Racial Tensions Test 'Clean' Minneapolis

After decades of burnishing a progressive image, Minneapolis and its Scandinavian tradition of north-woods tolerance is being tested by racial tensions.

Aggressive police efforts to reverse a recent surge in murders have rankled relations between blacks and whites.

The crackdown and other points of friction in law enforcement have shown Minneapolis that generous government programs doesn't necessarily guarantee racial understanding. For many residents, rising gang-related crime has underscored the need for closer contact between whites and minorities. "There's misunderstanding to the point where it could be dangerous," says Matthew Ramadan, executive director of the Northside Resident Redevelopment Council.

Racial tensions between police and blacks came to a head when an all-white task force was assigned to investigate the murder last month of an 11-year-old black boy named Byron Phillips, who was gunned down in what police say is the city's first gang-related homicide of a child.

African-American leaders say the murder investigation highlights the police department's need for more ranking black officers to handle such critical cases.

The murder occurred soon after black officers broke off talks with the police administration over claims of discrimination in hiring, promotion, and pay.

The death of Byron also coincided with an aggressive and controversial crackdown on crime called "Operation Safe Streets." Although some community groups support the initiative, which the city launched last year, some residents and civil libertarians have criticized it as racially biased.

In the case of the Phillips murder, the police chief last month assigned four black officers to the case, arguing that the officers would better gain the confidence of African-American residents. Immediately, however, the police department was criticized for making race a qualification for assignment to the high-profile case.

Then, to the embarrassment of the police chief, two of the black officers withdrew from the assignment, saying their white colleagues were just as competent.

For police, the recent racial tension has made a hard job harder. "Minneapolis has always been a lefty place, and in places where civil liberties are held in more than average esteem and there is suspicion of government, it is tough to be a police officer," says Gary Hestness deputy chief of the Minneapolis Police.

Compared with some other cities in the United States, Minneapolis is late in tackling racial issues in law enforcement, say community leaders. Its generous welfare and comparatively small minority population (21 percent) have helped to mitigate calls for greater diversity and sensitivity.

When social problems arise, city leaders have advanced government projects but not necessarily deepened inter-racial exchanges. "We have to change the tradition of throwing money at city problems, then going back to the suburbs," Mr. Ramadan says.

"We have to deal with each other as human beings and deal with each other as equals," adds Gary Sudduth, president of the Minneapolis Urban League and a mediator between police officials and black officers.

A flare-up in murder has highlighted the points of racial friction. Turf battles by gang members propelled the number of murders last year in Minneapolis to 97, a figure that is more than 50 percent higher than the previous year.

Even though gangs continue to make inroads, the murder rate this year has ebbed; there were 39 homicides by July 1. But the leveling off has come at a cost in police-citizen relations.

The aggressiveness of Operation Safe Streets has driven many gang members indoors, but it has antagonized some law-abiding citizens, according to interviews with residents of minority areas.

Safe Streets was modeled after successful "zero tolerance" programs in larger cities. As part of the initiative, police use crime data to target patrols at the most violent places and times. They also stop residents for traffic violations and other minor infractions. With a person's consent, they search his or her belongings for drugs or weapons.

Although many community leaders applaud the keener law enforcement, Safe Streets has sparked controversy because of its focus on minority neighborhoods where the homicide rate has risen. Many residents resent the apparent assumption by police that young African-American men are on the streets to break the law.

"Police assume that because I'm young, black, and single I cause trouble," says North Side resident Darrell Walker. He says six police officers in three patrol cars recently ended a nonviolent domestic argument between him and his girlfriend by handcuffing him and barring him from his apartment.

"I've heard guys talking all over the neighborhoods that they're tired with this police activity," says Mr. Walker, a machinist and native of Chicago. "The cops better watch out, I wouldn't be surprised if all these guys jumped them - you can only get beat so many times before you fight back."

But police say the local community will be the ultimate winner. "The people in these neighborhoods are also the ones who are dying from the shooting," Mr. Hestness says. "Those are the folks in the greatest need, and we'd fail to serve their needs and rights to equal protection under the law by not doing our best to help out."

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