On April 1, 1989, Rich Stanek was working as a security guard at the now-defunct Chi-Chi's restaurant in City Center in downtown Minneapolis. At one point in the night, Stanek gave an employee of the restaurant a ride to her car near Loring Park. At approximately 10:00 p.m., Stanek was driving his truck back to his security job when a Cadillac ran a red light at the intersection of 12th Street and Harmon Place. The two vehicles collided.
Stanek, who was an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department and in uniform, approached the Cadillac, which was driven by Anthony Freeman, a native of Liberia who was a permanent resident of the U.S. According to a motion filed by one of Stanek's own attorneys in a 1991 civil suit filed in Hennepin County District Court, Stanek was "dazed and injured by the serious accident." Stanek further contended that Freeman attempted to flee the scene, and that he believed Freeman was intoxicated. Later in the deposition, Stanek offered a seemingly different scenario: Smoke was rising from Freeman's vehicle, Stanek said, and he tried to pull Freeman out of the car before it ignited.
But Freeman's deposition entered into the court record portrays a scene different from both of Stanek's versions. According to Freeman, Stanek approached the car cursing and screaming, and yelled, "Nigger. Motherfucker," when he arrived at the vehicle. Stanek then, according to the plaintiff, smashed the driver's side window. He ordered Freeman out of the car, "collared" him, and delivered two blows to his back and neck before handcuffing him, while Freeman was facedown on the ground. Freeman's complaint went on to allege that Stanek "beat and kicked" him "with his fists, feet, and other police-issued paraphernalia." The Liberian maintained he never resisted, because he knew Stanek was a cop. Freeman—who, according to a depostion provided in the case by the late MPD officer Jerry Haaf, had not been drinking—sought $50,000; the case was settled out of court for $40,000.
The incident was nearly forgotten until more than a decade later, when Stanek was up for confirmation by the Legislature as the state's public safety commissioner. In April 2004, the Freeman case became newsworthy again for the deposition that Stanek gave in 1992 regarding the incident. In that deposition, Stanek's racial attitudes became the topic of the questioning. He admitted that he had told racist jokes and made derogatory statements about blacks while on duty.
Then the questioning centered solely on whether Stanek had ever used the word "nigger"—which he had, he admitted, "several" times. Stanek went on to convey that he and many of his colleagues in the MPD had freely used the word on the job, and he didn't recall anyone ever being disciplined for it. "I think it's inappropriate to use that word in public," Stanek offered. "When I'm in the confines of my own home or my friends, then I think it's my business.
"I believe it's appropriate in the context [that] I'm entitled to my own opinion," Stanek added later in the deposition. "If I express an opinion or say a word within the confines of my home, that I don't bring it to work, I don't bring it to the job, I don't take it to the public, that's my own business."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had appointed Stanek to be commissioner, said the information "was immediately a concern." Stanek, who did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, issued a statement at the time that said he had "never used a racial epithet in a hateful or angry way toward anyone either during work or at home." Still, there was outrage in the African American community, and a press conference at the Urban League in north Minneapolis where several black leaders called for Stanek to resign. Almost immediately, Stanek did just that.
At the time, it seemed as if the episode might permanently derail Stanek's law enforcement career, if not his political career. (He was a member of the state House from 1995-2003.) "Personally, he scares me," one member of St. Paul's NAACP told the Star Tribune. "Anybody who makes racial statements like he did doesn't have any citizen's rights in mind."
"Using the word 'nigger' is associated with a person so far below other humans that they aren't fit to associate with them. That is what he is calling us," added Keith Ellison, then a state rep.
But despite the outcry, the city of Minneapolis left the door open for Stanek's return to the MPD. Since then, Stanek has quietly impressed critics and colleagues alike as captain of the Criminal Investigations Division. More surprisingly, Stanek is the frontrunner to replace outgoing Hennepin County Sheriff Pat McGowan as the metro's top local law enforcement official, a destiny that would have been unthinkable two years ago. Stanek, a Republican, is facing DFLer Juan Lopez in the general election on November 7; in the September primary, Stanek captured 43 percent of the vote to Lopez's 24.
The most notable aspect of Stanek's campaign is his list of supporters. His lengthy endorsement sheet features some heavies—like outgoing Sheriff McGowan himself, Sen. Norm Coleman, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and various elected officials and public safety unions. More surprisingly, he's also backed by the African-American Leadership Summit and Black Church Coalition, as well as Insight News, a newspaper that covers the black community.
It's been a strange season in Minneapolis politics, where Tim Dolan's past was heavily vetted by the Minneapolis City Council before he was confirmed chief of the MPD. And has any local politician in recent memory had to endure the constant parading of old skeletons more than Ellison as he campaigns for the Fifth Congressional District seat? But Stanek, for the most part, has avoided scrutiny and appears to have overcome his past. He has the support of some of the most ardent critics of the MPD. The reason? He did something almost unheard of in MPD quarters: He apologized.
"I've been watching with amazement from where I am," says former Minneapolis City Council member Natalie Johnson Lee, who is black and used to represent the city's North Side. She notes that Stanek the Republican has the support of many people who would normally back a DFL candidate: "I can only chalk it up to politics making strange bedfellows."
"I didn't like him then," says the Rev. Ian Bethel, an African American member of the Police Community Relations Council. "Do I like him now? He's a pretty good guy."
After the fallout from his resignation as public safety commissioner, Stanek apparently went around town to make amends. One of the people he sought out early was Roberta Englund, head of the Folwell Neighborhood Association on the North Side. "I was one of the people who hated him, but he put out an olive branch," Englund recalls. "He kept nagging me to meet with him, and he really made it clear he wanted to work with me. I thought he was really arrogant, and I still do. But he realized that north Minneapolis was rapidly becoming a killing field."
A watershed moment for Stanek came when Bethel and other community leaders approached then-Chief Bill McManus shortly after the deposition flap in the spring of 2004. McManus, who, for a white cop, had a unique connection to the black community, offered the chance for critics to vent their frustration at having Stanek come back to the force. Not long after, the group reconvened with McManus in the basement of Bethel's New Beginnings Church in south Minneapolis. This time, Stanek showed up.
"Stanek was going to be back on the street," Bethel recalls. "The idea was, let's talk about it instead of having an uproar on the street—let's kill each other in this room. Stanek didn't have to be there. It was a very tough meeting."
Longtime street activist Spike Moss notes that at the meeting, Stanek surprised by being conciliatory, admitting that he made mistakes in the past that he regretted. "We had a chance to stand face-to-face and interrogate and attack him," Moss recalls. "It was vicious, and he survived it."
Moreover, Moss and others started to notice that many African Americans in the MPD were supporting Stanek. "Black officers were starting to come up to us, unsolicited, and tell us how much Stanek had helped them in the department," Moss says. "It was almost like he had a double life, from what we knew. But they said across the board that he was thoughtful and compassionate."
Sgt. Charlie Adams, a member of the Black Police Officers Association, says that Stanek's seeming about-face is genuine. "I've known him for more than 20 years, and I've never heard him call anybody a 'nigger,'" Adams says. "If he was bullshittin', I'd call him on it."
By and large, Stanek won back the respect of many with his work on the street after taking over the Criminal Investigations Division, which deals with, among others things, homicides and narcotics busts. "I've been hitting homicide scenes in this town for many years," Moss says. "With Stanek, the homicide scenes are some of the most sensitive and organized I've ever seen."
Englund agrees, saying that CID work is "exceptionally complicated." "Rich is on the ground there," she notes. "There are a lot more cases solved now than there were before."
Ron Edwards, one of the most vocal critics of the MPD and a member of the PCRC, is perhaps the most surprising voice of endorsement for Stanek. Aside from the meeting at Bethel's church, Edwards also points to Stanek's presence at volatile crime scenes. Most notably, he points to the recent death of Dominic Felder, a mentally disturbed black man, while in police custody. There were tensions between the family and some officers, Edwards says, and Stanek was instrumental in de-escalating the scene.
"Give the devil his due," Edwards says. "Everyone is allowed forgiveness."
But Stanek hardly comes with a clean slate. He is known in some circles as a bully, one who pushes hard when it comes to law and order. At public hearings and press conferences, he comes across as affable, but can also be intimidating. Not all is well within the workplace, for instance: Stanek has two Internal Affairs complaints pending against him within the department. (The nature of those complaints is not public record while the investigations are open, but an MPD source says one involves claims of a "hostile work environment.")
Stanek, who is 44 with a wife and two children, has a degree in criminal justice from the U of M and a master's in public administration from Hamline University. He boasts a 23-year career in law enforcement, and his personnel file from the MPD going back to 1986 lists many position changes—including a stint as the commander of the Second Precinct—but no complaints of misconduct or disciplinary actions. And his résumé notes many impressive committee and task force assignments.
Still, aside from the Freeman suit, Stanek has had two other brutality cases brought against him. One 1990 incident had a patron at the old Jukebox Saturday Night nightclub alleging that Stanek, who was working off-duty, hit him over the head with a flashlight and slammed his head against the bar. Stanek denied any wrongdoing, and the case was settled out of court for $8,000.
In another incident, at a Target store office, a citizen complained that Stanek beat him and made a racist comment. That suit was dropped, and the complainant pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. In addition, in 1994, Stanek was one of four officers named in a suit that alleged excessive force during what the plaintiff claimed was a false arrest in 1993. Stanek was not named in the battery allegations; the suit was later settled for an undisclosed sum. (Stanek has also amassed court files in which he is the plaintiff. On at least one occasion, he has sued the city for compensation related to incidents and injury on the job.)
And then there is his tenacity when it comes to policymaking. Stanek racked up quite a track record during his seven years representing Maple Grove in the state Legislature, signing on as chief author of no fewer than 162 bills. Most of them have involved law enforcement issues, such as requiring a driver's license revocation for anyone convicted of fleeing a police officer; allowing for a verdict of "guilty but mentally ill" in state courts; creating a mandatory life sentence for a second violent felony conviction; writing a bill that established funding for the CODEFOR computerized crime tracking system; and introducing a law specifying that an officer's "use of less lethal munitions does not constitute deadly force." He also took the lead on—some said by watering down—a law on racial profiling.
"Maybe it's the polish and he's putting one over on us. Maybe he just knows how to conduct himself around us," says Spike Moss. "But if it's false, he won't get away with it. If he doesn't come around under this, we will act accordingly."
But for now, Moss and others realize that Stanek may be the only connection the black community has in the sheriff's office, which has historically employed no more than a handful of African American officers. "Stanek says he'll change that, and he'll change the attitude of that office," Moss recounts. "But it's up to him to prove it."
But to hear Bethel and others tell it, they believe that Stanek is ultimately an ally, and potentially an important one. "We had to go to someone on the county level," he says. "The issues of race and misconduct that we've been dealing with on the MPD, we've made progress. But we need to try to get that sort of change happening on the higher level. What can be done for my people there?"
In other words, the pressure is on Stanek if he's elected. Bethel, sounding a note from the pulpit, says that "black people believe in redemption, not just a second chance, but another chance." Still, Bethel isn't banking on blind faith. "Once he gets into the sheriff's office, and I think he will, he needs to do some reaffirmation," Bethel concludes. "He does owe us."