Despite confirmation vote, Dolan has little margin for error

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Friday’s vote to confirm Tim Dolan as the city’s new police chief may have been a forgone conclusion, but it was also an object lesson in political horse-trading that revealed how vulnerable the new chief really is.

Dolan enjoyed wide support among the police rank-and-file as well as among those citizens whose knowledge of the ins and outs of police politics does not extend far beyond the nightly news. But for those community leaders who have watched the department’s operation over the years–as well as during Dolan’s nearly six-month tenure as interim chief–the appointment creates major concerns.

Those concerns revolve around Dolan’s willingness to cooperate with the Civilian Review Authority and discipline officers who have been the subject of sustained citizen complaints, his commitment to diversifying the police force, and his ability to affect general reforms in a department that has been subject to millions of dollars in police brutality lawsuits over the years.

Dolan was able to allay some of those concerns during a series of interviews and public hearings over the past month, as well as by personal conversations with skeptical council members. Mayor R.T. Rybak also lobbied fiercely for the nomination. But the key to Friday’s 12-1 vote was Dolan and Rybak’s willingness to support a wide-ranging council resolution (the so-called “Safe Place to Call Home” measure) that ostensibly makes Dolan specifically accountable for a number of goals designed to reshape the department and its relationship with the council–and the community.

On Friday, Dolan called the resolution “very binding,” even though none of the stipulations ranged beyond what was already detailed in the department’s five-year plan and the federal mediation agreement.

And there’s the rub, of course. While the resolution provided political cover for the five council members who had been undecided or leaning toward opposing the nomination, it does little to guarantee that the new chief will follow through on any of it. Plus, it does nothing to address the real obstacle to police reform: the bargaining agreement with the Police Federation.

Ralph Remington, the Uptown-area council member who cast the lone vote against Dolan on Friday, voiced some grave doubts about the ability of the new chief to make real change. He’s not buying the notion that the “piece of paper” the council approved will have much influence over department operations or the behavior of rogue cops who continue to abuse their authority in the community–and cost Minneapolis taxpayers millions of dollars each year to clean up after them.

Dolan says we should judge his work on “the 15 officers he’s fired” since taking the reins last spring, but he would not comment during last week’s public hearing on his handling of the controversial Dominick Felder killing, nor has he been particularly forthcoming with council members or the public on other recent cases of alleged police misconduct.

It is clear that Dolan is a much more accomplished administrator than his predecessor. He has successfully erased a massive backlog of sustained CRA cases that former chief William McManus had been ignoring. And he appears to have stabilized a department that was in disarray following McManus’ departure.

But the fact that the council had to manufacture a separate resolution to allay its own concerns–and generate a more comfortable majority–tells me that Dolan begins his three-year term with less real council support than that 12-1 vote might indicate.

And, with the city in the midst of a rancorous federal mediation process combined with a continuing series of brutality allegations, Dolan begins his tenure with very little margin for error. Which means we all better hope he knows what he’s doing.

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