Police Chief Dolan: An open case

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Minneapolis’ homicide rate was almost double New York’s. The Minneapolis Police Department was paying out big settlements to both civilians and officers, and it faced accusations of institutional racism. 


It was 2006, and Tim Dolan had just taken the helm of a police department mired in controversy.


Three-and-a-half years later, as the City Council prepares to vote on reappointing Dolan for another three years, the chief is still trying to rub out the last vestiges of the 100-homicide-a-year “Murderapolis” days while reigning in a department with a lingering reputation for heavy-handedness.


Supporters, including Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, say the numbers trend highly in Dolan’s favor.


In 2006, the year that Rybak first nominated Dolan, the city saw 57 homicides, but under Dolan, that number dropped to only 19 in 2009. Robberies and overall violent crime fell by 50 and 40 percent respectively in the same span.


Detractors point to police brutality as the apparent trade-off for low crime rates. But as 2010 dawned, even the impressive homicide numbers seemed in jeopardy after seven men were murdered in Minneapolis in the first three weeks of the year.


Dolan mused that the council would be “foolish” not to reappoint a man who has intensely led juvenile crime initiatives and overhauled technological systems and diversity goals quietly and without fanfare.


Still, he has drawn sharp criticism at almost every juncture, and within several weeks, Tim Dolan will stand before the City Council to learn if he will have his job for another three years.


Getting and giving second chances


During his 2006 appointment process, Dolan, who lives in Edina, struck some critics as an outsider, said University of Minnesota police Chief Greg Hestness.


Hestness, one of the final three candidates for the Minneapolis chief position that year and a longtime colleague of Dolan, said he “was a little afraid that would be a deal breaker.”


But Dolan hadn’t always lived in the well-heeled suburb. Growing up in north Minneapolis, he more than once found himself on the other side of the law.


As a teenager, Dolan went cruising in a bulldozer and set fire to a mailbox full of Christmas cards from the nuns of St. Phillips.


“I wasn’t very popular with the nuns at the church, especially after that incident,” Dolan said.


He wasn’t popular with the feds either. The stunt earned Dolan a federal record, and he found himself on probation.


“It curtailed my wandering the neighborhood,” Dolan said.


He picked up work where he could and found structure in his life through hockey. His community gave him a second chance, and that’s a lesson he has carried over in his own initiatives with juvenile offenders.


“Kids do stupid things. They deserve a second chance,” Dolan said. “You can’t just write them off, because there still could be somebody there that’s a good kid worth spending time with. I do look at that differently.”


Never forgetting his own colorful past, Dolan re-established the long-defunct Juvenile Division and made it a centerpiece of his tenure.


Before he resurrected the division and instituted a triage for juvenile offenses, cases “were all being handled equally poorly,” Dolan said. “It wasn’t that effective.”


The department merged its efforts with those of local schools, juvenile detention faculties and social services to interrupt what Dolan called the “spin cycle” for juvenile offenders.


“Kids would get arrested for something one day and they’re getting arrested and detained on warrant and they’re in this spin cycle where it has nothing, really, to do with their original offense,” Dolan said. “It has more to do with not adhering to the process.”


Now, juvenile offenders are dealt with in accordance with the severity of their infractions. They’re better educated, and the “one-stop shop” Juvenile Division has coordinated all aspects of youth crime from intelligence gathering to fingerprinting and information cataloging.


Juveniles accounted for 50 percent of the city’s violent crime in 2006, but the city now estimates that the number has been nearly halved.


The department and Inspector Bryan Schafer, then a lieutenant, who administered Dolan’s new division have won national recognition for the program’s success.


John Stiles, a spokesman for Rybak, said Dolan has been a “great proponent” of youth crime prevention. He added that in terms of reducing violent juvenile crime, Dolan has “set a standard that seemed to be lacking in previous generations.”


Complaints, reviews and criticisms


When it has come to the divisive task of disciplining his own officers, Dolan has won favor in few circles.


The Civilian Review Authority (CRA), a board appointed by the City Council and the mayor to review complaints against officers, has been highly critical of the chief.


The CRA passes sustained complaints on to the chief, who makes a final ruling and can impose a broad spectrum of punishment, or none at all.


What bothers Don Bellfield, CRA board chairman, is not that the chief oftentimes disagrees with their rulings but that Dolan never acts upon so many of the cases that come across his desk. If Dolan does nothing, the case simply fades away.


“We just expect the chief to do his job,” Bellfield said. “What determination he makes, that’s his decision.”


The CRA took in 450 complaints of all types in 2009, up from 330 in 2006, but that number is winnowed to only a handful of sustained complaints each year.


For most of 2008 and 2009, of 25 cases in which the CRA found a police officer had acted inappropriately, Dolan ended 22 without discipline or by pocket veto.


In defense of his record, Dolan said many of the cases he hasn’t acted upon are beyond a period of fair reckoning. “The bottom line,” he said, “is that I’m never going to sustain a case that I think is not fair.”


Dolan added that a large number of complaints doesn’t signal any increase in heavy-handedness from the police.


“As you deal with violent crime better, you’re going to get more complaints about livability crime,” Dolan said. “People don’t complain about graffiti and loitering and so forth when they know you’re dealing with shootings and homicides.”


In December, the CRA board issued a review of Dolan’s performance, noting that officers have been reluctant to participate in CRA reviews, “but the CRA believes that the situation is made worse by a culture of disdain for the CRA within the MPD.”


“We have a difference of opinion a lot of times,” Dolan said. “Our union will tell you that I’m overly tough on cops. But also, when I look at CRA, when I look at their process, it is not a fair process in a lot of cases for officers.”


Between the CRA and Internal Affairs, Dolan has disciplined more than 100 officers. The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis has filed grievances in half of them.


The CRA board did carve out some exceptions to their disapproval: They noted that “there has been noticeable improvement since Chief Dolan issued a policy that directs officers to [participate in the investigations].”


But Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said Dolan’s fiat for officers to cooperate was void of any substance because it merely directed officers to follow an existing law.


“He can easily tell them to do that and participate in those investigations knowing there will be no consequences,” Gross said.


Gross said that Communities United, a volunteer organization that guides citizens through legal cases against the police department, is now taking in more complaints against the MPD than ever in its 10-year history.


The group’s growing profile could not fully account for the increase in caseload, she said.


Five or more cases roll in every week, Gross said, and during the summer, that number climbs to a dozen.


In Dolan’s estimation, what may be more important than the sheer volume of cases is their nature.


“The complaints are less about excessive force and more about attitude, which is interesting because that’s progress in a way,” he said. “That type of excessive force that you saw back in the old days, you don’t see that anymore. Cops would put people in the hospital. People who were resisting arrest ended up in the ER with broken arms or whatever, and that was a regular event. You don’t see that anymore.”


He cited a current case where a citizen had a lock of hair pulled out during a fight with an officer.


“That’s a whole lot different from [an officer] taking a flashlight and giving you 50 stitches in the top of your head.”


A more diverse department


When Dolan first hung his hat in City Hall room 120, he inherited a department that was struggling to match the city’s ethnic diversity. Rybak demanded a more diverse police force, and Dolan delivered.


In 2006, the Minneapolis Police Department had 145 sworn minority officers of more than 830 total officers. But by the end of 2008, the number of minority officers had jumped by 15 percent. Now, nearly one-fifth of the department’s officers are minorities.


“[Rybak has] pushed for that from day one,” Dolan said. “And we’ve spent a lot of money and a lot of resources and a lot of time to make sure that would happen.”


The department’s non-personnel recruitment budget under Dolan has ballooned from $10,000 to nearly $100,000 as the department finds ways to target young people in communities where police work isn’t commonly viewed as a career.


The City Council, too, tasked the chief with diversifying the police force to better serve the increasingly heterogeneous city.


“This is an area where he’s excelled,” Ward 2 Councilman Cam Gordon said.


More importantly for the department’s top cops, minority officer recruitment continues to rise due in part to creative police recruitment initiatives that skirt Minneapolis’ restrictive hiring practices.


Brian Sebo, of Minneapolis Police Human Resources, said the department can hire only officers who are among the top-three ranked candidates after testing, so it created the position of Community Service Officer, a part-time recruit who works for the department while completing a degree. Any candidate who reaches a threshold of qualification is eligible for hire, and these CSOs can eventually graduate to officer rank. Under Dolan, the department has hired 70 officers, half of whom are minorities.


Sebo added that the CSO position allows the department to more actively recruit candidates with language proficiencies, military backgrounds and other in-demand skills, even if they rank lower after testing.


Hestness said options like the CSO position give Minneapolis police “greater control over their front door” and allowed them to “leverage those individuals to be recruiters [in their own communities].”


Gun shy


A triple homicide Jan. 6 in the Seward neighborhood punctuated the rough start to an important year for Dolan. The Seward Market shootings were the second, third and fourth homicides of the young year. Three more homicides followed in the next two weeks.


“It has been horrible. I don’t even want to answer my pager anymore,” Dolan said in a Jan. 25 interview. “I got a call Friday. I got a call from my deputy chief of investigations, and I thought for sure it was another shooting, another homicide. It had nothing to do with that, but you kind of get a little gun shy.”


Though the police responded quickly, Dolan said one month of murders and bad press couldn’t erase years of hard-fought crime reductions and successful initiatives.


“I don’t think that one month should jeopardize the last three-and-a-half-plus years, but if that’s the case, that’s the case,” he said. “That would be kind of short-sighted.”


The murders were unconnected crimes, but the spike couldn’t have come at a worse time for the man who will soon go before City Council with his job on the line. Dolan and his officers and investigators, however, responded with arrests.


By the end of January, Minneapolis police had arrested suspects in six of the seven murders and are closing in a suspect in the seventh, Dolan said.


A decision for the Council


Rybak submitted Dolan’s name for reappointment in October, but the City Council vote on the reappointment was first stalled by the seating of newly elected council members. Now, several cancelled committee meetings have delayed it further. Gordon said several weeks could pass before the vote goes before the full council.


While he is still undecided on how he will vote, Gordon said he will consider the goals the council set for Dolan in 2006 when he makes a decision.


Those goals include a 100-percent discipline rate for CRA-sustained cases, a balanced police budget and a review of Dolan’s outreach to the community.


Gordon said a several-million-dollar budget shortfall from the police department was a difficult hole for the City Council to plug this December, and he expressed concern that the department has come in over budget for two consecutive years.


Only one council member opposed Dolan in his original appointment three years ago. That councilman, Ralph Remington, is no longer on the council.


Gordon has said that despite “success in some areas,” in others “Dolan has fallen short.”


For his part, Dolan said – as he has done for most of his career – that he is going to stay out of city politics and continue to do “business as usual” while the reappointment continues.


“I would do that to the very last day,” he said. “There’s nothing put on hold; we’ve just got to keep on doing what we’ve been doing.”