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Twin Cities cops in a job under siege

Officer Lou Ferraro drops in on a regular handful of homes throughout his district over the course of a shift to gauge residents’ welfare

Officer Lou Ferraro drops in on a regular handful of homes throughout his district over the course of a shift to gauge residents’ welfare

As the sun sets in St. Paul's East District, Officer Lou Ferraro shines his flashlight between the cracks of a towering backyard fence. A steady bass thunders from within. According to the neighbors, the noise has been unbearable for two weeks now.

A second squad pulls up. A pair of cops climb out to join Ferraro, who pounds on the gate with the butt of his flashlight. Suddenly, the volume drains to a gentle pulse and a lanky, bare-chested man throws open the door.

Several men stand near a fire pit. A little girl, no older than five, dashes across the lawn. "I don't like polices!" she shrieks.

While the other officers explain the neighbors' frustration with late-night partying, Ferraro compliments the girl on the beach ball she's clutching. She smiles shyly.

Back in his car, Ferraro looks strained under the harsh tungsten of the streetlamps flashing by. A new notification popping up on his laptop shows that the guys at the last house started blasting their music again as soon as the cops took off.

He has few words for the girl's instinctive distaste for police, except to muse that kids tend to echo their parents at that age. He prefers to think about earlier in the day, when a pair of freckled twins chased him down for the stickers and baseball cards he keeps in his trunk.

The members of the District 1 Community Council’s Young Mentors Group in St. Paul have varied opinions and experiences with police, but agree that cops’ recent steps to get out of their cars and talk to neighborhood kids have cut down on conflict

The members of the District 1 Community Council’s Young Mentors Group in St. Paul have varied opinions and experiences with police, but agree that cops’ recent steps to get out of their cars and talk to neighborhood kids have cut down on conflict

Or the teenage girls in competitive dance uniforms in the Harding High parking lot, who narrowed their eyes in suspicion when they saw him slowly passing through.

He'd rolled down his window, waved and asked the girls how their performance went, coaxing smiles and chatter.

Ferraro hopes these gestures will change kids' minds about cops bit by bit, knowing full well some will grow up to hate the police, whether he has anything to do with it or not.

It's hard to be a cop in America at the moment. A bloody turnstile of brutality cases from Ferguson to Hempstead has roused questions about the credibility of their reports and the integrity of their internal investigations, the firepower of their arsenals and the blue code of silence that prevents honest officers from reporting wrongdoing in their departments.

Across the river in Minneapolis, studies show that blacks are nine times more likely to be arrested than whites. It's all led to caricatures weighted with frustrated cynicism: that law enforcement is a racist profession that attracts bullies with a penchant for violence.

The invective rolls off the tongue: "Fuck the police, prosecute the prosecutor."

Jon Sherwood, another East Side officer, recalls a day not long after Ferguson, Missouri cop Darren Wilson fired multiple rounds into Michael Brown. He stopped by the Arlington Hills Recreation Center with a new recruit to take stock of security. A young father sent his toddler stumbling toward them, tiny hands raised in the air.

"It gets a little disheartening when people think it's a joke to do that," Sherwood says. "But of course the kid doesn't understand it."

The child's mother was livid. The recruit was speechless. Sherwood's only advice to the new officer was to let it roll right off. "You do this job, you gotta put a thick skin on and not take any of it personal."

Caught in the act

In his 31 years on the force, Sherwood says, the biggest change has been the rapid increase in guns and smartphones.

The public has learned that the only way to snag cops is to get them on camera. People now film almost on impulse for self-defense. Then there's the cop-baiting for YouTube.

"They're looking for that one instance when the human side comes out of a cop, frustration, a loud voice, something that sounds inappropriate," Sherwood says. But it only makes the job harder.

Late one night, he found himself evicting a homeless man from a vacant house. Despite evident mental health issues, the man was cooperative — until a passerby pulled out his phone. The homeless man lost it.

"Look, you can film me all you want," Sherwood told cellphone guy. "But here's a private citizen who doesn't want to be on camera."

In his job as a security officer at the Gay 90’s, Brandon Battee empathizes with the cops who come to his aid

In his job as a security officer at the Gay 90’s, Brandon Battee empathizes with the cops who come to his aid

The phone was pocketed. The filmmaker disappeared.

Communities across the country are largely in agreement: Slapping a body cam on every cop will protect both police and the public, discourage violence, and preserve evidence to resolve disputed cases quickly.

Cops, however, aren't sure if the public wants to see what they see.

The night before Mother's Day, Ferraro rushed into a home where a 15-year-old boy in pajamas planted himself in the kitchen, wielding a foot-long knife. He threatened to cut himself, screaming that he wouldn't spend another minute under his mother's roof. He demanded freedom, his own apartment, emancipation.

Ferraro called the medics, then tried to talk the boy down with a toothy grin and a gentle reality check.

"Your mother loves you," he told the kid. "You know how I know? You've got braces. That shows your mom cares about you, because braces cost a lot of money. Look at me, crooked teeth."

While the kid wasn't looking, Ferraro took the knife and stuffed it away in a drawer.

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Ferraro later accompanied the boy through the winding corridors of Gillette Children's, handing him off to a team of nurses who seemed to know him by sight.

As soon as he got back to the car, a call came from a terrified Kareni woman who claimed her husband slugged her in the face and threatened to slice her up.

The woman had taken refuge in the home of a friend. Officer Ler Htoo was summoned to translate. Htoo is St. Paul's only Karen cop, a specialist in dealing with the tide of immigrants from Myanmar, ethnic minorities who fled abuse to Thai refugee camps before arriving in St. Paul.

While Ferraro documented lacerations, two recruits stood by, eager to go after the husband. Their excitement was palpable.

One showed off the domestic violence questionnaire card he keeps in his wallet, a mini psychological assessment that helps prosecutors press charges even if victims change their minds. The other confessed to thinking that body cams would do everyone good. But after two weeks on the job, he'd learned that cops practice wide discretion. Could they still cut a guy a break when the tapes are rolling?

The cops surrounded the home of the woman and her husband. Through a window they saw elders pacing in the dark. Ferraro banged on the window, commanding the residents to open up.

The cops handcuffed the husband, a mountain of muscle with a bleach-blond Mohawk, as the extended family watched from the shadows. An anxious grandfather hoisted a baby in his arms. These are the moments Sherwood would rather keep from public sight.

"Imagine if you called 911 and you're in one of the worst moments of your life," says Sherwood. "Do you want that on video? Most of what we do is service — check the welfare of kids, check the welfare of people in mental health crisis. In all my years, I've never had someone come into roll call and slam their fist down on their desk and say, 'I hope we get into a fight today. I hope we see some violence.'"

Officer Lou Ferraro

Officer Lou Ferraro

The grind

On a brisk Saturday morning, Minneapolis officers Oscar Macais and Sean Kelly straighten their uniforms on the steps of the second precinct in Northeast. The duo have volunteered their day off to shoot a recruitment video.

Kelly was raised on the outskirts of St. Paul. Macais is from South Central L.A. Nine years of sharing a squad means the two have spent more time with each other than with their wives, refining a chemistry that merges Macais' gregarious glibness with Kelly's starched-collar command. One has a way of talking to youth, the other to adults.

Their days are filled with business checks, traffic stops, patrolling high crime areas. While some see their work as harassment, others see them as rising to their duty. They're helping neighborhoods hit by burglaries, convenience store owners plagued by menacing customers.

"A lot of days there's gonna be absolutely nothing going on," Macais says. "It's mellow, which is good for the community. Then something exciting happens, a car chase, something that's going to get your adrenaline pumping."

The new recruits get into it. Professional sentiment says you'd work the first year for free, just to get front-row seats to the action.

But reality soon sets in. Most of the time, cops are helping parents with sons who won't listen, daughters who won't eat, or grandparents who can't lift themselves back into bed. It's a far cry from what the cut and curated cop shows make the job to be.

At some point in his shift, Ferraro always swings by the public housing high-rises on Edgerton and Montreal, where he works off-duty, to shoot the shit with residents playing bingo in the rec room. He drives by parks and schools. He gets flagged down by people with sad tales of petty theft. He mediates between the boy chucking rocks at passing cars and the minivan family at the receiving end of the kid's boredom.

As the sun sets one late spring day, Ferraro circles a muddy heap of smashed furniture and rotten mattresses piled in the grass behind an East Side home. Neighbors eye him from stoops as he snaps photos of the illegal dumping from every angle. It's hard to imagine a less glamorous task.

And the calls keep trickling in. Ferraro puts off dinner till the streets empty and the lights of east St. Paul flicker off block by block. Sitting in an empty Cub cafeteria, munching on an egg salad sandwich, he says he's never had an excessive force complaint in 12 years on the job.

For all its volatility, police work should not be a profession that induces complaints left and right, Ferraro explains. Yet some officers wind up on the news with a troubling frequency, costing cities millions to settle lawsuits. "If they have a handful? Yeah, that's bad."

The vast majority aren't out trying to pick a fight. They measure success in tourniquets they apply at car crashes, babies they save with CPR. Yet they all tend to be cast with the same suspicion.

"I don't think people want to understand the job," Ferraro reflects in a rare moment of melancholy. "I don't think people care about we actually do."

To serve and protect whom?

Christopher Melendez and Timothy Turner, leaders of a youth group at the District 1 Community Council neighborhood organization, feel somewhat skittish about the giant St. Paul Police Department decal plastered over their storefront. Sharing office space with Battle Creek cops means free rent, but they don't want kids to assume they're narcs.

The pair meet regularly with a crew of teenagers. On this evening, the discussion turns to pressing talk on the street. It's all about the police.

When the kids are asked what first runs through their minds when they see a cop, a slumping 13-year-old surprises everyone when he's the first to mumble, "They're trying to fix a problem."

Melendez and Turner both ask if they heard right. They urge the boy, Micah, to sit up straight and speak his truth.

Micah recalls the distant memory of wandering lost in a park when he was six. The details are fuzzy, but his fear is visceral. An officer stumbled upon him and drove him home.

"I have never seen no bad things come from them," Micah says. "But I hear people talk about them."

The older boys have more complicated views.

Sixteen-year-old Brandon has a shy stutter, but riffs an uncanny impression of Christian Bale as Batman when he imitates the condescending tone police have taken with him in the past.

Once, when he was very young, he, his sister, and her friends were hanging out on the porch. Near midnight, Brandon stepped into the house as soon as he spotted a cop coming down the street. It was the wrong move. The officer ordered him back out, then lectured him for 10 minutes about making noise and dodging squad cars as if he had something to hide.

"I've always felt tense around the cops, you know. I always knew they're supposed to protect and stuff, but cops just always made me nervous. You know, having a cop around when you're not supposed to act nervous, but you're always nervous so you're twice as nervous, you know, because when you make the wrong moves or you say the wrong thing, you can get really messed up."

Seventeen-year-old Q, has had "plenty, plenty, plenty" of interactions with police, none positive.

"If they're acting cool, I'd definitely be cool with them," he says in a knowing drawl. "If they're not acting cool, I'm still cool, but it's not gonna be the same. If they asking me what they're looking for — 'You got some guns on you? You got some weed on you?' — I say I ain't got it. I give them my name, they look me up, and they gotta let me go. I play my role, cuz if I don't they're gonna take that as a ticket to hop on me."

Listening to the kids talk, Melendez thinks back to the days when he'd take long walks through Eastview Park with its rolling fields and empty bleachers, thinking about its unmet potential.

A father of two little girls, he worried about the occasional fights, the drug use, the littered condoms, and the police barking at kids to get off the basketball courts at curfew.

At the center of it was the Eastview Rec Center, a major resource that could keep kids out of trouble, if only it offered any sort of programming, like free sports leagues.

As far as he's heard, Eastview hasn't seen too many collisions between cops and kids this summer. That's a good thing, perhaps a symptom of an increasing number of St. Paul officers willing to get out of their cars and talk to people — something else he's witnessed.

The Neighbors

The kids of Eastview Park see Kevin Tetu as a snitch. He has a host of medical conditions that keep him home all day, reading the paper in his lawn chair while his trio of Shih Tzus nose about the garden.

Tetu, who's white, keeps a vigilant eye. He's fed up with the crime that plagues his neighborhood. So he calls the cops when cars fly down the block, when skirmishes brew on the fields, when arguments between young couples appear to spiral toward blows.

On the East Side, there's the suspicion that the cops work for white neighbors, keeping kids and people of color at bay. Tetu is content to take the heat.

Down the street lives Ismael Villanueva, whose living-room windows yield a clear view of the baseball field, where large groups of young people gather at night.

Rounds of coughing leave no mystery as to what they're doing. It's no big deal — as long as no one offers his children a hit — though he wishes they'd smoke out of sight to respect the public.

Some nights the groups get rowdy. If there's a fight, he won't hesitate to sound the horn. The tattooed dad says he's never been profiled by police. Or at least he chooses not to see it that way.

"I think cops are more afraid of losing their jobs now," he says. "If people keep trying to catch them in some mistake, what's going to make them want to stop their cars to see what's going on when they could just keep rolling on down the street?" He, for one, feels safer with more police presence.

Tetu's neighbor Brandon Battee has lived on the East Side for three years. He's been pulled aside for random questioning and wrongly stopped for drunk driving in the middle of the day, he says.

Once, his brother was wrestled to the ground by Burnsville police, his face ground into the pavement after he showed a suspended license to a bouncer.

"My mom was very upset about it. My sister was gung-ho about doing something about it. I was angry too, but I was trying to think about it logically," Battee says. "I looked at my brother and I'm like, 'I know kinda how you are, so I'm assuming that if you didn't sound as harsh as you did, they probably wouldn't have taken you as a threat.' And the cop, I'm sure he took it the wrong way."

Battee works security at the Gay 90's in downtown Minneapolis, where he's used to being challenged. "I know how it is for those guys," he says. "But for me, the real issue is this: When you work with a partner for so long, but then you see him doing these bad things, how do you tell on your friend and possibly put him away for a long time? You're faced with these kinds of decisions."

The black cop dilemma

Mike McDowell was 12 when he found himself in the back seat of a squad car for the first time. He was standing on a corner in Frogtown, waiting for his little sister to get off the school bus, when a cop pulled up and asked him if he'd been down to the corner store.

A robbery had been reported. The suspect was a black male wearing all black, the same as McDowell.

As he sat in the squad, his mother came out and made a scene, explaining how he'd just gotten home from school, only to be sent back out to gather his sister.

McDowell doesn't remember the cop's demeanor. But he does recall the terror seizing his mind, and how the suspect was supposed to be a man, not a 12-year-old boy. Silently, he invoked earlier lectures his mom had relayed about encounters with the police: Keep your hands visible, don't talk back, always comply.

The police soon realized their mistake and cut him loose.

Now 21, McDowell is an organizer for Black Lives Matter, which wants to see more black officers working Twin Cities streets. He envisions respected young people who know how to communicate to people of color with care. But in this climate, his may be a pipe dream.

"That's the struggle. No one wants to be a cop."

McDowell admits that he wouldn't wear a badge. "There is a lot of negativity around it, and there's a good reason for that, for sure. In the media, there haven't been many positive images of cops because that's not really what we're seeing. And at least when I talk to other folks who look like me, that hasn't been their experience either."

Over in Dayton's Bluff, on the corner of Bates and Fourth, a stop sign with its pole painted black marks the spot where 24-year-old Dakota Gatlney was killed in a 2011 drive-by.

This block is the birthplace of the HAM Crazies, a gang that police implicated in nearly two dozen shootings this spring in a dispute with the West Side's Hit Squad over a stolen chain. As they cool off on the porch, Jim and Holly Wardlaw, 20-year fixtures on Fourth Street, reminisce about the war zone that used to be their neighborhood.

"Right here I sat with a baseball bat and bottle of Jack Daniel's while the guys across the street said they would firebomb my house," Jim says from his rocking chair. The neighbors were throwing garbage in the street. He told them to clean it up. When they threatened to sling over some Molotov cocktails, Holly ordered him to get inside. That was around 2005.

It's impossible to decipher this history by visiting the area today. Dayton's Bluff now rolls up quietly at night. The new people moving in are Metro State staff, teachers, physical therapists, librarians, and computer analysts of all colors. No one deals drugs from their houses anymore.

Part of the credit goes to St. Paul for scooping up properties from slumlords, the Wardlaws say. Part of it goes to policing.

In 2013, cops flooded the East Side with a zero tolerance approach to crime, from breaking up gangs to citing cyclists for not having headlights.

"Police are first to be spat on, and first to be called when there's an issue," Holly says. The neighbors used to taunt Jim for talking to cops and being black "only when he wants to be." But whenever fights broke out, they'd yell at him to phone 911.

Though it heartens Jim to see St. Paul hiring its first Karen officer and the nation's first woman Somali officer, "The problem is black people say, 'I don't want to be a policeman, I hate the police, they're beating my head. Why would I wanna be a cop?'"

Waiting for reform

Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minneapolis) is clear: He doesn't want to alibi for the police. Seventeen Los Angeles cops stood by as Rodney King got beaten to a pulp back in 1991. Videos that showed McKinney, Texas cop Eric Casebolt strong-arming a bikini-clad girl at a pool party also caught fellow officers watching passively.

Still, it's not as if officers never call fouls on their own, says Ellison. Because they do.

Back in 2006, he made history as the first Muslim elected to Congress. Some Minneapolis officers allegedly made racist and Islamophobic comments. Others reported it.

Later, a woman working in a sandwich shop called Ellison to say that an officer who didn't like the way she was making his lunch actually walked behind the counter and started putting his unsanitary hands on the food. When she argued with him, the cop mocked her, saying, "Hey, if this place ever gets robbed, who're you gonna call?"

The woman shut up.

When Ellison sent a letter to the precinct commander, the officer's partner corroborated the woman's story.

This spring, an American Civil Liberties Union report found that blacks in Minneapolis are nine times more likely to be stopped for driving offenses like speeding, failing to signal a turn, and "careless driving."

These citations peak during summer afternoon hours, suggesting that police are making subjective calls when the race of the driver is most distinguishable. Black kids are also far more likely to be hit with curfew violations.

When the cost of one night in jail becomes a missed job interview or a late rent payment, people question whether changes are too slow in the making. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul now have body cam pilot programs. Minneapolis has bias training, and St. Paul is bent on diversifying new classes of recruits.

Beneath the turmoil, ordinary cops try to sit tight. Macais, who gladly gives a weekend to shoot a recruitment video, quietly discourages his own 18-year-old son from following in his footsteps. At least for now. Public support for police, he says, has now struck rock bottom.

On one end, they're watching men in uniforms shoot down unarmed people around the country. On the other, they're seeing the funerals of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who were executed in their patrol car by a suicidal man who had attempted to kill his girlfriend.

At a New Hope City Council meeting in January, a gunman who'd lost his business and his faith in the government opened fire on new recruits during their swearing-in ceremony.

Near the end of a 10-hour shift, Ferraro turns off his headlights and backs into a shadowy corner of an abandoned lot near Minnehaha and Payne. He shuts off his computer and sits in seclusion. After answering call after call for several hours, cops take five-minute breaks to regenerate.

Officers Dan King and Brian Wanschura were doing the same thing in 2012 when 21-year-old Chue Xiong walked out of a dark alley with a shotgun slung over his shoulder.

It was an ambush. A lead shot blew through King's arm and whizzed past Wanschura's chest before lodging in a building. King lost control of his squad, which skidded into a dumpster while Xiong kept firing.

King took another bullet to the back of his bulletproof vest before Wanschura shot Xiong.

These incidents give every officer pause. Those who cast blanket aspersions, they believe, don't understand the relentless danger of interacting with vulnerable and volatile people on the worst days of their lives.

"The thing is, I think the police are asked to do something that just can't be done, to solve an economic and social problem with handcuffs and a gun," says Ellison. "So police feel they're being treated unfairly. Guess what? They are. They feel like, 'Hey, I joined the force to help people, now some bad things happened and suddenly I'm the bad guy.'

"Well, you know, the people who hired you should've told you that they set you on an errand that would be difficult to fulfill."