The Thin Black Line

Call it the symbolic end of Tony Blakey's career. It was September 1995 and the St. Paul Police Department was hosting a ceremony to honor its 20-year veterans. Two decades on the force is a big deal for anyone, but it was an even more remarkable milestone for the six remaining black members of the police academy's 1975 class, whose hiring was the culmination of a bitter federal lawsuit.

As it turned out, Blakey was the only eligible officer who was not invited to the ceremony. The rebuke was especially painful given how insular St. Paul's black community had been 20 years before. Several in that academy class of '75 had grown up in the Summit-University area, where most of St. Paul's African American populace had moved when the Rondo neighborhood was bulldozed in the '50s and '60s to make way for Interstate 94. Chief William "Corky" Finney's mother worked out of her house there, styling hair for the mothers of many of the neighborhood kids who would eventually join the force. Blakey's own father was a minister in the community.

Blakey was never told why he wasn't invited to the 20-year anniversary party, but if it was an oversight, the timing was poor. Since Blakey had begun asking his superiors to investigate what he claimed was a pattern of race discrimination on the force, he had reportedly become less than popular with the department brass. The acrimony was starting to affect Blakey's even more visible relatives--his brother Jerry, a St. Paul City Council member, and his cousin Art, a Ramsey County Sheriff's deputy assigned to the St. Paul Police Department gang task force.

Tony Blakey, a veteran cop who will be eligible to retire in the near future, is now suing the St. Paul Police Department. His employment contract prohibits him from talking with the news media about the suit or anything else. His attorney, Joanne Jirik Mullen, says that Blakey is afraid that that if he cooperated with City Pages, even by allowing his photo to be taken, it could be used as a justification to fire him and deny his pension. Police department officials likewise refuse to discuss the suit, saying it's a personnel matter. But according to the 16-page complaint Blakey recently filed in Ramsey County District Court, none of the issues he's raised through the years has been investigated. Instead, he claims, he's been made a scapegoat--transferred from his East Side beat, reprimanded for "making everything racial," sent to the department shrink, roughed up by white officers, and in some cases disciplined for the indignities he has suffered.

In the early days, minority cops were routinely assigned the worst beats. It was a measure of what the department thought of them, and a message to anyone who might aspire to follow in their steps. The court-ordered minority hiring of the 1970s was supposed to change that, and the black cops hired then indeed went on to accomplish a string of black "firsts" in the department. But if Tony Blakey is right, the St. Paul Police Department is still a place where African American cops, as one longtime local black activist puts it, have to choose between being black or blue.

Blakey's discrimination complaint paints him as a man with a long fuse. It was 1988, the document says, when he first told his supervisors he thought he was being treated differently because of his race. He and other black officers were routinely assigned inferior squad cars and the worst shifts. The department allegedly did not respond, but Blakey continued to complain about the black cops' plight. His performance reviews continued to be positive--except in the "attitude" category. After a few complaints, Blakey's supervisors began to report that he "reads racial problems into actions by other officers where none exists and he himself has voiced racial bias when dealing with the public."

The complaint has Blakey protesting the same kinds of chronic, nagging problems year after year: All of the coveted overtime assignments were given to white officers; white cops with far less seniority got new squad cars, while African American colleagues got their hand-me-downs; black cops were investigated more often and with less cause than their white counterparts.

Blakey's suit claims the department began slighting him on the job due to his outspokenness. In the few instances where his allegations were investigated, he says he was vindicated but no follow-up action was taken.

It was at about the same time--just a few weeks before things completely blew up--that Blakey's name started showing up misspelled on department documents as "Blackey."

In January 1995, he and several other African American officers on the East Side compared work schedules for the rest of the year and realized they had all drawn bad shifts. One had ended up with his inferior schedule after a white officer had complained about his assignment and requested that it be switched with the black officer's. When the black officers complained, they were told that the assignments were the result of requests made by other cops, all of whom were white.  

On January 24, Blakey took his complaints to East Side team Commander Don Winger and Sgt. Michael Toronto. He explained how many black officers were being discriminated against and laid out the incidents he felt proved the pattern. Racial tensions within the squad were running high and it made him fear for his safety, he reportedly said.

The next day, a black citizen asked Blakey how to file a discrimination complaint. Blakey followed department policy to the letter: He told the person how to get in touch with the Internal Affairs Unit. One of the two white officers in question angrily "accosted" Blakey in the squad room. A sergeant was present and witnessed the exchange, but said nothing to the white officer.

On January 26, Blakey was called to a meeting with Winger and Toronto and was told that during the meeting two days earlier he had acted "out of control." His complaints weren't going to be investigated. Instead, he was being required to report to the department's employee assistance program for a psychological assessment.

On February 8, Blakey met with then-Acting Deputy Chief Al Singer. He outlined the history of his conflicts with the department and added several incidents, including one in which a white officer referred to Chief Finney as a "dumb nigger." Singer didn't investigate, and Blakey was required to go ahead with the psychological testing. The higher he took his complaints, the suit alleges, the nastier the retaliation. On March 29, graffiti proclaiming that "Blakey and Finney Suck" appeared in a part of the precinct that only police officers had access to. Blakey took pictures and reported the graffiti, but it stayed up for at least four months. On March 31, he was accused of failing to frisk a suspect who later turned up carrying a toy gun. When Blakey proved that it was a different officer--a white man--who had arrested and failed to frisk the suspect, the department declined to order an investigation of the white officer and, according to the complaint, "discouraged Plaintiff from asking for one."

Things came to a head April 14 at a crime scene where a white officer was arresting a black suspect. Blakey was among the several police who showed up at the scene to find a number of African American witnesses angrily charging that the arresting officer had beaten the man. Blakey, again strictly following department policy, explained how they could contact the IAU. This time, a white officer at the scene grabbed Blakey and made "race-based remarks" about Blakey's helping the witnesses. A fight ensued and the other police present pulled the two apart.

A departmental investigation confirmed that Blakey had acted properly, but he was disciplined along with the other officer anyhow, according to the complaint. He was involuntarily transferred from the East Side to a downtown skyway beat and again referred for psychological testing--this time "to determine his fitness for duty."

In the 1970s, Twin Cities courts began decreeing better minority representation in police and fire departments. Minneapolis imported many of its African American officers from cities like Detroit, while St. Paul chose to grow its own. The result, most African American community activists agree, has been that St. Paul's police, for the most part, have a history of better relations with the city's minority citizens.

St. Paul hired its first black officer, Louis Thomas, on October 25, 1881. A handful followed in his footsteps and all were assigned to patrol first Rondo and later Rice Street. There was little complaint of discrimination in the department until 1928, when the department began eliminating black officers. In 1939, the city concluded that it had made a mistake, and started a recruiting drive. Seven blacks passed the patrolman's test, but the city failed to come up with the money to hire the recruits until 1941, when James Griffin was finally sworn in.

Griffin had to take the physical six times before he was hired. The first time, he flunked because the "specific gravity" of his urine was too high. The second time his toes overlapped. The third time the specific gravity of his urine was too low. After Griffin was hired, it would be 13 years before he would be allowed to take the tests required for any promotions.

In 1971, the hiring of a Griffin protégé named William "Corky" Finney brought the number of black officers to six. Soon after Finney came on board, both the Minneapolis and St. Paul departments got federal funds to recruit and train additional minority officers. The six black men subsequently hired as cops-in-training were promised three years of law enforcement education and were told they could take the patrolman's test as many times as necessary in order to pass. The department held the first exam 18 months into the program. Five flunked and were quickly fired.  

The men successfully challenged the hiring process in federal court. Judge Miles Lord agreed that the academy admissions test was unfair because it wasn't job-related. He supervised its revision and ordered that 12 of the department's next 50 appointments be minorities.

Meanwhile, Griffin--by then a 31-year veteran--was waging an anti-bias battle of his own. In July 1972, he and two other officers took the deputy chief's exam. Griffin got the highest score, but the department gave the deputy chief's job to future chief William McCutcheon, a white cop who had years less seniority. The issue was settled out of court three months later when the department created a fourth deputy chief's job specifically for McCutcheon and promoted both men.

One of Griffin's first tasks as deputy chief was to recruit the black cadets the court had ordered the department to seek out and hire. It wasn't an easy task; many African Americans were loath to join forces with an institution widely regarded in the community as the enemy. "There were stories about cops stopping elevators between floors and chaining suspects to police cars," avers St. Paul Urban Coalition head Yusef Mgeni, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability. But the St. Paul recruitment efforts ultimately made some positive differences, Mgeni maintains--"whereas the Minneapolis Police Department, many people of color believe, declared open season on poor, young males 20 years ago and never closed it."

To counter these perceptions, Griffin created a promotional brochure that promised "You can be black and be a police officer, too!" He, Finney, and the other volunteer recruiters visited schools, churches, and other community gathering spots trying to convince people that their presence on the police force could change things for the better. Cops like Griffin and Finney knew many of the youths they were wooing and in some instances were even their contemporaries. Finney, for instance, is actually several years younger than Tony Blakey, whom he helped recruit onto the force.

"It's argued that 75 percent or more of the African Americans in the St. Paul Police Department grew up in St. Paul's black community or live there now," remarks Mgeni. "In contrast to Minneapolis, where so many came from somewhere else."

Finney says the department is no longer so homegrown, but claims the effect of those early recruiting drives is still felt. "There were almost no African Americans when I came on and I had a bachelor's degree in law enforcement. My goal was to come to this department to change it to make it better reflect the community. Some parts of the community were served and some were policed--the minority communities tended to get policed."

By the time Blakey filed his recent suit, the St. Paul Police Department employed 38 African American officers. There were nine before the mid-1970s court order that forced the hiring of 10 more, meaning that the last 20 years have seen a net gain of one black officer a year--not exactly stellar numbers by anyone's reckoning.

Recruitment wasn't the only issue on Finney's mind when he replaced Chief William McCutcheon in 1992. One of his first tasks was to try to ease tensions with the African American community left over from the McCutcheon era. Several highly publicized incidents in the early '90s had left the community angry and suspicious. Police shot a young black man who they said was wielding a knife. Shortly after the incident was ruled justifiable, they stopped and, in the middle of the street, strip-searched a young black man who, they claimed, was in a drug-ridden neighborhood and looked suspicious. Four more brutality claims were made by African Americans in subsequent months, and in each instance the officers responsible were reprimanded or, at worst, briefly suspended.

In 1990, St. Paul police received more than 300 complaints, 78 of them alleging the use of excessive force. By the end of 1991, just 41 had been sustained, with the most typical punishment being an oral reprimand. In 1989, 99 of the 375 complaints filed charged excessive force had been used; 82 were sustained. The rates were better than in Minneapolis, where police in 1989 received almost 500 complaints and sustained 175. Of the 114 excessive-force complaints included in that number, just five were upheld. Numbers like those often signal that a police department's internal review process needs strengthening, and Nick Kaliq, president of the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, and other community activists began demanding the formation of an independent review board composed of civilians. McCutcheon opposed the idea; then-Mayor Jim Schiebel was lukewarm toward it.  

When Finney took over, he put together a review board containing both civilians and police officials, but it doesn't rate high marks from Kaliq, Mgeni, or other community voices. Indeed, department-watchers say Blakey's complaint sums up what many St. Paul African Americans currently feel about the department: "Tony has been a conscience, a consciousness in the department. One of the things he's been the consciousness about is racism," says one local black activist, who notes that Blakey had been trying to change the status quo for years before Finney took over. When things didn't change under the new command, it was doubly frustrating. "He thought it would take three or four years for Finney to clean up (the department) and the clock has run out. Tony got tired of waiting for him to do something about it."

But Yusef Mgeni says it's unrealistic to expect one man to change the department overnight. "It's like how you turn an ocean tanker--very slowly. You can stand on the bridge and yell that there's an iceberg, but if the people down in the engine room don't stop, there's nothing you can do. Corky was given control of a tanker that had been getting up to speed for 150 years."

Of the department's 565 employees, 82 are women and 70 are ethnic or racial minorities. (Eight of the women are racial minorities, so they are double-counted in those figures.) St. Paul has 38 black cops, meaning it's in slightly worse shape than Minneapolis, where 56 of the 950 officers are African American. Finney says diversifying the department has been one of his top priorities and cites the low number of openings as an obstacle. Of the police academy's 58 1995-96 graduates, 30 were women or minorities, as were more than half of the 40 graduates since then.

"It's a deliberate effort, but it's slow," Finney concedes. "You're talking about a traditionally white, male-dominated profession. And 94 percent of the population in Minnesota is white so you have a smaller pool to recruit from." He estimates that statewide, training programs and colleges graduate some 2,000 individuals annually who compete for the 150-200 law enforcement jobs that open up each year. Since a fraction of those graduates are minorities, he adds, the department created something called the Expanded Certification Program. While department policy normally is to look only at the top three prospects for each open job, the program allows the department to consider minorities and women from among the top 40 percent of candidates who pass entrance exams and other threshold requirements.

Finney also says the department is conscious of the need to make its officers more sensitive to their internal differences. But he adds that, as St. Paul's first black chief, he's under extra scrutiny every step of the way. "Minority chiefs of police are always held to a higher level of scrutiny than their majority counterparts," he says. "What's right is to open opportunities to people who haven't had many opportunities in the past."

Publicly, though, his hiring efforts haven't attracted as much attention as the way his department does its job on the streets of poor and minority neighborhoods. And Finney has been known to take advantage of his race in fending off charges of racism against the force. In 1995, the St. Paul Tenants Union charged that a police anti-drug program known as FORCE discriminated against people of color.

The program worked with neighborhood groups to target and eradicate drug houses. Police encourage individuals to report suspicious activity in their neighborhood, and then raid some of the offending properties. A housing inspector assigned full-time to the program accompanies the officers on the raids and is frequently called on to condemn homes the police enter, whether or not illegal activities are uncovered. The Tenants Union found that 96 percent of FORCE's suspects were people of color, almost all of them African American, while only a little more than 7 percent of city residents are black.

"As an African American and chief of police, I would suggest that the Tenants Union reconsider its position," Finney replied in an opinion piece in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "It is not the fault of the FORCE unit that a majority of [the] street-level drug dealing devastating our neighborhoods involves people of color. Nor does FORCE target people of color; it simply targets criminal behavior."  

Other critics say FORCE isn't an isolated example of racial bias in the department. By their lights, Minneapolis's police force has simply attracted so much attention that St. Paul has been lost in the shuffle. Most recently, says Kaliq, St. Paul police have made a practice of searching--presumably in search of drugs--black passengers on interstate buses arriving in the city from such places as Detroit and Chicago. "If white officers do not treat African American officers with respect, what kind of treatment can people on the street expect?" he asks.

Ironically, some rank-and-file cops may view the fact that there's an African American chief as a layer of insulation against charges of racism. "A lot of white officers probably feel a lot more confident now in harassing blacks," claims Kaliq. "They feel a lot more free than they did under Chief McCutcheon. They figure you're not black or white--you're blue. And there's a tremendous price to be paid if you break the code of silence. It's a good old boys' club, and [Blakey's] name has come up as one who would not stand by."

At the same time, Kaliq expects that it will be hard to find support for his suit among other African American officers regardless of the merits of his charges: "There's gonna be a certain number of black officers who will feel loyal to the chief and not want [this suit] to be seen as an attack on his ability to lead." It's not a groundless fear, he adds, noting that Finney has his share of detractors and opportunists in the department's hierarchy. "Some would like nothing better than to see the black community come after him," Kaliq notes. "He's got some people down there who are plotting and scheming against him as we speak." Several African American officers contacted for this story refused to discuss the Blakey matter, even anonymously.

Some say Blakey's complaint is simply the last straw for Finney, who has lived through several personnel disputes involving friends or longtime colleagues. "Finney got burned by a friend in a sexual misconduct case," explains one insider, who portrays the episode as "the key issue that got to Corky." In 1994, another of the 1975 black recruits was indicted on charges of sexual misconduct and bribery for allegedly twice using his position to coerce women in his custody to have sex with him. Portrayed by the press as a close friend of Finney's, Clifford Kelly admitted that he used poor judgment, but argued that the episodes were consensual and didn't break any laws. He was acquitted but agreed to resign, according to a department spokesperson.

Shortly afterward, Finney again made headlines for issuing a gun permit for then-Department of Public Safety head Michael Jordan, an African American. Jordan didn't live in St. Paul, which made the issuing of the permit questionable. NAACP and Urban Coalition leaders argued that St. Paul sometimes issued the permits for officials who worked in the city. Even though lawmakers agreed that the flap was "picayunish," Finney was portrayed, at least among white politicians, as going to the wall to help a black friend. "No issue like that would have been raised if Finney and Michael Jordan had been white," one department-watcher charges. Mayor Norm Coleman "let Finney know he could step in" if the department started to look bad, he adds. The net result was that by the time Blakey's problems erupted, Finney had been made to feel that if he got involved in the complaint, it would be perceived as race-based favoritism on his part. As a result, "Finney has become a man of the status quo."

Blakey and Finney aren't described as personally close, and there are layers of police bureaucracy between the two. But the Blakey family name is a prominent one in St. Paul's relatively small black community. Along with that civic prominence, the Blakey family has cultivated a sense of duty.

"Blakey and Finney grew up together, and Blakey tried to make Finney understand what the thinking in the ranks was," explains one observer who knows both men, and says that toward the end of his efforts to keep his complaints an internal matter, Blakey could sound abrasive. "Finney didn't want to hear it after a while."

After his 1995 reassignment from the East Side, Blakey took his complaint to both the department's Internal Affairs Unit and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Calls to the IAU review board were not returned and an EEOC representative would not discuss Blakey's complaint, which was dismissed in November. (EEOC complaints are frequently dismissed at the plaintiff's request in order to allow court actions to proceed, but city attorneys claim this one was dismissed because the EEOC found no grounds for the complaint.)  

A second African American officer, Lenore Travis, is planning to join Blakey's suit as soon as the EEOC complies with her request that it dismiss her bias complaint against the department. A decorated 10-year veteran, Travis likewise declined to discuss her lawsuit. Department observers say the two are close friends, however, and that the graphic sexual harassment she is reported to have experienced was one reason Blakey decided to go ahead and file suit so close to retirement.

Other rumors about the suit are circulating as well: that Travis has evidence of corruption on the force; that the department is trying to find something to pin on Blakey so it can fire him; that there are audio tapes floating around of East Side cops using their squad car radios to engage in racist banter; that Blakey would get so angry he'd wonder aloud how his fellow cops dared harass someone who carried a gun. Longtime veterans of the force have been overheard complaining that the department was so rife with intrigues and subplots that it was "out of control" and "falling apart."

There's no way to know exactly how true the stories are, since no one involved in the case is talking. But outside the department, the whole flap is seen as a sign that when it comes to building a truly integrated police force, 25 years may not be such a long time. Nick Kaliq, for one, sees no irony at all to the fact that a lawsuit launched Tony Blakey's career and a lawsuit might end it. "Do racism and discrimination exist in the St. Paul Police Department? Absolutely. The problems in the system are ingrained. They didn't get there overnight and the only way African Americans and other oppressed groups have gotten any relief is in courts."

City Pages news intern Margaret Delehanty provided research assistance for this article.

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