On a Saturday night last month, roughly 70 Minneapolis Hmong residents gathered at Fairview Park on the city’s North Side. They were joined by Minneapolis City Council members Barb Johnson and Don Samuels, who represent the area, to discuss relations between the Minneapolis Police Department and the Hmong community.
The meeting was prompted, in part, by a recently released study by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) that documents the paucity of Hmong police officers on the force. But also shadowing the meeting were several troubling incidents involving cops assigned to the MPD’s 4th Precinct and the Hmong community in recent years. In 2006, 19-year-old Fong Lee was shot eight times by an officer after fleeing police. Then in 2007, 22 shots were fired when police wrongly raided a Hmong family’s home during a botched drug raid.
“We’re a group that oftentimes doesn’t get heard from,” says Yia Yang, a community organizer with CURA who attended the meeting at Fairview Park. “But there’s really not that much trust with the Minneapolis Police Department.”
A couple of seemingly simple proposals came out of the meeting at Fairview Park. Representatives of the Hmong community wanted to sit down with Police Chief Tim Dolan and 4th Precinct Inspector Michael Martin to express their concerns. More concretely, they wanted a Hmong-speaking officer assigned to the day shift in the 4th Precinct as soon as possible.
The CURA study seemingly backs up the need for such a personnel move. At the time of the 2000 census, the most recent period for which figures are available, there were just under 10,000 Hmong residents of Minneapolis. Roughly 70 percent of those inhabitants were clustered in the 4th Precinct, which covers all of the city’s North Side.
But MPD recruitment has failed to keep up with demographic trends – a phenomenon that certainly isn’t limited to the Minneapolis force. The 900-officer agency has just eight Hmong police officers, representing less than one percent of the force.
Further troubling to members of the Hmong community is where those officers are assigned. More than half of the Hmong officers patrol the 5th Precinct in southwest Minneapolis, an area that is predominantly wealthy and white. Just 226 Hmong residents – or roughly two percent of the city’s overall Hmong population resided in the 5th District at the time of the 2000 census.
Meanwhile the 4th Precinct, home to the majority of Minneapolis’ Hmong population, has just two Hmong officers. What’s more, both of those cops work the overnight shift. The upshot: when Hmong residents of the North Side, many of whom are recent arrivals in this country and have limited English language skills, call the cops for help there’s generally no one available who speaks their language. Shifting one of the existing Hmong cops to the day shift in the 4th Precinct seemed like a simple, common-sense means to at least partly address the problem.
“That is what the community feels would address this problem for them,” says Don Samuels. “I’m supportive of it.”
But Samuels and others realize that getting a Hmong cop assigned to the day shift in the 4th Precinct is not as simple as it might sound. MPD’s personnel policies are governed by a labor contract with explicit rules regarding assignments and shifts. In essence, individual officers bid for assignments based on order of seniority.
“We can’t tell people where they can and cannot work,” says Sgt. Jesse Garcia, an MPD spokesman. “To actually move somebody over there would be outside of the contract and basically against their rights as an employee.”
Garcia compares it to posting a job listing for a police liaison at (predominantly-black) North Community High School and limiting it to African-American candidates. “You would be staring down the barrel of a lawsuit at some point,” he says.
Garcia also points out that the CURA study relies on outdated numbers to draw its conclusions, as the 2000 census was completed nearly a decade ago. He argues that the Hmong community is no longer so heavily concentrated on the North Side. “It has spread out through the city much more,” he says.
In addition, any deal would have to be brokered with the Minneapolis Police Federation. The police union has notoriously sharp elbows and lately has been at loggerheads with police brass over the firing of officer Jason Andersen.
Andersen is the cop who shot Fong Lee in 2006. He was exonerated of any wrongdoing by the department, and a civil jury subsequently ruled that Andersen did not use excessive force in shooting Lee. But Andersen was subsequently arrested on a domestic assault charge, which apparently prompted an internal affairs investigation by the MPD and led to his dismissal.
The police federation has made it clear that it’s not happy about Andersen’s firing. Lt. Robert Kroll, vice president of the police union, told the Pioneer Press last month that Andersen was simply a hard-nosed cop doing his job.
“In the current administration, that is not tolerated,” Kroll told the St. Paul daily. “They don’t want big, tough street cops. They feel he got them negative press over Fong Lee, so they’re going to make him pay.”
While the internal-police spat has little to do with whether a Hmong cop is assigned to the 4th Precinct day shift, it might mean that the police federation will be in little mood to compromise over contractual obligations. (Calls to the police union by Minnesota Independent were not returned.)
Despite these hurdles, Wameng Moua, editor of Hmong Today, argues that the city’s leadership can get a Hmong officer assigned to the day shift in the 4th Precinct if it’s truly viewed as a priority. Even a Hmong liaison who is not a sworn law-enforcement officer would be a big improvement, he notes.
“We all know that if anything is a priority they’re going to pursue it despite any budget restraints,” Moua says. “To me it just seems the mayor, the chief, they just don’t see it as a priority to help out a big part of their constituency.”
Samuels hopes that some kind of deal can eventually be brokered.
“I think we have to broach the subject with the police and the union to see if exceptional circumstances could bring about an exceptional compromise,” he says, “because there is significant hardship in the community.”