Letter to a New Chief

Tim Dolan is the new chief of police in Minneapolis, and I'm glad. Tim is a former partner of mine. He was a good partner, and when he was promoted and became my boss, he was a good boss. I know that Tim loves cops, and that no matter how high up he goes in the chain of command, he will always be a cop, and a good man. I know that he is also a devoted dad and husband with a gentle, forgiving side that not many people have seen. I am happy for him, but I don't envy him. He has taken on what may be the toughest job in the state. Violent crime in Minneapolis is higher than it should be, given what's happening in the rest of the U.S. With the murders and gang shootings occurring in our poorest and most crime-ridden areas, many of the citizens have lost faith in our cops. This is not because we have bad cops, but because our citizens are having a hard time seeing cops as part of their community.

Minneapolis cops are crime fighters and they work hard, but it's no secret that the police can only do so much and they can't be held responsible for the root causes of crime. Lack of education, underemployment, and dysfunctional families have more of an impact on crime than the total number of cops responding to calls for service.

We are, and probably always will be, primarily a reactive service, and the higher the crime rate, the more calls for service. With more calls for service there is less time for proactive, community policing efforts. Whether it's POP, COP, SARA, or Broken Windows, you can't connect with the community in any meaningful way if your whole shift is spent running from call to call. In fact, it's more likely that when the cops are pushed like this, they will feel like an occupation force trying to keep the lid on opposing forces over which they have little or no control. And that's not too far from the truth.

In our relatively crime-free neighborhood of Southwest Minneapolis, my neighbors talk about the north side of the city as a "war zone" that should be fenced off from the rest of the city; as if that will protect our little corner of the world from the violence. These perceptions, like the lie that is partially true, have enough truth in each of them to make them powerful forces in an argument for excusing or justifying police behavior that we would not tolerate in other times or other parts of the city.

There are lots of good cops, working very hard, in very tough conditions, in cities all across North America. And it's incredibly frustrating to cops, and the citizens under siege in those bad neighborhoods, when their best efforts don't seem to even make a dent in the problems we face. It would be easy in times like these for Chief Dolan and his commanders to turn a blind eye to infractions committed "in the heat of battle," but it would also be a grave mistake. Excessive force, creative report writing, racial profiling, and hiding behind the code of silence are wrong when times are good and they are just as wrong when times are tough.

We must expect our cops be at their best when the events and circumstances surrounding them are at their worst. The community should be able to depend on them to show the restraint, courage, compassion, and control that are missing in the lives of so many folks. And they should be held accountable when they don't. The community needs examples of what can be possible, not what is excusable, and Chief Dolan can and should lead the way. He should be reminding his cops that their conduct or misconduct is very often the reason behind a community's willingness, or lack thereof, to share what it knows about the crimes going on all around them. Spokespersons for the Minneapolis Police Department have repeatedly had to publicly ask for help in solving crimes that should have had citizens volunteering information within minutes of the crime being made public. Instead, we hear our public relations people lament the fact that: "There are people who know what happened but they aren't coming forward with the information."

It's a matter of trust, Chief. When citizens trust their cops, the phones in homicide will be ringing off the hook with tips concerning major crimes, and you will gain that trust when you hold them accountable for misconduct. It would also help in your communications with those neighborhoods under siege if you make your record of accountability public, like so many other agencies have done. If you did that, you could have more impact on solving the gang and murder problem than any police strategy you could devise. The citizens have placed their trust in you. As your former partner and a citizen in your city, I trust you will do what's right by the community and the cops. Demand courage, compassion, control, and restraint from your cops. You have to trust first that your community will understand mistakes by cops, but they will also expect accountability. Take that first step. The community wants to trust you as much as I do.