Weathering the Storm

The outsider: Chief McManus's no-nonsense approach has sparked controversies
Marie Foss

The following is an extended version of a Q&A that appeared in the paper edition of City Pages

Since becoming chief of the Minneapolis Police in February, William McManus has been praised by some as the reformer the department so desperately needed and criticized by others for operating too rashly.

One of McManus's first moves on the job was to suspend three top-ranking officers who were involved in the investigation surrounding Duy Ngo, a Minneapolis cop who was shot while working undercover, first by an unknown assailant and later by a fellow police officer. In February, McManus called for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate the department's handling of the investigation one year after the Ngo incident. McManus was roundly criticized in the media and in City Hall for suspending the three officers while the BCA looked into the matter. (The officers were cleared of any wrongdoing.)

McManus also raised eyebrows with a number of administrative shuffles that promoted some cops and transferred others who had been high up in his predecessor's administration. More recently, McManus has come under fire for insisting that the death of a Minneapolis man while in custody be investigated internally, something he says will become regular policy for the MPD. And finally, questions about McManus's ability to protect and serve have been raised as well. He hasn't yet taken the exam to get his peace officer's license in Minnesota, meaning he can't carry a gun or wear a uniform, and he hasn't been cleared by the FBI to receive briefs on homeland security issues. (McManus has said he's studying and will take the test.)

But McManus has a reputation from his stint as an officer in Washington, D.C., and his tenure as police chief in Dayton, Ohio, for being a capable, no-nonsense cop. Publicly, his remarks are clipped and he rarely smiles. In person, he's prone to talking about policing strategies in great detail, and shares anecdotes from his nearly 30 years in law enforcement.

He's currently living in a church in north Minneapolis, waiting for his wife and three children (one was born after McManus came to Minneapolis) to move here from Dayton. I spoke with him there recently about his relatively rough start on the job.

City Pages: You've had a number of controversial moments on the job so far. Did you expect some of these things to be as controversial as they were?

Chief McManus: No. And I guess most of it is just a matter of a learning experience. A lot of it is just not understanding the culture--the departmental culture, the political culture--here.

CP: Would you have done some things differently in retrospect?

McManus: I don't want to go into Duy Ngo. That's still an ongoing investigation. But there are some other issues, like the promotions and transfers, as well. Would I have done it differently? I understand now that the council would have appreciated having some conversation about it, and I certainly would have done that.

CP: One of the things that was striking was that when you suspended the three officers, you did call every council member.

McManus: I called every one of them.

CP: Why did you feel in that case, you should let them know?

McManus: Because it was significant. Significant and something they should know.

CP: But again the nature of that call was not necessarily a consultation, but a heads-up.

McManus: Well, it had already been done.

CP: You talk about the political climate, and it is kind of tricky. One of the things people say is that there are an awful lot of council members for a city of this size. And a powerful council at that. Is dealing with such a strong City Council something you weren't counting on when you were walking into the job?

McManus: I guess my main focus was on my direct report. I'm directly reporting to the mayor. And I'm not publicly naive. I know that there's council involvement with other departments, but again, it's more a matter of figuring out the best way to do that.

CP: How are things going with the mayor? The relationship between him and your predecessor was strained a lot of the time. And I find, from what I can tell of you and the mayor, you seem to be a yin-yang as far as personalities are concerned. Are you reporting to him directly regularly, or has he kind of given you free rein?

McManus: Well, I have free rein, but I certainly consult with him when there are issues I believe may be controversial or are bigger than just the police department.

I've been hearing a lot about Murderapolis since I got here. Well, Murderapolis, the city doesn't have to get that name--the city doesn't have to have murders all over the city to get that name. You confine them to very small areas, and the whole city gets labeled. So, last year, we spent 50 grand or so, by getting officers from another police force, a smaller police department, to come over here to assist us, and we shouldn't have to go to a smaller police department to do that. There's creative staffing, and some creative scheduling to do that ourselves could save the taxpayers money.  

CP: You mention Murderapolis. People are always worried about returning to that. You've been in law enforcement a long time. Is it possible, in retrospect, the year of that was sort of a statistical anomaly? One of the things I remember about that summer, is that it didn't seem like a series of murders in one part of town or another, it seemed like it was pretty widespread.

McManus: I'd be curious to look at that and see where they all are. But it doesn't have to be an even spread across the city to get that moniker. It can be in very small areas.

CP: Have you seen spikes like that in murder rates in other cities you've been in? And why does it happen like that?

McManus: In Washington, D.C., we had one year, and I can't recall the year, we had almost 600 murders. And D.C. averaged between 400 and 500 murders a year until a few years ago, and D.C. became known as the murder capitol. There were people I knew, from various parts of the country, who knew those figures. The thing was, 95 percent of those figures were all back in certain sections of the city, where there were notorious open-air drug markets. Those kinds of figures can really hurt a city where it counts. And I certainly don't want that to happen under my watch.

CP: So what do you do about it? Since you've been here, I don't know how many there have been, but there's certainly been a regular string of murders, at least on the north side.

McManus: So far this year, we're actually even with where we were last year.

CP: It seems about normal to me, but I'm scrutinizing it because it is under your watch. What can you do about that right off the bat?

McManus: Well, what we're trying to do now is prevent this from happening by putting as many folks as we can on the street. And there's a strategy in place that's focused on prevention.

CP: Talk about that a little bit. Because there is a school of thought that says simply throwing more police out there doesn't necessarily do anything.

McManus: Right. That's not all we're doing.

CP: Some people would say there's plenty of police presence on the north side already.

McManus: Not if you talk to them. Not if you talk to the cops on the north side because they're already down [in numbers].

But there was an experiment done in, I want to say Kansas City, don't quote me on this, but I believe it was Kansas City. North side, south side, same similar problem, but they just approached it differently. One of the sides threw police at the problem, saturated the area with cops and just tried to lock up as many people as they could. The other side targeted specific individuals, they targeted activities, and they targeted locations. And, in the end, it turned out that to throw cops at the problem was more expensive, and not as effective in terms of preventing crime, as [the other strategy], which was targeted and focused.

CP: One of the things that's talked about in regard to policing strategies is getting officers out of the squads and on the streets. I get the sense that culturally speaking, there's been a reluctance to do that within and without the MPD. Is that a policing strategy that you're interested in?

McManus: Yeah, I'm a proponent of officers walking the beat, officers riding bicycles. It makes it more personal to have cops walking and have cops on bikes.

CP: But it's never really been followed through with this department.

McManus: You know, from talking to people in this department, it's that way in a lot of departments, especially in ones--and there are a lot of them--[where] their numbers are diminishing.

CP: I think we're at a 15-year low [with number of officers] here, too.

McManus: And because of that, cops are on the beats less and less. Because if you put them on beats, then you've got the boards stacking up with runs and calls. So you try to balance the two. You may not be able to put cops out permanently on foot, but you may put them out an hour or two during the watch and have them walk. Traditionally that's been a difficult task to keep up because of the demand for an instant response.  

CP: I wonder how much of it is the culture and the nature of Minneapolis. It's sort of spread out; it's cold here at least half the year.

McManus: Sure.

CP: Is it because of that, or is it simply manpower?

McManus: They don't necessarily have to be out in all areas of the city. We certainly want them downtown. You want them in your busier strips. Cops on foot--well, let me put it this way: Public safety is directly related to a city's economic viability. In part, because of that, I believe that officers walking the foot beat is a good thing.

CP: You talk a little bit, with the north side in mind, about better policing strategies and going after specific individuals. Ron Ryan over at the Minnesota Gang Strike Force will say, "Look, we know who these guys are. We know them, we see them, and they know us. But we can't necessarily get them on anything."

McManus: Right. You can't just go out and grab people if they're not wanted. But in many cities across the country they have what they call repeat offender units. Most of the bigger departments will have that. The trick is, keep your eye on these folks, keep your sources close to you, and you watch when they're ready to do something. And it doesn't take long. You've got to keep a close eye on them, and you've got to have your sources.

CP: Is it fair to say that a lot of what we're seeing on the north side, at least since you've been on the job--and I hate to say it, but we're getting into the violent season here--is it fair to say that it's just a handful of individuals, or is it more widespread than that?

McManus: I would say it's a segment of individuals. And within that segment--a few of the segments I'm talking about are your gangbangers and your drug dealers--you have a few people.

CP: We've had a situation where there haven't been a lot of people willing to come forward and talk to police from the community, and I know that can be a tipping point when you're talking about certain high-crime areas. Can you do that? Can you get the people to come forward?

McManus: Yeah. We turned a good corner in our relationship with the community.

CP: What did you do?

McManus: I guess it's our willingness now to work more closely with the community, to be as transparent in our dealings with them, and just--you know, I speak with some of these community leaders every day. At least once a week doesn't go by where I'm not talking about various issues, checking in, and [have community leaders] just talking man-to-man with me. I've been very up-front with the community about what my style will be when it comes to dealing with the press. And I've made it clear to them that before I deal with the press--they'll never be surprised by what I do in the press that relates to something that is of concern or interest to them. And that's the way I've always been.

CP: I think Chief Olson drew high marks from some of the people we're talking about, but again there was this perception that it's not about the chief, it's the institution itself.

McManus: But the institution gets its direction from the chief. I don't think the department is at all unwilling to establish a working relationship with minority communities. It's a matter of the department looking at the chief to see which direction to go.

CP: What sorts of things have you brought to the rank and file in general as far as this sort of leadership direction? It can't be any secret to you that the culture of the MPD has been publicly scrutinized for a while.

McManus: All I hear is, why can't the Minneapolis department be more like St. Paul's? I hear that all the time. But, I think the department needs to be promoted. There needs to be a champion to say, "Hey, this is the perception that's fueled by a few." Certainly the vast majority in the department are good officers, and good people and want to do the right thing. And they will do the right thing with the right direction.  

CP: Without naming names, there are a few bad apples, who the public knows are bad apples, who are still on the force, and that's where this perception comes from. There is no denying the fact that some officers who have been in high-profile incidents are still on the force.

McManus: And I guess I can't speak to why they are. Maybe it's an arbitrator giving them their jobs back, maybe they were never fired to begin with. But [long pause] I can't remedy that. I can't remedy history. My position is pretty clear on where I'm coming from and the direction I want to go in as far as the type of department we want to have and the reputation we want our department to have.

CP: To switch gears a little bit: One of the things I came across that was notable during your career in D.C. was you dealing with some protestors [during the International Monetary Fund meetings in April 2000] out there. Some people praised the way you handled it, some questioned the way you handled it. We had, in the summer of 2000, a similar situation here that I think the police did not handle very well. What sorts of strategies do you have when you're dealing with these kinds of protests? The WTO protest in Seattle is obviously an example of something going wrong, or maybe you don't think it was wrong...

McManus: No, it was.

CP: On a smaller scale here, it went wrong in a lot of ways. Minneapolis is the kind of city that is probably going to have situations like this. How do you deal with them?

McManus: For example, when I was in D.C., I'm standing on the corner of 23rd and Pennsylvania Avenue, and it's got to be 5:30, 6 o'clock on a Sunday morning. This is the day that the demonstrations were really going pick up. This is the day the demonstrators said they were going take over the city. So I'm standing on the corner and it's kinda drizzly and foggy. You couldn't see very far down the street. It wasn't quite light, and it wasn't quite dark, there's a haze.

And all of a sudden these drums start to beat, and you hear this crowd in the distance. And they're getting closer and closer. All of a sudden, they got louder and louder, and they kind of emerged from the fog. I'm standing there like, "God, look at this." I don't know where they're going or what they're going to do. So I walk out on the street, and I'm right in the middle of the intersection, no cars there. I walk off to the side. I'm not sure what's going on. They stopped in the middle of the intersection. Their ultimate goal was to take over the intersection. They had those sleeping dragons, those interlocking pipes, they're called sleeping dragons.

There's a huge crowd, and I'm standing there watching, and all of a sudden the outer ring sat down in the street, to reveal that the whole inner ring had hooked themselves up with the sleeping dragons. That's how they did that. Conceal the inner ring, and then they were there. What they were waiting for was a confrontation. What they wanted was for me to call in the troops and try to remove them.

Well, I didn't. I called into the command center that they were there in the intersection, had traffic blocked. I let them stay there. And they sat there for a couple of hours. Then I guess they got tired of it, and got up and walked away.

CP: That's one story I'm familiar with. But there were other stories of arrests and violence.

McManus: There were. But a lot of the arrests were not in the eye of the demonstration. They were out on the peripheral, where a lot of commanders were isolated from their backups. Things like that. There were outbreaks of severe violence on the part of the demonstrators. They tried to breach a perimeter, and there wasn't any de-escalating that. They were trying to tear fences down. So, at that point, you have to respond with enough force to overcome that. At that time, we had to respond and overcome that.

CP: Have you learned anything from what happened in Seattle and what you went through in D.C.? Are there different practices to put in place?

McManus: I think Seattle could have happened in any city. They just happened to be the first one; they were the guinea pigs. I don't think Seattle was expecting what happened to happen.

You've got to be prepared. You can't expect that nothing's going to happen or it's only going to escalate to a certain point. Or that demonstrators aren't going to try and do so much. You've got to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.  

CP: But isn't it sometimes true that the more police presence there is, the more hostile the situation is?

McManus: And that's a good point. You're absolutely right. When you do that, it raises the ante when you've got everybody out there. You've got to properly staff to do these things, but it's your tactics, your strategy that de-escalates the situation.

CP: I don't think anybody expects protestors and police to walk arm-in-arm down the street either. By their nature, in these situations, conflict is almost inevitable.

McManus: I've found most demonstrators, the organized ones, to be very communicative. We met with them on numerous occasions before anything took place. Them telling us what we could expect, telling us, "Hey we want to be arrested, we want about 100 people arrested, we're prepared for it."

There were demonstrators who were not cooperative at all, and they were the more unorganized. Talking about de-escalation, we never went at them until they were breaking bottles and [things] started being thrown. That kind of stuff will cost you a knot on the head.

CP: Not long afterward you were a finalist to be chief in Seattle. What drew you to that?

McManus: A bigger city, big city, a diverse city. I never really had aspirations to be chief, then every now and then I started getting calls from various recruiters. It sparked my interest.

CP: That's interesting, because the knock on you coming out of Dayton to here was, "Well, he's a careerist at this point, and is using Minneapolis as a stepping stone, and he was only here for a little while."

McManus: Actually, my term was short in Dayton because I didn't have a contract. It was not their policy to give contracts out to department heads. So I had spoken to my city manager about it. As things started moving, a year and a half into my term there, and the union was not real pleased with some of the changes I had made, I went to my city manager and said, "Do you want me to back off on some of these things and kind of mind the shop and not do anything?" And he said, "No, I want you to keep making the changes you're making, and make sure they're paced properly." And I said, "Well, you know, if you were to quit tomorrow, they'd try to ride me out of here on a rail." The union is very, very strong in Dayton. With my style and what I want to do, it's not useful for me to not have a contract.

CP: Do you regret having left Dayton the way you did? There were an awful lot of sour grapes coming from there.

McManus: I consider that a compliment. They were mad because I was leaving. The union was happy to see me go, but nobody else was. So the concerns about me leaving were that I hadn't been there long enough--that I was doing a good job.

CP: There were parallels that were drawn. You had a similar situation [coming to Minneapolis] with a female deputy chief like when you first got on the job at Dayton...

McManus: It really wasn't similar. Before I went into Dayton, I was told by the city manager, you can keep all your command staff, or bring in a whole new staff. There was the latitude to do that. So after having been there for six months, I had identified two individuals, one male and one happened to be female, that I did not want around anymore.

CP: Why is that?

McManus: I needed some new energy, some new perspectives. There was too much baggage.

CP: Is that part of what you found here? Certainly there's been a lot of personnel changes and transfers.

McManus: I don't want to get into personnel issues, but two positions were acting positions. Only one was permanent. I was only taking advantage of latitude that had been given to me. The last set of promotions, there were two females that were promoted, out of four.

CP: Reading through the testimony that came out of the BCA investigation, it's not hard to infer that some of these promotions and shakeups might have come out of that suspension and investigation. Is that a fair assessment?

McManus: It's an assessment. I wouldn't say it's fair. There were statements given to the BCA that were attributed to me, and I haven't commented on them. At least not yet. Again, I don't want to get into personnel issues, but, I don't make any of these moves without consulting command staff, and I ask for recommendations before made any of those moves.  

CP: Certainly there was a question about internal affairs and how the Ngo case was handled in that report. It's easy to see that some people are being moved out of internal affairs and some are being moved in. Some people who were part of that investigation are no longer there.

McManus: That wasn't part of the thought process behind it.

CP: It's amazing to read that BCA report and see all that's in there, and see what the Star Tribune has taken out of it. There are many interesting details in there, concerning several people, but they seemed to pick up mostly on the things that concerned your role and actions. Is that frustrating?

McManus: Yes, very.

CP: Where does that come from?

McManus: Off the top of my head, it comes from really not knowing me.

CP: So far as the relationship between certain cops and certain reporters is concerned, it can be a leaky department. What can you do about that?

McManus: Well, it can. And the only thing you can do about that is, you've got to keep your circle small. The smaller the better. Look, if there's some stuff going on, I'm going to be the first to come out and say it. I've always said, don't judge a department based on mistakes. Judge it based on how those mistakes were handled.

CP: That might be an even harsher assessment in some cases. The Civilian Review Authority [an independent board that investigates complaints of police misconduct] is up and running again. At the same time, you're taking the position that investigations will be internal. And you're not going to the usual outside agencies, like Hennepin County, for misconduct investigations. How seriously do you take the CRA? Is it necessary?

McManus: Civilian review boards are normally the result of fallout a department will experience when it is unable or unwilling to investigate itself. I believe we are able to investigate ourselves. The long-term goal as far as I'm concerned is to some point phase out the CRA.

Five years down the road, eight years down the road, the hope would be that the public does have enough confidence in the police department to investigate ourselves. I come from departments where we never sent anything out to be investigated. I think in this department, given the leadership of the command staff, we have that ability. And if we don't, we'll fix the problems, or I'll say I was wrong.

The quality of the Hennepin County Sheriff's department has been great. But I don't think even St. Paul does outside investigations. If we don't have that integrity, we should just pack up and go home.

CP: You have made a number of moves that might be sensitive on the job. How are you with the rank and file? Are you going to roll calls? How involved are you with the day-to-day operations?

McManus: I'm not as involved as I want to be, or as I will be. I haven't had a fraction of the time it takes to get a handle on this. You come into a department with a few, and you can count them on one hand, priorities. You really have to focus on those priorities, unless you want to get sidetracked by dozens and dozens of things that come flying your way at 100 miles an hour every day.

CP: What are your priorities?

McManus: My main priority, again, is to reestablish or establish a working relationship with the minority community, to "unalienate" the minority community. And to set a new direction and set a new tone. You can come in to a new department and be an actor in a script that's already written, and let that dictate what you do. Or you can write a new script, take things in the direction they should go.

CP: Will people follow you?

McManus: I think so. People look for valid direction. One of the things that will become more evident is that I depend on the commanders to really run their shops. They have power to do that. I don't micromanage or second-guess them unless there's something so far out of left field. I'm the same way with the deputy chiefs. I don't make decisions in a vacuum. Give me your recommendations.

CP: You don't have your peace officer's license yet. Though I'm told you're studying for the test to get it right now.

McManus: [picks up a stack of papers] I want you to note the notes and the hundreds of pages, and the highlights that are in this thing. This is just part of it. I have to educate myself on all the various statutes. I'm not taking it lightly; I am studying for it.  

CP: But that's a change of heart, this is something you were not going to do?

McManus: No, no, no. I was going to do this all along.

CP: I just think the perception was you weren't going to get your license because you didn't do it in Dayton, right?

McManus: That's something that people don't understand either. [In Dayton] I was required to do 250-some hours of class time. The problem I had with it is, I had to sit with a recruit academy, okay? So I started out doing this, and as I sat in an eight-hour class, and there was about an hour and a half of substance, and the rest of it was war stories from older instructors telling young cops what they could expect on the street, I started getting frustrated.

I was scheduled to take the exam in February, when I came to Minneapolis. I'm planning to take this. Come on. I would take it today, but I don't want this to be another big issue if I flunk it.

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