "Most of the time, nobody lost a drop of blood or a patch of skin--you're just talking about stuff like language," he said. "But those sorts of things, which seem like no big deal, need to be addressed. If they're not, people lose confidence in the whole system."

Tomorrow there will be a city council meeting to discuss the committee's recommendations for reforming the CRA. The cheapest option still costs nearly twice as much as the mayor has said he will spend, so it's a good bet Rybak--or his representative--will suggest that the CRA be lumped in with the Civil Rights Department to save money. It is crucial that the mayor's constituents challenge that scheme. The Civil Rights Department has its charge: to investigate claims of discrimination. They are already underfunded and overworked, just like every other city department; to think that they could do justice to complaints about the police for an extra $200,000 is either naive or disingenuous.

If Rybak is serious about easing tensions on the street, then he will lobby the city council to dig deep and come up with a system that appears legitimate because it is. In the long run, this will discourage specious complaints and force the MPD to weed out its bad seeds before they cost the city millions of dollars in lawsuits. In the short term, it just might stop another riot before it takes us by surprise.


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