Rybak Q&A: Police behavior made his ‘blood boil’

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August 6, 2013
By: Nick Halter
Nick Halter

Mayor R.T. Rybak sat down with the Journals today for a lengthy interview about Minneapolis cops, city-owned energy utilities, food trucks, Target Center and the candidates who wish to succeed him in office.

We’ve broken the interview into two segments. The first will focus on two recent incidents involving off-duty Minneapolis police officers.

Minneapolis officers visiting Green Bay allegedly got into a scuffle, used racial slurs and made derogatory comments about Police Chief Janee Harteau.

In a separate incident last fall, three officers were cited for assault after they allegedly got into a fight with a group of black men and uttered racial slurs. Charges against one of the officers was dismissed. 

These two recent incidents with Minneapolis cops, one in Apple Valley and one in Green Bay, I am wondering, do you support the way Chief Harteau has handled it so far, and do you think these officers should be fired?

What I saw on videos is outrageous. Everybody deserves all the facts to come out, and I will look at them. But this behavior I saw on that video is so far beyond anything I find acceptable I frankly don’t almost have the words to describe.

I strongly support what the chief has done, which is from the moment she was confirmed she reflected the values that I respected enough to put her in this position. She brought the whole department together, talked about those values with owning your actions, and solving them and doing them, but mostly about being reflections of a very diverse community. She’s continuing that, and I have absolute confidence and she will have my complete backing for the discipline that’s required here. And almost more important, I have confidence she will continue to push the culture change that’s necessary, where it’s a clear minority of officers with values that don’t reflect the city’s values, clouding the image of a force where the vast majority of people do great work.

Speaking of the culture issue, the officers were rather casually using the N-word and referring to Janee Harteau’s sexuality. The way they were sort of casual about it, it makes people wonder if perhaps that’s sort of the way they talk at the Police Department, when they’re hanging around other cops and stuff.

Right.

Is that a concern?

Yes. I can’t, and the chief can’t, be in every room with every cop, and we shouldn’t be there when people are relaxing and having a beer. We must expect every time a person who has a badge and a gun in the name of protecting and serving people speaks – even when off duty — they reflect our values. That (incident) did not, and the casual nature of it was even more upsetting.

I know so many officers now who do great work, but it’s also imperative right now, especially for every single officer who is in a situation where somebody steps over that line, to immediately speak up and make the values I know that most of the officers of this force have, the dominant culture in the department.

I know a lot of cops now, and I’ve seen a lot in some really tough situations and I’ve gotten to know their families, and understood a lot of their values. One of the things that is so deeply troubling to me is that a couple people could say something like this, a couple more could say something like that behind the scenes, and it would cloud all the amazing work the people in uniform do for the city every day.

We can do a lot from the mayor’s standpoint and chief’s, and we’re going to have to do a lot more, but at the end of the day it’s going to take a cop having a beer with another cop and hearing something out of bounds and immediately making it clear that that does not represent the values of either the city or anybody on this force.

Is it too difficult right now to fire a cop in this city?

(Long pause)

“One of the things I always do when there’s one of these tough incidents or outrageously expensive settlements, is asking the question about what else we should change. Sometimes the answer to that is training. Sometimes it’s getting something else in the contract. So again, as we walk through this incident, if it proves to be as heinous as it looked, I will be asking the questions about what more should we do to be able to get at removing officers who make outrageous actions as soon as possible.

At the same time, it’s really important to call on my experience – having steered through the myriad of allegations that are not true against police officers — that we don’t take action inappropriately and penalize people who are out there protecting us.

Clearly, we need to do more in training and our contracts and multiple levels, but I also think back to a lot of incidents, especially one in which officers were alleged to have sodomized a person with a plunger. There were calls for us to take immediate action for us to remove those officers, who wound up not being part of that inaccurate allegation. Their reputations continue to be tarred by that, and part of my job is to work from that experience as well.

At the end of the day, I saw something on a tape that made my blood boil, and it should make everyone’s blood boil. As we navigate through all of this, I think we need to have a public discussion about how we make sure we can take as aggressive an action as we can if this is true.

I’m picking my words carefully. I have to, because there’s a lot of law here, but I hope you understand how strongly I feel.

I guess one of the things I think about is that if I, or most other people who have jobs, if they were caught on tape calling their boss an f-ing lesbian, they feel like they would probably be fired pretty quickly thereafter.

What I saw on the tape about the chief was very upsetting, especially in a city where I was once a police reporter covering this department’s extraordinary inappropriate actions toward the GLBT community. What an officer says about their boss is not as important as what they say about people in the community. Those of us in positions of authority are used to hearing things even as horrible as what the chief heard. When you’re out talking with a person in the community about that, that’s frankly even worse. One of the reasons I appointed the chief is because she understood from the inside out what it means to have bias thrown in your face and in your workforce, and what it took to earn respect. She brought that value in from day one, and immediately began moving to take tough action on this.

This is horrible incident, but it’s the right chief to take the right action. I trust her judgment, have stayed in very close contact with her throughout it and as little as an hour ago I was on the phone with her and getting her take, and I strongly support her.

There is never a moment here where we shouldn’t be asking the larger questions about training and diversification, and we’ll continue to do that.