For many years the Minneapolis Star Tribune, like a lot of metropolitan newspapers, reported on police activities as if the Minneapolis cops were the bad guys and every mistake or misstep by a cop was an act of malfeasance. Not that the Minneapolis cops were always innocent, but most of them did, and still do, their job with courage, honor, and integrity. You wouldn't have known how good they really were because the news media went out of its way to beat us up in print every chance it got. But things are changing here in Minneapolis. The Star Tribune has new owners, and it shows.
Over that the past few weeks, I've seen more positive articles about our cops than I saw in the last few years combined. That's not to say the cops should or will be on a perpetual honeymoon with the press. The community needs to know about deliberate police misconduct and what the department is doing to hold these cops accountable. Accountability is important on many levels. Appropriate sanctions, from verbal warnings to days off, are often a wakeup call that serves to prevent future misconduct. I know it worked for me, more than once, and I saw it work for others as well. And, except for those cases of extreme misconduct, nobody wants a cop to lose their job. We need them and we want our cops back on the street as soon as possible.
But when the press restricts its role with regard to the cops as that of a sanctioning agent, the public gets a grossly distorted view of the cops. Good policing requires citizen involvement. That's no secret to a cop. It's a symbiotic relationship. Neither can survive without the other. Everything from neighborhood crime prevention to information on a recent homicide comes out of the community. You can be the best super-sleuth in the world and it won't help one bit if the community won't work with you. That means the citizens have to trust their cops; but they won't when the only thing the community sees in the press is reports of police misconduct, real and alleged.
Negative reporting, without some realistic balance, pits the cops against the community and the community against the cops. It's bad for the cops and it's bad for the community.
The written word, especially in a major newspaper, is an incredibly powerful weapon when it is used as such. It attacks without fear of retaliation and it never needs to apologize because there is almost always at least a glimmer of truth in what it prints. It can destroy in a thousand words relationships that took years for a police department to put together, and the media has no regrets, because it sells newspapers. But there is another way. When the press is willing, it can be a powerful agent of peace and cooperation. It can bring the cops and community together. It can build bridges instead of walls; and that's good for the community and it's good for the cops.
I always knew how destructive the press could be, but it wasn't until recently, when I felt the emotional impact of those positive police stories in the Star Tribune that I was reminded of how deep my frustration ran with the constant negative press.
The Minneapolis Police Department has struggled for a long time in its efforts to build a strong police-community relationship in the face of constant criticism, a problem we don't see in our sister city of St. Paul. If we go back a few years, we see the perfect example of how different we are from St. Paul. In 1992, Minneapolis Police Officer Jerry Haaf was assassinated by cowardly gang members; shot in the back while on his dinner break. I rode in the funeral procession, along with hundreds of other cops, and it was a wonderful service. But the procession and the service were attended by mostly cops.