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City Image Tarnished By Allegations of Police Racism

March 21, 1989 GMT

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ Allegations of police racism and brutality have shaken this city that for decades has prided itself on a progressive attitude toward civil rights and a reputation for racial harmony.

The deaths of two blacks at a drug raid that went awry, followed 10 days later by a scuffle between police and blacks at a downtown hotel, touched off an outcry by minority leaders for an outside review of the department.

″It’s like a watch spring. You can only wind the watch so tightly before it’s going to snap. I think we’re approaching that breaking point,″ said Van Hayden, 25, a student who says police beat him at the hotel.


The city’s police chief, John Laux, says there is no reason to assume the department would be immune to a problem that is present in all segments of society.

″The whole society to different degrees has problems of racism,″ he said.

In a letter to police supervisors in mid-February, Laux said: ″Let me make one thing perfectly clear - any act of bias will be dealt with directly and severely. There will be no tolerance for that type of inexcusable behavior.″

Since former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, then a 35-year-old mayor running for the U.S. Senate, electrified the 1948 Democratic National Convention with his historic speech in support of civil rights, Minneapolis has been viewed as a liberal, progressive city.

Some, including Hayden, say that image now blocks progress.

″I think this city has to wake up. Everyone always says, ‘I can’t believe this is happening in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, the home of progressiveness.’ That is real tricky,″ Hayden said. ″If we get preoccupied with the image of the city, we’re not going to be able to thoroughly address the problems we’re facing.″

″The liberal image is a false picture,″ said Chris Nisan, a University of Minnesota student who has been involved in recent protests.

In a series of rallies in recent weeks, protesters demanded that officers involved in the drug raid be suspended, charges against those arrested at the hotel be dropped, and that a citizen police review board be established.

City Council voted last week to study the problem.

″There are bad apples in every bunch and the Minneapolis Police Department is no exception,″ said Councilwoman Sayles Belton. ″I don’t think they (the good officers) are pleased with the few that are giving them the bad rap - the spoilers.″

Lloyd Smalley, 71, and Lillian Weiss, 65, were killed Jan. 25 in a fire that started after police hurled a stun grenade into their apartment, where others also lived, during a drug raid.

No one conducting the raid knew the elderly people were living there, said Laux. A grand jury decided not to bring charges against any officers, but an FBI investigation is continuing.

In the hotel scuffle, police said they responsed to a call of a loud party. Partygoers alleged that officers used the term ″nigger,″ and beat some of those arrested. Laux said his officers have denied using racial names and said protesters lied about the number of people receiving medical attention following the arrests.

Gleason Glover, president of the Minneapolis Urban League, which works for interracial cooperation, said police racism has been a problem since he took over the league position 21 years ago.

″The matter of police misconduct and brutality has been going on for at least the 21 years I’ve been here, but I think the deaths pushed the issue beyond the point of tolerance that usually is the case in matters of police misconduct,″ Glover said.

″There is deep resentment in both the black community and among police officers with regard to how they feel they are perceived by each other ... I do not see a quick fix solution to it,″ Glover said.

Allegations of police misconduct currently are reviewed by a panel appointed by the mayor. The panel can only make recommendations. Laux opposes establisment of a citizen panel to look into police actions.

″The key point is that any time the head of the police department cannot hire, fire or impose discipline, you are no longer in charge,″ he said.

Laux said the 750-member department, which includes 62 minority members and 68 white women, will begin cultural awareness training for all officers, probably this fall.

″We need to get more education about ourselves and about everyone else. Our goal is to find out who can offer that to us and in what form,″ said Laux. ″But it must be thoughtful and be done by the right people.″