Moose in a China Shop

Charles Moose: He'll never be as famous as Mary Richards
Courtesy of the Montgomery County Police Department

You could feel a small shudder of collective titillation two Saturdays ago when the Star Tribune reported that Charles Moose had applied to be the new Minneapolis police chief. Moose, you may recall, was the head of Maryland's Montgomery County police department a year ago when the infamous D.C. sniper case broke. The episode shone a national spotlight on Moose and his regular press briefings; as police chiefs go, he is perhaps the closest thing to a celebrity the profession has to offer.

Though the list of 26 candidates is supposedly confidential, Moose's candidacy had been grist for the rumor mill for weeks. Aside from his quasi-celebrity, Moose is also black, potentially a factor of some weight as the MPD continues to face perennial charges of racism and abuse of power. The Moose enthusiasts among City Hall's rumormongers also like to point out that he is known as a law-and-order chief, a cop's cop whose appointment would serve to reassure any officers on the street who worry that there might actually be changes in the culture of the department.

Mayor R.T. Rybak, who has suffered one political beating after another in his dealings with Olson, would like to earn a PR victory with the selection of the new chief. A figure like Moose, who would nominally improve the "diversity" of the MPD while pushing a hard line on the street, is tailor-made for Rybak and his allies at the police federation. It would be, as one City Hall insider said last week, "his big race relations coup."

Moose may be a bona fide candidate, but he certainly comes with some baggage. For starters, he's currently unemployed, having left his post in Montgomery County in June so he could write a book about the sniper ordeal. Critics questioned his ethics in so using his unique position for personal profit; Moose countered that his account would be a valuable glimpse into law enforcement. But Three Weeks in October: The Manhunt for the Serial Sniper has been widely panned for lacking anything illuminating on the search itself, instead functioning as a rather tedious memoir.

Other controversies have plagued his career, which soared when he became the first black police chief in Portland, Oregon, in 1993. During that stint, Moose was sued when officers were accused of gathering information on political activists during demonstrations. And three years ago, the Justice Department investigated allegations that the Montgomery County department engaged in racial profiling on Moose's watch. Finally, Moose reputedly has a short fuse.

In fact, many have criticized the way Moose handled the hunt for John Muhammad and Lee Malvo, noting blowups he had with the press corps during the investigation. Moose has been criticized for other aspects of the hunt as well: His department's search focused on the wrong vehicle for too long, he tried to negotiate a surrender with the suspects in the media, and he eventually needed help from federal investigators to solve the case.

"I wasn't happy with the way he handled that investigation," says former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza, citing a moment when Moose broke down and cried during a press conference. "He was far too emotive, and then the book deal. It wasn't how you handle those things."


Still, Bouza applauds the news of Moose's candidacy, saying, "It tells me that this is a legitimate national search the city is conducting."

Which is why many believe that the news of Moose's candidacy was leaked in the first place. Since Olson's departure began to draw near, city leaders have been split on whether the next chief should come from within or outside the MPD. Three high-ranking department veterans--Tim Dolan, who commands the northside 4th Precinct, and Deputy Chiefs Sharon Lubinski and Lucy Gerold--have been identified as internal candidates, and a growing number of City Council members favor hiring one of them.

Dolan has a good reputation in the black community. But Dolan is a white male, and Rybak has said that he wants the next chief to be a woman or a person of color. Lubinski, who has been commander of two precincts, also has respect in the community, but may be hindered by the perception that she's an Olson protégée. Gerold was Rybak's earlier choice for an interim chief when he tried to fire Olson, and reportedly is favored by union leader Sgt. John Delmonico. But she lacks the respect of many officers because she came up through the ranks as an administrator, not as a street cop.

The behind-the-scenes politicking has been intense leading up to the selection, which Rybak will take to the council for a vote after he interviews the finalists on December 13. The process has been Rybak's from the beginning: He hired a search firm, the Oldani Group, to contact candidates for a $34,000 fee. He also assembled a panel of local activists for input, but ultimately, the choice is his. And Rybak, city leaders note, is holding his cards close to his chest. No matter whom he picks, the fallout is likely to be messy.

The entry of Moose's name has ratcheted up the tension level even further. Some council members fear that they'll be asked to go with Moose simply because of his race and his high profile. "Ah, the celebrity chief," one of them sighed last week. "Just because he's on Larry King doesn't mean he should be the choice." Conversely, a number of observers don't believe that Moose is really a prime candidate for the job, but is being touted only to demonstrate that the city is conducting a top-notch search.

Meanwhile, most council members hold out hope for their own personal favorites. Council member Dean Zimmermann, for instance, says he prefers John Harrington, a 25-year veteran of the St. Paul Police Department. Harrington is African American, Zimmermann notes, and he has the advantage of knowing the metro area despite being an outsider to the MPD.

But Bouza, for his part, figures that African American chiefs do little more than temporarily diffuse racial tensions anyway. "From what I've seen, most just do their service to the white power structure," Bouza says. "Rodney King happened under a black chief."

Whoever is chosen, the new chief will have an uphill battle. Every politician in town professes to want someone who can change the culture and image of the department once and for all. But Bouza believes that's naive. "You'll never change the culture in the MPD," he argues. "It's hopeless."

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