The Human Shield
In January 2006, 15 officers from the Minneapolis Police Department closed ranks in the basement of the New Beginnings Baptist Church in south Minneapolis. They joined an equal number of representatives from the Police Community Relations Council. Though a cold snow graced the ground outside, the air in the cramped cellar of the church was thick with sweat.
The topic at hand: a Medal of Valor that a 13-member MPD committee had awarded to Sgt. Dan May just six days earlier. The honor stemmed from a 1990 incident in which the officer fatally shot a 17-year-old, unarmed black boy named Tycel Nelson as he fled a house party in north Minneapolis.
Community reps from the council, many of them African American, felt that the MPD's insistence on heralding May smacked of arrogance and even hostility. In their minds, it made a mockery of Nelson's death. Voices raised and carried.
Then John Delmonico spoke up. The head of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation, the union that represents the rank and file, Delmonico owns a reputation as the quintessential cop's cop. He has backed hundreds of officers in the face of misconduct allegations—even defending officers who he knew were guilty.
But when he spoke up at the meeting, tensions dissipated.
"I was surprised at this, and we're not a part of this," Delmonico said. "Does anybody think that there's anything to be gained by going through with awarding this medal?"
Other cops fell into line. By the end of the meeting, the two sides reached an agreement. The next day, May returned the award.
From the outside, it looked like Delmonico was going against type. Here he was, bowing to public pressure and throwing a cop to the wolves.
But that wasn't the full story. It turns out Delmonico and May came up together in the department, and still count each other as friends. What looked like a concession to activists was in fact a clever way to protect his friend from further public scrutiny.
"I was talking to him during the whole thing," May says. "He said that he'd always do his best to protect officers, but for the good of the department, it was best to put the medal behind us."
Delmonico can be a hard guy to figure out, but there's one core principle that overrides all others: He's there to protect the cops, whether they deserve it or not.
"What bothers me with this whole incident was that Danny May really tried to move on emotionally, psychologically, and on the job—it was really tough for him," Delmonico says.
Sitting in a conference room at the offices of the police federation in northeast Minneapolis, Delmonico exudes calm from the waist up, even as one of his knees bounces up and down like he's playing a phantom kick drum.
"Danny May never asked for the medal, and he had done a really good job moving on. That was my perspective," the union boss says. "When the shit hit the fan, it was going to be Danny May left hanging on a limb."
First elected president of the police federation in 2000, Delmonico has been the one constant in a troubled department. Three chiefs have led the MPD since Delmonico took over the union.
Whether at press conferences, City Council meetings, or high-profile shootings, Delmonico has no trouble finding the spotlight. Though this could be said of the cop bosses in most major cities, here in Minneapolis, Delmonico's influence dwarfs that of the actual police chief and most other city leaders.
With more than 900 members, the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation is the largest law-enforcement union in the state. There are 10 elected members on a board of directors who, in concert with Delmonico, advocate for cops in every area: fighting disciplinary actions from the brass, negotiating with city leaders for more generous contracts, and lobbying the Legislature at the Capitol. The union has a heavy hand in endorsing candidates for city and statewide offices. According to the union's website: "The Federation takes a very active role in putting a public face on Minneapolis police officers."
That face, of course, is Delmonico. He looks every bit the part of the bully union boss. With his Italian surname, broad-stroke mustache, and sheer size—he stands nearly six feet and weighs 300 pounds—nobody fills out the department blues better than Delmonico. The 50-year-old, 19-year vet of the department can look intimidating, and those who have tangled with him know that in many circles, his word is law.
"We consider John Delmonico the unelected mayor of Minneapolis," says Michelle Gross of the activist group Communities United Against Police Brutality. "He and the federation have that much power. With its endorsements of judges, council members, the mayor, the sheriff, and candidates for other positions, the federation exercises significant influence over every area of local government."
Bob Bennett, an attorney in town who has represented plaintiffs in some of the city's highest-profile police brutality suits, sees the federation as an impediment to justice.
"It's all about the union in this town, sometimes at the expense of good policing," Bennett says. "Whenever there's a new chief to come in and change the department, there's a problem from the union."
Even so, Delmonico has an open-door policy when it comes to critics, and he comes armed with a sharp mind. He earned a master's degree in criminal justice, and even co-teaches a course in criminal justice ethics at Metro State University. Staunchly private about his personal life, but highly accessible to just about anyone who needs to talk to him, Delmonico strikes a balance between old-school cop and new-age philosopher.
"Everything we do at the federation, we do for a reason," Delmonico says. "In the end, I think it's about educating people on both sides of police work, and building relationships, I really do."
Three years ago, when the Department of Justice created the Police Community Relations Council as part of a federal mediation agreement, Delmonico began working with some of the toughest critics of the MPD, most notably the civil rights activists Ron Edwards and Spike Moss.
"There was a lot of things that we used to hang on the shoulders of Delmonico all these years," Moss says. "But you sit down with him, and you realize he's a lot more fair than you thought. When it comes time to vote on matters at PCRC meetings," Moss says, "we often end up voting the same way."
For his part, Delmonico says that the criticism of the department isn't unwarranted.
"The main question is: Is the criminal justice system, which the police are a part of, racist?" he asks. "Is there racism and prejudice in the police department? Yes, there is. For anybody to tell you that we don't have our biases and prejudices is not true. You could ask, 'Is the MPD institutionally racist?' Yeah, I'd agree with you. But it's frustrating, because it's so much larger than the cops."
Shrek memorabilia adorns the shelves of Delmonico's federation office. He relates to the green cartoon ogre, in part, he says, because they both have large heads. With a chuckle, he mentions that when he first graduated from the police academy, his 8 1/4" hat size required that the department special-order an extra-large riot helmet.
Delmonico has seen the rock band Kiss in concert 11 times. In more subdued moments, his visage tends to look like that of a basset hound. He's on his second marriage, and lives near where he grew up, in what he calls "lily-white northeast Minneapolis." As the youngest of three children born to George and Millie, John never strayed far from home. "Northeast Minneapolis is a world away from other parts of the city," he says.
George, a World War II vet, ran a grocery, Delmonico's Italian Foods, with his brother Louis. The two worked side by side for more than 70 years, but both are now deceased, and Delmonico's brother Bob runs the store, along with a cousin. The Delmonico clan was a large Italian family—by John's estimation, he has upward of 30 to 40 cousins and second cousins, almost all of them living in northeast Minneapolis. His mother, who died in 1997, was of German and Irish descent, and came to Minneapolis from small-town South Dakota to be a registered nurse.
"My mom taught me it doesn't cost a penny to dream and it never hurts to ask," Delmonico says. "The one thing I inherited from dad is my work ethic. He taught me if you want something, you have to work for it."
The first job Delmonico ever had was washing dishes in a bakery. Born and raised Catholic, he attended De La Salle high school in downtown Minneapolis. Delmonico was a goalie for the hockey team—"I could do the splits then," he jokes—and was well-known around the school, perhaps more for his mouth than his athletic prowess. "I was always the one who did well in school but got low marks for talking too much," he says.
After graduating in 1975, Delmonico set out on a somewhat rudderless spell. He worked for a while in a mechanic shop, then at a car dealership downtown. He found both jobs rather dull. He preferred racing his 1969 Z28 Camaro and his 1969 Nova Super Sport up and down Central Avenue.
Then he took a job as a volunteer firefighter for the city of St. Anthony. He liked the action of going out on calls, and felt his ties with the community deepen. He liked meeting and helping people. Not long after, Delmonico decided that what he really wanted to be was a Minneapolis cop.
It wouldn't be easy, thanks to the stiff requirements. Delmonico bided his time working security for Metropolitan Medical Center downtown. It was the next best thing to policing.
"Keepin' order when there's chaos," Delmonico says. "Helping people in fragile situations, or even in rough situations. I probably physically fought more there in eight years than I have in 19 years in my life as an MPD cop."
While working security, Delmonico went to school to get a peace officers' license. By the time he was 26, in 1983, Delmonico was hired by the police department in small-town Zimmerman, where he was the only cop on overnight patrol.
Finally, in 1988, Delmonico achieved his ambition and earned a job with the MPD.
"I came into it late, at age 31," Delmonico says. "But the first roll call, when guys are picking who they're gonna ride squad with, I was chosen by two established vets in the department that I knew. That was an honor to me."
His first stint was patrolling in the city's Third Precinct, which included the Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis, then known as "Crack Avenue." Lake Street was a cesspool of drug dealing and prostitution. Gangs infiltrated the city like never before, and the subsequent turf wars eventually led to a murder rate so high that the New York Times famously dubbed the town "Murderapolis."
Still, Delmonico recalls those days fondly.
"The best way to sum up my time at Threes was I was living the dream," Delmonico says. "I had good partners, I had good brass, I worked a busy car. It was everything."
One of his early partners was Danny May, who remembers that Delmonico was good at easing tensions on the job, making bad scenes better with a soothing comment or a quick joke.
"Plus, he's a bullshitter, which I'm sure he learned at the family store," May says, "and a bullshitter can always diffuse a situation."
May and Delmonico came up with a new wave of cops, as city leaders desperately tried to bolster the department in the face of a steep increase in crime. Delmonico, by all accounts, moved easily between the old guard and the new. By 1994, he had taken a promotion to the investigative unit. But even as his police career was blossoming, he was being wooed by a new love: the union.
"I always say that it's better to be at the table doing something, rather than just in the back of the room bitching," he says.
In 1999, the union president, Al Berryman, decided he would not seek re-election. Delmonico ran for his seat, something he treats with nonchalance by saying, "I figured I had nothing to lose." But many in the federation saw his leadership and ambition. "He was a natural for it, like it was his calling," says Sgt. May.
Delmonico was also aligned with a younger group of cops who took over positions within the federation. Delmonico was seen as an honest guy who would be a strong advocate for police rights and who had the advantage of being well-steeped on contract issues.
It helped that he wasn't a polarizing figure in the then-fractured department.
"Nowhere in the country was there a more politicized department from 1970 to 1980," says Tony Bouza, who came from New York to be chief of the MPD in 1980. "It was unremitting conflict within and outside the union."
Delmonico defeated his rival 557 votes to 152, and quickly set a new tone for the office. Delmonico's predecessor, Berryman, had been notoriously combative, often fighting with city leaders over various labor and policing issues. "I always kind of thought, 'Can't we just act like adults?'" says former MPD Deputy Chief Greg Hestness. "John spent a long time in Berryman's shadow, and has a different negotiation technique." By most accounts, Delmonico introduced a more respectful and united federation.
Still, Hestness, who is now the chief of the University of Minnesota police, recalls one particularly sticky contract negotiation with Delmonico. "John didn't often see the wisdom of my positions, and he's always been a strong local advocate for his people. But he was far less adversarial, and I think he's grown personally."
Ron Edwards, the civil rights activist and co-chair of the PCRC, echoes that sentiment: "There's absolutely no comparison between Al and Delmonico. Al was clearly overwhelmed with race and other issues. John's a good guy, and we can talk."
Delmonico points to his time in Phillips, where he often dealt with problems in American Indian neighborhoods. He also talks of a stint in the force's juvenile crime unit. "It's sad to say that most of the kids I was dealing with were black," Delmonico recalls. "And I'd always had my perceptions. But it hit me that there was an environment that these kids couldn't get out of. You could talk to them and they'd listen, and I loved those kids. But you could never get around what was going on at home. It changed me."
But race hung over one the notorious episodes of Delmonico's early tenure as federation president—the death of Officer Melissa Schmidt and the woman who shot her, Martha Donald. Schmidt, who was white, responded to a call at a public housing complex in south Minneapolis in August 2002. There she found Donald, a black woman whom Schmidt knew, intoxicated and agitated. Donald went into a restroom, and Schmidt followed her into a stall. Donald had a gun. Shots were fired. Both women were found dead.
When Natalie Johnson Lee, a black council member who represented the city's Fifth Ward at the time, issued a letter that expressed condolences to the suspect's family, the police union fired back with a letter of its own: "If Council Member Johnson Lee has no greater understanding of public service to know that giving one's life to the public is different from taking a life in public, then she is not fit to serve and should resign immediately."
Four days later, police shot a black man alleged to be a gang member on the city's North Side. In subsequent media accounts, witnesses claimed that they heard one cop allude to payback for the death of Melissa Schmidt.
Ten days later, a riot erupted on the North Side after a police bullet ricocheted and hit an 11-year-old black boy. Vehicles were torched and vandalized, and two Star Tribune reporters were beaten by the angry mob.
Police and community leaders alike pointed to the spat between Johnson Lee, then the only African American on the City Council, and the federation as one of the causes of the unrest.
Asked about it today, Delmonico says he regrets "that things got ugly," but declines to elaborate.
But that wasn't the only time Delmonico and the union battled their political enemies. Though the union endorsed R.T. Rybak's mayoral candidacy in 2001 and played a huge role in his upset of incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton, relations had soured by the time he ran for re-election in 2005. Faced with an uptick in crime and the attrition of 170 officers under Rybak, the federation endorsed his opponent, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. Rybak eventually won, and noted along the way that "the people spoke, and John Delmonico and his Swift Boat full of special interests sunk."
But Delmonico defends the move, saying that he felt Rybak had been a fair-weather friend to police.
"That was the frosting on the cake with the end of our relationship, because he lied to me," Delmonico concludes. "Disagree with me, but don't do that."
Disagreement might be an understatement regarding a recent dust-up with Ralph Remington, the first-term council member representing the 10th Ward. Remington has long been a vocal critic of the MPD, so in an effort to clear the air, Delmonico and Remington met at a cafe near Uptown.
When Remington arrived, he saw that Delmonico had brought three other members of the federation with him. In an email to Rybak about the incident, Remington complained about the reception he received: "The tone was loud and hostile.... Their manner was aggressive and meant to intimidate."
Remington later noted at a press conference that one of the cops said, "We will remove you," which Remington took as a personal threat. The federation members later claimed that they'd meant they would remove him from office. Either way, it was an unseemly incident.
By now, Remington has calmed, saying that Delmonico eventually apologized. "It just reminded me of some old-school union-boss shit, and it was ham-fisted," Remington says. But it clearly still stings—the federation had endorsed his candidacy in 2005.
Delmonico bluntly assesses both the Rybak and Remington situations. "My issue is that they looked at our endorsement as a one-night stand," he says, "and we look at it as a long-term relationship."
Two years ago, Delmonico signed on to help teach a criminal justice ethics class at Metro State University. Today, Delmonico dresses in a blue oxford button-down and blue jeans. He paces on one side of the room, interjecting real-life cop stories into soliloquies from Mark Mathews, a philosophy professor prone to quoting Sartre.
Delmonico clearly relishes the chance to pontificate. He talks about how the code of silence toward even one bad cop's behavior can bring down an entire department. "It's tough to rat somebody out," he says, "because you want to be accepted by your peers. But I guarantee you, if you do the right thing, if in the end you really do the right thing, five or six of your colleagues will come forward and tell you."
It's a familiar dilemma to Delmoncio. "When a cop comes to me and he's been in trouble," he continues, "I can tell within 10 minutes if he is actually remorseful or not. Seeing the wrongdoing, that's his absolution."
He then goes through a litany of police offenses, some real, some hypothetical. "Why are there violent cops? Why are chiefs inconsistent in doling out suspensions? Is there a reason Minneapolis cops are getting DWIs? Are we treating them rather than just firing them?"
He looks out the classroom window for a moment. "That's what I ask," he says, "And I haven't gotten an answer yet."
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