“Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”
Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell
There is enormous power in political activism, although that power is not always readily apparent. Next Sunday, a handful of activists will decide what the future of policing in the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office will look like for at least the next four years.
On May 6, at the Ramsey County DFL Convention, delegates will decide who to endorse for the county sheriff’s race. It promises to be a lively affair. Because St. Paul is so heavily Democratic, whoever wins the endorsement is a good bet to win the election, provided no ‘unknown-unknowns’ come to light in the meantime.
This is one of those occasions when the power of political activism is readily apparent. It is, simply put, the power to shape the future, the power to choose one embodiment of the future over another.
Will it look like the department built by Sheriff Matt Bostrom, a department that instituted character-based hiring, community-based policing, and other benevolent policies that, in a few short years, have earned it a similar kind of reverence and beloved status – though not yet similar in degree – to that which the St. Paul Police have enjoyed for decades? Will that foundation of trust and goodwill be carried forward to greater achievements by Sheriff Bostrom’s protege and former second-in-command, Sheriff Jack Serier? Will the moral courage and sense of mission that comes from benevolent vs. militaristic policing that emboldened Sheriff Serier to offer police services to Falcon Heights after the tragic Philando Castile shooting (when no other local police department would) continue unabated and allowed to grow into an even greater, ever-more-valuable asset of the community?
Or will the residents of Ramsey County and the City of St. Paul be subjected to all the Sturm und Drang of their sister city across the river including brutality, civil rights and wrongful death lawsuits; inter-departmental and inter-agency lawsuits, frequent oustings of Chiefs of Police, and multi-million dollar payouts to litigants? After all, the City of Minneapolis has been trying – mostly unsuccessfully – to change the internal culture of its police force since Chief Tony Bouza was recruited from the NYPD for that very purpose w-a-a-a-y back in 1980.
The contest stacks up this way: Ramsey County Sheriff Jack Serier was appointed to the office in January, 2017, when former Sheriff Matt Bostrom retired halfway through his second term. Now Sheriff Serier is running for election to the office he currently holds.
Sheriff Serier is being challenged for the DFL endorsement by former Minneapolis Police Officer Michael Martin, who formerly led the 4th Precinct in North Minneapolis. Martin retired from the MPD and is presently working as Assistant Director, Department of Emergency Management, at the U of M. Martin announced his candidacy for the Sheriff’s Office on January 26 of this year citing a need “… to rebuild confidence in leadership and foster community relationships.” The press release announcing his candidacy states “Mike has a proven history of building relationships with inner-city communities.” Maybe so, but I’m curious to know what the residents of the 4th Precinct would have to say about it.
Martin was one of five MPD police officers who, back in 2014, sued then-MPD Chief of Police Janeé Harteau, claiming she retaliated against them by demoting and re-assigning them to lower-level positions when they refused to retire. Harteau eliminated the police rank of Captain as part of a union contract agreement negotiated with the police federation by former MPD Chief Tim Dolan and approved by the union membership.
In place of the rank of Captain (an open civil service position subject to applicant testing and seniority), Harteau created the rank of Commander, which is an appointed position filled by the Chief. Martin was not among those whose rank converted from Captain to Commander. His rank converted to the parallel and co-equal rank of Inspector (Note: In the MPD, a Commander has authority over a division, such as the Special Operations and Intelligence Division (SOID), or the Violent Crimes Investigations Division (VICD), while an Inspector heads up a precinct.) Martin held the position of Inspector (formerly Captain) in the 4th Precinct before he was reassigned by Chief Harteau to run the sex crimes unit at the rank of Lieutenant, which is the rank he held when he retired from the MPD. We are told that a change in rank along with a change in assignment is not unusual in the department.
To be clear, it does not appear that Officer Martin ever held the rank of Commander, which is a specific rank demarcating a specific area of authority and responsibility in the MPD. And although the ranks of Commander and Inspector are co-equal, parallel ranks, they are not interchangeable. But Officer Martin refers to himself as a former Commander in his campaign communications. To what purpose, I’m not entirely sure. I’m told that the honorific for former police officers is the highest rank they once held, which in this case would be either Captain, or more likely Inspector, since the rank of Captain no longer exists. But to my mind, Officer Martin has every right to claim either of those titles without quibbling, because both are ranks he once held.
The bigger issue is that it appears Officer Martin wants to bring Minneapolis Police Department politics, and Minneapolis-style policing, to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. That is, unless he wants to claim that he was never a part of that culture and never contributed to it in any way during more than 20 years of service. Which poses an unavoidable question to all those Ramsey County convention delegates who must choose a sheriff candidate to endorse on Sunday: “Why buy trouble?”
I understand that there’s a lot of general unhappiness with policing these days. In my view, policing is one of the hardest professions there is, due in part to the fact that it is so highly politicized. We’re asking our public defenders to go out every day and deal with the worst among us, including some real monsters, in a culture awash with guns, that glorifies violence as entertainment; and we want them to do it in a nice, respectful and non-violent way where the civil rights aren’t violated of some howling miscreant who’s jacked to gills on K2, publicly masturbating, and foaming at the mouth. Tough job.
Still, some metropolitan police forces are better at dealing with crazy-making cultural demands than others. On taking office, Sheriff Serier immediately addressed understaffing in the Ramsey County jail, resulting in a recent poll where 90% of employees thought overtime was just right or too little. He runs his department under budget. He leads in the calm policing style that provides better results than de-escalation. He has long been a leader in working the issues of domestic violence, human sex trafficking, and opioid abuse. His office is a leading example in the treatment of PTSD, mental illness and disability issues, and cultural differences and religious differences in policing. He is best known for recruiting for diversity and hiring for character. This is what policing activists have asked for. This is what he’s given them.
The St. Paul Police Department, and now the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, are like two precious gems of those communities. The bedrock foundation of trust and goodwill between the residents of those communities and the police who serve them is the envy of police departments around the country. Sheriff Jack Serier has been a part of building that office, that service, and that reputation. Do DFL activists and delegates to the convention really want to play dumb on this one? The biggest troublemaker you’ll ever meet watches you brush your teeth in the mirror every morning. Be wary; be warned. Sometimes you get and sometimes you get got.
Part of the power of activists to shape the future, hence the world they want to live in, is the power of an immune-system response. It is the power of rejection, as opposed to the power of acceptance or affirmation. On Sunday, the DFL activists at the Ramsey County Convention will be in a position to exercise both kinds of power. I hope, for their own sakes, that those activists choose wisely. It’s only the future well-being of your communities, your families, and your peace-of-mind that is at stake.
Dudes, word up, you need to get this sh*t right to keep things all proper and correct.