January 31, 2003

  Native American Press / Ojibwe News
police brutality in Minneapolis
photo: Vince Hill
In the aftermath of alleged police brutality toward Ronald Lee Johnson and an as-yet unidentified woman, city councilman Dean Zimmerman addresses a crowd rallied at the Little Earth housing project.  Zimmerman says that he said that he has compiled a “one inch thick stack of documentation of incidents” of police brutality in Minneapolis.

Police brutality in Minneapolis

by Clara NiiSka

In the early afternoon of Wednesday, January 29th, a crowd of about 175 - 200 people gathered in a parking lot on 24th and Ogema Place in the Phillips neighborhood in South Minneapolis.  The parking lot is a part of the Little Earth public housing project in south Minneapolis, and the event was publicized as a press conference by Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID) leadership and the directors of the Little Earth of United Tribes Housing Corporation.

According to MUID’s press release, on Friday night, January 24, two Little Earth residents saw a police squad car pull into the Little Earth parking lot at 2434 Ogema Place, and watched the officers drag an American Indian male and female out of the squad car.  A witness then reportedly watched the police officers beat the man unconscious, then the police drove away, leaving the unconscious man in the parking lot in the zero degree winter night.

One of the witnesses reportedly contacted the off-duty police officers working on the Little Earth security force.  According to Minneapolis police chief Olson, these off-duty officers took the man to Hennepin County Medical Center for medical attention.  He then reportedly spent the night in Detox.

MUID co-chair Tony Looking Elk subsequently identified the man who was beaten by the police in the Little Earth parking lot late Friday night as Ronald Lee Johnson, a Minneapolis resident who moved to the Twin Cities from Duluth.  Press/ON contacted Johnson, who, after consulting with his attorney, Larry Leventhal of Minneapolis, declined to be interviewed.

The MUID press release also reports that, “when residents and staff reached the male [Johnson], they further discovered his upper torso and head were urinated on during this incident.”

Ellie Webster, executive director at Little Earth, told the crowd standing in and around the parking lot on Wednesday afternoon that the Minneapolis police officers’ treatment of Johnson and the woman, who has not yet been publicly identified, was “one of the most egregious, despicable acts.”  These people were “left on the ground,” she said, the police acted in “violation of all protocol.”  According to Webster, the witness, a Little Earth resident, said “I couldn’t call 911,” because she was afraid of the police. “I think that is a travesty.”  Indian people’s taxes “paid for the police department,” Webster said.  “It is a serious matter, in violation of human rights.  If it can happen to this couple, it can happen to you.”

 Minneapolis City Councilman Dean Zimmerman told the crowd that what happened on Friday night “is not an isolated incident.”  He said that he has compiled a “one inch thick stack of documentation of incidents” of police brutality in Minneapolis.  Even though “many of the Minneapolis police are good,” he added, the ongoing police brutality must be addressed.  Zimmerman said that he is continuing to gather documentation of police brutality in Minneapolis.  Zimmerman, representing Ward 6 on the Minneapolis City Council, is on the council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Services committee.

Press/ON contacted Minneapolis Chief of Police Robert K. Olson.  Olson said that he “had a long meeting with Clyde [Bellecourt] yesterday,” along with MUID leaders Tony Looking Elk and Justin Huenemann.  The incident involving Johnson “happened just before midnight on Friday the 24th. … Someone from Little Earth contacted Lieutenant Richard Thomas from the 3rd precinct, who is also a liaison with Little Earth,” as well as the 3rd precinct commander Sharon Lupinski.  “Thomas has started a preliminary investigation,” chief Olson said, on “Monday morning it was turned in to internal affairs, and right away we started a full-scale investigation.”

Olson told Press/ON that the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) has been “doing a lot of work with MUID,” and “a lot of good things were happening.”  The incident Friday night has “put us backwards,” and “we will do everything we can to bring this thing to justice.”

Press/ON asked Olson about the longstanding history of police brutality toward Indian people in Minneapolis, and what he was doing to address the problems.  “It’s a very difficult thing to try to overcome,” he said, “that’s where we really need to work together so that they can identify” problems.  In many instances, Olson said, “there are no witnesses,” and the police department “can not identify any one” officer who is brutalizing Minneapolis citizens.  [Editor’s note: If a police officer mistreats you, be sure to remember his or her badge number.]

Olson said that the Minneapolis police “have made significant inroads” toward decreasing police brutality.  “We’ve changed a lot of things,” including that the MPD is now doing psychological testing before hiring.  But, Olson added, “we get our cops from the community, and they reflect the community’s biases.  We weed out” some of the abusers, but “there are so many opportunities for things to go wrong.”

He said that the MPD just completed a “four day training session” on “culture and ethnicity … dealing with people.”  The police have “additional special training to enhance our officers’ sensitivity.”

Olson said that “Minneapolis is not alone” in having problems with police brutality.  “This issue is at the top of the radar” for us, he said, “all of us are grappling with new and creative ways to engage with the community on a neighborhood level.”

The police department does not condone brutality, Olson told Press/ON.  “I have made it clear that there is nowhere in our policy and procedure that says that’s OK.”  The police department has “a good, predictable disciplinary process.”

Olson added that the MPD has “initiated an ‘early warning system.’  Every quarter, any officer that gets more than two citizen complaints is called in” for consultation with his superiors.  “We have found that when you zero in on them, the level of repeat complaints goes down” for those police officers.  The MPD does “a lot of proactive stuff.”  “I’m not naïve enough that out of 850 officers,” there will not be problems, Olson continued, but “we screen them, give them a psychological assessment, do backgrounds on them to get a feel for what kind of person they are,” as well as doing “community training partnerships” as a part of the Minneapolis Police Academy’s four-month training.

During Press/ON’s conversation with Olson, he showed a clear understanding of the problems that people he described as “vulnerable adults” – including people who are intoxicated – sometimes have with the police.  He says that the MPD has made a concerted effort to address those problems.  In addition to training, “we have also set a tone in the last several years, that that kind of behavior is not tolerated” by the police.  Along with terminating abusive officers, he said, some police officers have faced criminal charges for their actions.  “The rank and file knows” that they will be disciplined.

Olson named two officers who had been indicted and convicted of criminal actions, one who “beat up a rape suspect,” and another “that was caught stealing from us.  I’ve had several that we terminated, or who resigned.”  He also mentioned an officer who “last year beat up a fellow with handcuffs,” but noted that the “FBI decided not to press charges.”

When asked if he was – as has been claimed by some people in the Indian community – thwarting the federal mediation process intended to address problems that Indians and other non-whites are having with the Minneapolis police, Olson replied, “that’s nonsense.”  He said that the delay in beginning mediation comes from the Justice Department, “they won’t come back to the table until the lawsuit is done.”

Olson said that he supported adding additional members to the community mediation team.  For example, he said, “Clyde [Bellecourt] has been a stand-up person for Native American rights … he is the kind of person that should be at the table.”

The Minneapolis police “and I really do care about this situation that came about in the Native American community,” Olson told Press/ON.  “We’ve been doing a lot of things to change that [situation],” but “it will take time.”  Olson said that “I personally give every recruit class a tough two hours on ethics,” and that the MPD really is trying to change.  And, he apologized for the incident last Friday.  “It’s important, and this is a terrible thing.  I just feel rotten about it,” he said.

Press/ON also spoke with Chris Spotted Eagle, who has been an activist involved with civil liberties and justice in the Twin Cities area since he moved here in 1974.

“The progress of the Minneapolis Police Department can be judged by what will happen to the officers who did this,” he said of the two officers involved in Friday night’s brutality.  Spotted Eagle asked: Will they be held accountable?  How thoroughly will the MPD investigate?  Will they go beyond an internal investigation to a grand jury of some kind?  Will the City of Minneapolis offer to compensate the Indian victims?  Will they even apologize?

Spotted Eagle continued,  “Every time an incident like this comes up, we say the same thing.  This time, let’s see what the chief [of police] does.” Every time, there is some public hand wringing, and then “it goes by the wayside.  No advance toward substantial accountability of the police occurs.”

 Spotted Eagle said that he believes that Olson is sincere, but “if this man is going to change” the longstanding problems with the MPD, “he’s going to have to revamp the whole police culture to change it.”

He added that Olson “is not in control of the culture, he’s a part of the culture, the Minneapolis police culture.  “He’s in a power position,” and in order for the MPD chief to “really change things, he would have to put himself at serious personal risk.”

“On a personal level,” he said, Chief Olson “does feel, empathizes with the pain of the community.  But,” Olson is also “a paid official of the police department.”  Spotted Eagle pointed out that if the MPD were actually to resolve the problems which Indians and others have with the police, that would be “in conflict with the official policies and the unwritten rules that are laid down” by the ruling class whose property and businesses the police are hired to protect.

Spotted Eagle spoke thoughtfully about the multifaceted problems underlying police brutality.  “Some of it goes back to perceptions about Indian people, black people,” he said.  “Racism pervades” U.S. culture, he explained, “this is more than just a policy.  There is institutionalized racism in the city of Minneapolis” which must be addressed in order to deal with the problems of police brutality.

Olson “goes all the way to Israel with some of his staff to study anti-terrorism tactics, and come up with ways to deal with it,” he added, “while at the same time his officers commit terrorism.”

Spotted Eagle also countered Olson’s description of the problems that have delayed federally mediated mediation. “Olson has a mandate from the council to immediately mediate, and he’s not doing so.  He’s ducking his responsibility,” Spotted Eagle said.

Olson is “saying who he wants at the table.  That’s being disingenuous, because that’s not his authority and not his responsibility do the choosing.  He’s politicking to his favor.  He’s trying to set the pace.”

Editor’s note:

The Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority was recently disbanded by the City Council.  There are two Minneapolis agencies that are officially charged with overseeing citizens’ complaints of police misconduct
[including excessive force, inappropriate language, fail to provide adequate or timely police service, or discrimination on the basis of protected class status]: the City of Minneapolis Civil Rights Department at 612-673-3012, and the MPD Internal Affairs Unit at 612-673-3074.

Minneapolis City Councilman
Dean Zimmerman has taken an active role in compiling citizens’ complaints about police brutality, and can be reached at (612) 673-2206; email: dean.zimmermann@ci.minneapolis.mn.us; mailing address: City Hall, 350 S. 5th Street, Room 307, Minneapolis, MN 55415.