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Monday, February 1, 2010

When Cops Go Bad...

When a cop goes bad, good cops suffer
Recent scandals cast unfair light on police, some say
The Pioneer Press by Frederick Melo - January 31, 2010

On a chilly day in early January, Blair Anderson received phone calls from five or six friends in law enforcement, all wanting to know if he'd seen the news in Minneapolis. Anderson, commander of the Dakota County Jail in Hastings, certainly had. Minneapolis police officer Timothy Carson had been arrested for allegedly holding up a Wells Fargo bank in Apple Valley. He remains a suspect in 10 other holdups across the metro. "It was pretty much the same call: 'Can you believe it?' " Anderson said. "I mean, this is the stuff that gives cops a bad name. Carson has not been convicted. But his case is one of several around the Twin Cities giving cops a black eye, from officers accused of planting a gun to the Metro Gang Strike Force mishandling evidence and money. When those entrusted with upholding the law are caught breaking it, the stress on a department can linger for years. "We saw it after Rodney King," said Dakota County Chief Sheriff's Deputy David Bellows, referring to the incident of police brutality, caught on video, that led to race riots in Los Angeles in 1992. "You'd make a traffic stop — and it didn't have to be a person of color — and they'd say, 'Look what happened with Rodney King.' " "When (officers) do go into the house on a call, people associate them with those officers that are involved in any kind of a criminal act," Bellows said. "And that's hard." State Rep. Cy Thao, DFL-St. Paul, said many of his Hmong constituents bristled after a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed a Hmong teenager in July 2006. Fong Lee's family claimed the teenager had been unarmed, and their attorney later alleged that police planted the gun found next to Fong Lee's body.

An internal affairs investigation, a civil court and a state grand jury cleared officer Jason Andersen of wrongdoing, but he was later fired for an undisclosed ethics violation that police said was not related to the Fong Lee shooting. (Shortly before Andersen's firing, a Sherburne County prosecutor dropped a domestic assault case against him, citing lack of evidence.) "It adds more fuel to the fire of minorities not trusting police in the first place," said Cy Thao, who represents St. Paul's Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods. "The trust between the Hmong community and the police is not broken, but people started questioning." Farmington Police Chief Brian Lindquist said scandals tend to be replayed for weeks or even months afterward. A resentful drunken-driving suspect might lash out at police by bringing up an incident that's been in the news; a man arrested for domestic assault will poke fun at the cops by talking about a corruption case. That, he can live with. The personal letdown is a lot harder. "It bothers you that there is a stain on the badge, that someone you trusted, someone you let into the group, has put you in this position, has made every other cop the subject of scrutiny," Lindquist said. "That hurts."

In 2005, Farmington police officer Jermey Buss, then 28, was sentenced to four months in jail and up to eight years of probation after admitting he'd had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old high school student he met on a traffic stop. "Is it hard to regain public trust after that? Oh yeah," Lindquist said. "When a cop gets a DUI, that's newsworthy. Any other group — a dentist, a doctor, it isn't. We live under different standards." The federal charges against Carson, 28, of Rosemount, accuse him of robbing a Wells Fargo bank in Apple Valley and holding three tellers at gunpoint. Carson, a member of the Minneapolis Police Department's SWAT team and a former military police officer and Washington County jail guard, remains a suspect in a string of armed robberies involving a man in a dark jacket and ski mask. On Jan. 19, the Hennepin County attorney's office charged him with five holdups in Minneapolis. The Dakota County attorney's office is reviewing potential cases in Rosemount, Apple Valley and Eagan. Sgt. Jesse Garcia, a Minneapolis police spokesman, characterized the Carson case as something far out of the norm for the state's largest police department, and he praised his department for its swift action and transparency. "Whether you believe it or not, there was a lot of outrage within the department, because it did put us in a bad light," Garcia said. "We have close to 900 officers out there that are doing not a heck of a job, but one hell of a job."

The group Communities United Against Police Brutality, however, plans to point to Carson's arrest as the latest evidence that Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan has failed to respond to public concerns and crack down on officer misconduct. Michelle Gross, the group's president, said her members plan to attend Dolan's reappointment hearing before the Minneapolis City Council with what's likely to be a long, unflattering report on his tenure. She said it will list incidents of police brutality that never resulted in firings or serious discipline. "We have many concerns," Gross said. Dolan has said the rate of terminations and resignations has tripled under his leadership. "When we contacted the Minneapolis Police Department, we got nothing but cooperation," said Apple Valley Police Chief Scott Johnson, whose department cracked the Carson case. "You can't judge an entire police department based on the actions of one officer," Johnson said. "Minneapolis has got an excellent police department — a lot of very fine and ethical men and women." Sometimes, however, scandals help bring down entire units or police departments. Last year, the multijurisdictional Metro Gang Strike Force disbanded after a scathing report from the legislative auditor. Another independent review found that up to 12 employees engaged in misconduct or criminal acts by seizing cash, cars and jewelry for personal use. The blow-up has cast a long shadow over two dozen state-funded task forces set up to investigate drug crimes across jurisdictions, making requests for continued state and federal funding tough to present to lawmakers. "The word 'strike force' is almost a bad word (now)," Bellows said. "And that's not fair, because there's a good deal of great work being done." In April, Elko-New Market voted to eliminate its police department, citing budget concerns and allegations of racial profiling. An officer was accused of driving around for months with a stuffed toy monkey hanging in the back of his squad car, and complaints filed against him by former officers accused him of using racist language and telling them to single out black drivers. The police department, consisting of a chief and one part-time officer, was later reinstated. In September, former Minneapolis police officer Michael David Roberts was sentenced to a year in federal prison for unauthorized use of a police computer and tax charges. Roberts allegedly failed to report $100,000 he'd earned from working off-duty security details, mostly at Pizza Luce. He was paid in cash. Charges also accused him of sharing confidential police records with a reputed gangster, Taylor Winthorpe Trump, feeding interest in Trump's cozy relationship with authorities and the overall use of paid informants.


Popular culture sometimes refers to the "blue wall" or the "thin blue line," a colloquialism for the tight fraternity of law enforcement. The line also suggests that fraternity is what prevents society from descending into chaos. The fear, however, that the guardians are corruptible has peppered literature and political works since Plato. In 2004, retired Minneapolis police officer Michael Quinn penned the book "Walking with the Devil: The Police Code of Silence," alleging that police corruption and excessive use of force were rampant in his department in the 1980s. Quinn believes honest cops sometimes turn a blind eye to the shenanigans of their brothers and sisters in law enforcement because they know that in a life-or-death situation, it's only those peers they can count on. "It just makes your heart sick ... because so many cops work so hard to do this job the right way," Quinn said. He recalls reporting two officers who kicked in the door of a suspected drug dealer's house without a search warrant. Nothing ever came of his complaint because the dealer, who had an illegal firearm with him, was later convicted. In the eyes of his superior officers, the successful outcome seemed to justify the illegal entry. But what happens next time, when the door being kicked in belongs to an innocent person? "How do you go in there and tell people, 'Our guys are good guys, you've got to trust us,' when your guys are being charged with sexual assault or robbery?" he said. "All it takes is one or two acts, and there's a ripple effect." Robin Toma is executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, established in the wake of the notorious "Zoot Suit" riots of 1943, when 1,000 white sailors clashed with Hispanic youth for three days. Fast-forward to 1992, when a mostly white jury acquitted three Los Angeles police officers of savagely beating Rodney King, a black man, with their batons, an incident famously caught on video. Following the verdict, L.A. erupted into six days of race rioting in which 53 people were killed; property damage was estimated at $1 billion. Toma said the LAPD still has its struggles, but its reputation in the community has progressed light-years, in part because of increases in minority hiring and leadership changes. The department seems more open to admitting mistakes and addressing them, he said, and senior officers are a constant presence at civic meetings. "The way our brains work, we develop perceptions and opinions based on exposure," Toma said. "If we have very rare contact with the police department and the only time we hear of them is in terms of scandal, then that's going to color our views of them." Anderson, the Dakota County Jail commander, who is black, said public safety is an honorable calling, but police scandals like the one involving Carson do nothing to improve relations with the public or close the yawning gap between law enforcement and minority communities. Growing up in Detroit, he saw "a bunker mentality with the citizenry and the police, this us versus them," he said. "There are plenty of people out here who are ready to point the finger and say, 'See, I told you so.' There are people saying something like that, whether they're right or wrong. "I think cops and people of color are alike in this way: We're the only groups that are judged by the worst element in our group," Anderson said. "There's this small-minded tendency, this myopia, to think that we're all that way." Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172.

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