Medal of Valor award ignites community outrage


“My first reaction was, ‘Why are they giving him this medal?’ My second reaction was to ask how he even still has a job!” said Carlotta Madison in an interview with the Spokesman-Recorder, referring to the awarding of a Medal of Valor to Minneapolis Police Officer Daniel May for the 1990 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Tycel Nelson.

Madison is a lifelong resident of North Minneapolis who, in 2001, won a settlement against the City of Minneapolis stemming from an incident where she charged police with brutality against her and her son. “After all that was done, I had a fighting reaction,” she said.

The awarding of the medal by a committee of Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) employees has touched off a flurry of moral outrage and indignation in the Black community. The incident has also refocused attention on the continuing problem of police brutality and how the community can better organize to combat it.

The controversy began a couple of weeks ago with the announcement that the department’s awards committee had given the medal, the highest departmental award, to May for the shooting. This was the second time the committee had given May the award. The first time was 15 years ago, when subsequent community outrage and protest forced then-chief John Laux to veto the committee’s decision.

Last Friday, January 20, May declined the award and returned the medal. In a letter to current MPD Chief William McManus quoted in the Star Tribune, May said the controversy “has adversely affected me and my family and has been a distraction to the police department. I hope that my decision to return the medal can put this matter to rest so that I, and everyone involved, can move forward.”

May added in the same letter, “It means a lot to have received validation” from his co-workers.

The Spokesman-Recorder contacted Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak for comment, but the mayor’s office did not respond. To the best of our knowledge, the mayor has offered no public comment on the award.

The shooting
Daniel May shot Tycel Nelson in the back outside a party in North Minneapolis in December of 1990. May claimed that Nelson had pulled a gun and tried to shoot him, and that he killed him in self-defense; however, a substantial amount of evidence contradicted his claims.

May claimed that he chased Nelson and that Nelson raised a gun with his right hand to shoot him, forcing May to fire on him. However, Nelson’s relatives and friends all said that he was left-handed. Moreover, one witnesses testified that Nelson simply raised his hands after May told him to.

While two witnesses claimed that they saw Nelson with a gun that night, 12 others said that they never saw Nelson with a gun. In addition, May’s partner, Richard Altonen, claimed in police reports that after May shot Nelson, he and May traced Nelson’s blood trail, and that May found the gun “after a few minutes of checking.”

However, Police Sgt. Thomas McKenzie testified that he arrived at the scene shortly after the shooting and did not remember May and Altonen finding a pistol. McKenzie explained that he instructed several officers to “fan out and look for a firearm.” One officer, William Heck, explained that police did not find the gun until several minutes after the ambulance had left with Nelson.

Several witnesses also testified that after May shot Nelson, police officers kicked snow in Nelson’s face.

Then-Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman appointed William McGee as a special investigator. Freeman presented the results of the investigation to the grand jury. Based on the evidence presented in the report on March 26, 1991, the grand jury concluded that no probable cause existed to charge May criminally for the shooting.

The grand jury was all white. Freeman refused to exercise his discretionary powers to charge and prosecute May.

‘Time to organize’
The killing of young Tycel Nelson and the community protest in the aftermath of the incident was an important moment in the history of the Black community in the Twin Cities. Hundreds of working people in the community, especially youth, participated in meetings and demonstrations protesting the killing and demanding that May be prosecuted for his death.

Discussion on the award, on the struggle to win justice for Nelson, and on how the Black community can fight back against police brutality was intense on the North Side last Friday.

“He gave the award back, but he said that he was happy with the intention of his peers. Well, he might as well have kept the award,” said Rob Griffin while waiting for his son’s hair to be cut at a Northside barber shop. “When murders get awarded, it’s time to organize!”

“I was directionless. It [the 1990 community protest] was my initiation into adulthood,” said Ramma Hudnell to the Spokesman-Recorder, referring to how his participation in the protest helped him to turn his life around. Hudnell explained that community organization “is needed like air, because working people are losing on every front right now from jobs, health care, housing and police brutality.”

Skepticism about City leadership
Many expressed skepticism about the actions of the city’s political officials. Police Chief McManus said that he was opposed to the award going to May. “Based on what I heard about this case, I wouldn’t have approved the medal,” said McManus according to an Associated Press dispatch.

Some representatives of the Police Community Relations Council responded by publicly suggesting that the award was insensitive to the feelings of the Black community and asking for an explanation of the policies and procedures related to the issuance of awards.

On January 11, McManus appointed two senior administrative officers to the awards committee. The move was seen by many in the community as a part of ongoing interdepartmental turf fighting and as a way of deflecting community indignation over the incident.

“What has he done?” Madison asked. “He hasn’t implemented a plan to punish brutal police. When he does that, I’ll give it up to him.

“This is the same thing they did to the officer who shot my brother,” said Madison, referring to the case of Andre Madison, who was shot several times by Minneapolis police in a botched 1996 raid. Madison was subsequently convicted on charges of assault against the officers who shot him.

Madison maintained his innocence and fought for his freedom, winning a settlement against the city for brutality two years ago. “I wonder how many other officers who have committed brutality have gotten these medals,” continued Madison.

Many people feel that giving May the award is as much about the future as it is about the past. “They [City government] are telling us what direction they are moving in,” said Pat Phillips, a friend of Tycel Nelson who is currently a student at Mankato State University. “They are trying to set a precedent.”

“There is no justice in America,” said Steve Wilson, a youth counselor who also grew up with Nelson. “They say this is supposed to be a democracy, but it ain’t nothing but a hypocrisy!”