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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
Michael Quinn Cuts the Thin Blue Line
Friday 12 November @ 15:18:58
by Lydia Howell
There are two kinds of courage, and Michael Quinn has both. Physical courage is a job requirement for police officers. What every rookie is unprepared for is the necessity for ethical courage in the face of what every cop understands as “the Code of Silence:” never snitch on another cop. Ever.
Michael Quinn, a veteran of 23 years with the Minneapolis Police Department, served
over 300 high-risk warrants — without ever killing a suspect — and
led many dangerous raids in the “drug war.” Now, Quinn has written
a book: “Walking With The Devil: What Bad Cops Don’t Want You To Know
and Good Cops Won’t Tell You.”
don’t prepare rookies for the stresses of the job,” said the soft-spoken
Quinn. “I think the code of silence is the biggest [problem]. We don’t
prepare them because we want to pretend it doesn’t exist. Or that if it
does, they’ll learn how to deal with it. This is a huge mistake, because
the first thing every rookie learns is that you depend on other officers around
you for your life and safety. Without those other cops, you’re out there
on your own.”
Quinn comes from a family of police officers: his father’s 40 years in law-enforcement
included 20 years in the MPD; a brother-in-law was a cop and one sister still
is. Quinn is now a Federal Marshall.
As both a journalist and an activist, I’ve been deeply concerned about police
brutality since the late 1970s in Texas and in Minneapolis since 1988. I came
to Quinn’s book with a mix of skepticism and hope, rooted in work on dozens
of police brutality cases since 1977.
Quinn’s aim was to write “a better police ethics textbook,”
and he has created a compelling personal account of policing that raises crucial
issues that community activists have struggled to see taken seriously. He walks
a tightrope, describing concrete examples of cop corruption, abuse and what’s
called “creative report writing,” while not naming names. Identifying
individual officers would have certainly brought charges of sensationalism, distracting
from Quinn’s hard-won and important insights.
“Your field officer tells you right off the bat, ‘Forget everything
you’ve learned in the academy. This is the street way and this is how we’re
gonna do business.’ They’re telling you what worked to keep them alive
in stressful situations, so it’s not entirely a bad thing,” he says.
Every rookie’s challenge he says is to “incorporate” the street
experience with school-knowledge. Quinn’s book includes heart-thumping incidents
with the inevitable mistakes a young cop makes grappling with the physical power
society grants the police in order to do their job. He describes the police rookies’
rite of passage: a kind of heartbreak of ideals when introduced to the Code.
are you going to do when your partner — who’s saved your life —
does something really wrong right in front of you? Are you going to go to Internal
Affairs or Civilian Review and report it?” Quinn poses the burning question
about good cops covering for bad cops. “No, you’re not. It doesn’t
happen like that.”
Inside police departments, peer pressure takes on an almost overwhelming intensity,
that Quinn’s book makes viscerally real. Understandable rookie mistakes,
theft by cops and the beating of handcuffed suspects are all equally swept away
under the Code. Breaking it means being ostracized by fellow officers, which can
not only wreck a career but can cost a cop’s life, if he or she can’t
count on having backup on the streets.
Police Federation president John Delmonico dismisses Quinn’s accounts of
police misconduct, and the last two MPD Chiefs, Robert Olsen and John Laux, refused
to comment. Quinn asserts that his friend and former squad partner, Deputy Chief
Tim Dolan was misquoted in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune as disparaging his book.
“Quinn’s brave,” former MPD Chief Tony Bouza told the Star-Tribune.
“There are two things you don’t write about: ‘testi-lying’
and breaking the Code. Mike writes about both.” Bouza also earned fellow
officers’ ire with his own truth-telling book and articles.
After the Jordan neighborhood blew up, ignited by the non-fatal police shooting
of an 11-year-old African-American boy, Communities United Against Police Brutality
(CUAPB), other community organizations and North Minneapolis ministers pushed
for federal mediators to step in. After a lengthy review, mediators came to agree
with Quinn: Part of what creates police brutality comes down to physical training.
Quinn notes that Minnesota has some of the highest requirements for police: a
minimum of two years of college and even a bachelor’s degree for some departments.
For 18 months, he worked in the Police Corps Academy and lauds much of the skills
training, but he also sees important gaps.
For one thing, cops learn physical control-techniques wearing sweats and socks
on a padded mat, not in full uniform, which Quinn says “is not as realistic
as it should be.” Imagine wrestling with someone while wearing an extra
30 pounds of equipment, including a gun belt, pepper-spray canister and a large,
Officers are required to do about 16 hours of annual “continuing education”
which Quinn describes as “mostly legislative updates and firearms.”
are at their peak of physical skills, but nothing’s done to maintain them,”
Quinn explains. “A 10-year veteran average officer could not perform at
a 50-percent level of those skills — the takedowns and compliance-holds.
If we don’t make them maintain them, they don’t have those skills
to use. Then they resort to whatever they do at the time. That’s where you
get a lot of excessive force complaints.”
What some might dismiss as a “soft skill” – communication —
is another area Quinn says needs improvement, in order to avoid excessive force.
While saying, he “isn’t questioning the shooting at all” of
Barbara Schneider, he asks, “Why did it take that to get a special program
to teach Minneapolis police how to deal with emotionally disturbed people? It
should be part of our training. To me, it’s as critical as teaching people
how to use firearms correctly.”
June 12, 2000: Barbara Schneider was a middle-aged white woman struggling with
mental illness. Police were called to her Uptown apartment by neighbors saying
her radio was too loud and expressing concern for her mental state. Officers rammed
opened her locked apartment door, forced their way into her bedroom where they
found her holding a paring knife. Police shot her three times and she died.
“The real critical incidents are typically built around communications and
how cops get control,” Quinn emphasizes. ‘Critical incidents’
refer to those where police use force, especially lethal force. “If we did
more work in our police academies, especially around crisis communication, we
could avoid some of this [excessive force].”
With rising immigrant populations, communication also comes into play, sometimes
intersecting with mental illness or physical disability. The following incidents,
taken from CUAPB’s website, illustrate the problem:
April 28. 2001: Ephran Depaz, a Mexican immigrant, was the passenger in a car
driven by a frightened, undocumented immigrant who led police on a low-speed pursuit,
ending in a crash into a telephone pole. An officer approached the passenger side,
demanding Depaz get out of the car. Partially deaf and speaking no English, Depaz
may also have been unconscious from the crash. The officer shot Depaz in the neck,
claiming he reached under the car seat. The City of Minneapolis paid a $250,000
settlement to the Depaz family.
6, 2002: Abu Kassin Jeilani was a refugee, suffering from mental illness after
his experiences during the war in his homeland. He wandered from his high-rise
apartment, incoherently mumbling, carrying a crowbar and machete, followed by
friends. Police were called and Somali people at the scene asked to intervene,
as Jeilani spoke no English. Police refused. Within 11 minutes of their arrival,
three Minneapolis officers shot Jeilani 15 times, including, eyewitnesses reported,
after he was lying on the ground. I was on the scene within an hour, interviewed
witnesses and saw Jeilani’s uncovered body.
Building a relationship between the Somali community and MPD is being attempted,
but has been strained by the post-9/11 “war on terrorism.”
No one disputes that police work is dangerous. Since the mid-1800s, 197 Minnesota
cops have been killed in the line of duty. To put this in some perspective, CUAPB
cites 30 people killed under questionable circumstances by Minnesota law enforcement
just since 1989. They ranged in age from 17 to in their 70s, most of them unarmed
people of color.
The 1994 Crime Bill mandates that Department of Justice gather statistics on people
killed by law enforcement. As of 1999, DOJ reported an annual average of 350 “justifiable
homicides” by police nationwide, but gives no names, dates, locations or
descriptions of events, notes Karen Saari, of the Stolen Lives Project, based
in New York City. Three-fourths of those killed by police are people of color.
Quinn asserts that racial bias rarely plays a role in excessive force but takes
on other police policies that do. The communication strategy he calls “verbal
judo” is one.
“You’ve made a traffic stop and tell the driver to get out because
his license and plates are suspended. He refuses. You’ve got three choices:
Drag him out. Yell at him. Or do verbal judo, which is telling him what the situation’s
options are, offering a solution,” Quinn explains. “But, too many
times, cops decide ahead ‘This is the way it’s going to go. Period.’
Communicating more fully, there might be another resolution that works just as
both agree that too often officers immediately escalate a situation, rather than
try to de-escalate it, making excessive force more likely to occur.
“I think the reason that’s happening is because only cops are dictating
what you’re being taught. I think that’s a mistake,” Quinn says,
offering what some will call a radical solution and others will call overdue.
“The community should be able to go into the academies, watch what’s
being taught ... and give feedback.”
Quinn’s book enumerates what he calls “10 myths of policing,”
some of which relate to communication skills, community standards and issues that
activists regularly raise around police abuses.
One myth is “Swearing is a necessary part of the job.” I ask him about
this as well as racial slurs.
“You can’t communicate clearly if you’re throwing the F-ingheimer
in there. Some cops say you need the shock value to ‘get their attention.’
I don’t buy that anymore, but I used to,” he grins sheepishly, then,
soberly continues. “When you use words with racial connotations or other
strong emotions, those emotions are generated in yourself and the other person
— raising the anxiety level. What you want to do is resolve the situation
without it getting worse. Swear words, racial words, homophobic words, sexist
words don’t help with anybody.”
“Community policing” has been a buzzword since the early 1990s. In
Minneapolis, one aspect of fighting crime is called Code 4: police “targeting”
their attention in certain neighborhoods, making as many arrests as possible,
as Quinn explains.
don’t think that it’s racial profiling or racist cops, because when
you target a neighborhood with a lot of drug violence, it’s usually a black
and Hispanic neighborhood. A majority of those arrested will be black and Hispanic
people. It ends up being a racial issue,” he says.
Quinn points to research by the Hennepin County African-American Men’s Project:
34 percent of Minneapolis black men aged 18-30 have arrest records as a result
of Code 4. Other research by Minnesota Crime and Justice found that 90 percent
of misdemeanor arrests were never even charged. But Quinn recognizes the stigma
of an arrest record remains, haunting a large portion of that community.
“Police performance is based on the total number of arrests, felonies, misdemeanors,
car-stops, DUIs,” he said. “Nobody, as far as I know, goes back and
says: You had 10 arrests, how many were actually charged? If we started doing
that, we’d find that officers that make lots of arrests but are not getting
people charged, it’s because they’re not ‘good’ arrests.”
He explains there is no formal “arrest quota” but an insidious pressure.
“You get more points for a felony arrest than a misdemeanor—even if
it’s charged as a misdemeanor. We could more accurately judge officers by
their impact on the community. But, that’s harder to do.”
That requires changing a distrustful and hostile relationship between police and
inner city neighborhoods. Former MPD chief Bouza compares the current dynamic
to the police as an “occupying army” in largely minority communities.
This raises another of Quinn’s myths of policing: People only respond to
“People that fear you are not going to cooperate with you. If they fear
the people who are supposed to be helping them, they’re not calling those
people for help. [Some] officers create a sense of fear,” Quinn said.
leather gloves in the summertime. Mirror sunglasses so you can’t see their
eyes. The one I get absolutely wild about, is that some cops refuse to shake hands
with people on the street because they want to set themselves apart ... to come
across as someone more to be afraid of than to partner with,” he says. “Cops
can’t get their job done without the participation of the community.”
I’ve no doubt Quinn could handle himself on the street but, in two hours
of conversation, he doesn’t show a speck of the gratuitous intimidation
I’ve often witnessed, even as a crime victim. With most of his extended
family, Quinn has lived in Minneapolis all his life and has “always felt
like a part of the city.” He asserts that the motto of police must return
to “protect and serve” rather than “convict and incarcerate.”
What is most striking is Quinn’s call for more transparency in the investigation
of police brutality. His suggestions from his own Internal Affairs experience
echo the observations of activists.
“I saw a number of investigations that just flat-out did not ask the tough
questions,” he said. “Leads were never followed up. Witnesses never
contacted. When there’s physical evidence and the complaint’s not
sustained? You have witnesses and all these people are lying? I don’t think
there’s a lot of that going on, but it’s enough to create doubt.”
Mike Quinn sees that the Code can only be challenged, incident by incident, by
each officer. His book “Walking With The Devil” makes clear a different
kind of peer-pressure—disapproval of unethical behavior— which can
back officers up in doing the right thing. Plus, he urges officers to do a kind
of “intervention” in moments where things are going wrong.
have to teach cops to step in prior to a partner getting out of hand. Good cops
already do this, saying ‘Let me handle it,’” he says. “I’ve
had officers grab my arms and say ‘That’s enough, Mike. You got him.
It’s over.’ That’s what we should be teaching cops.”
About the new MPD Chief, Bill McManus, Quinn said that “he’s an outsider
coming in and we need to give him a chance. He’s instituting programs improving
professional standards and accountability. I’ve heard he’s got good
instincts about people. The question will be, of course, if it’s a transparent
Michael Quinn speaks and reads from “Walking With The Devil”
Sat. Nov. 13, 4 p.m., May Day Books, 301 Cedar Ave. S, below Midwest Mountaineering
in the West Bank area of Minneapolis. For more information, call 612-333-4719.
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