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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Minnesota Pays Settlement to Black Officers in Bias Suit

The officers alleged a history of racial discrimination that only got worse.

By DAVID CHANEN, Star Tribune

Minnesota bridges rated: An interactive map of bridges that are "structurally deficient," "functionally obsolete" or have gusset plates like those on the I-35W bridge.

The city of Minneapolis agreed Friday to pay five high-ranking black officers $740,000 to settle a lawsuit they filed in 2007, alleging racial discrimination and a hostile working environment.

Lt. Don Harris, Lt. Medaria Arradondo and Sgt. Charlie Adams each will receive $187,000, Lt. Lee Edwards $137,000, and Sgt. Dennis Hamilton $40,000.

The settlement, which includes the plaintiffs' legal fees, does not mandate that the city change any policies or practices.

"The amount of the settlement is extremely significant in race discrimination [cases] in the state, especially against a public entity," John Klassen and Andrew Muller, attorneys for the plaintiffs, said in a joint statement. "The Police Department hasn't [ever] paid this amount in an employment discrimination case, to our knowledge."

The five officers sued the city and police Chief Tim Dolan in December 2007, alleging a history of discrimination in the department and asserting that it became more institutionalized after Dolan became chief. The five had an average length of service of 20 years.

The suit focused on three personnel moves by Dolan: the reassignment of Harris and Edwards to lower positions, and the transfer of Adams from the homicide unit. The city already has paid Adams an $85,000 settlement over comments Dolan made after the transfer.

Last summer, the Minneapolis City Council rejected a $2 million settlement offer. Friday, the council voted 12-1 to approve the $740,000 settlement. Lisa Goodman voted no. A trial had been set for March 2010.

Dolan deferred comment Friday to a city spokesman. When the 38-page suit was filed in December 2007, Dolan issued a statement saying he was committed to building and retaining a diverse police force reflecting the city's population.

Three months earlier, several black officers had met with the director of the city's Civil Rights Department to voice concerns about racial issues, but the director dismissed the allegations and later publicly called the officers "disgruntled cops near the end of their careers," the suit said.

The department had only one officer of color with a rank higher than lieutenant when the suit was filed, but Dolan has since promoted two more. About 18 percent in the department are officers of color.

The suit claimed that black officers received fewer opportunities for training, special duty and overtime, as well as fewer appointments to key units. It also claimed that the department had failed in several areas of diversity required by a mediation agreement reached with the help of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The suit alleged that the department refused to pay overtime to Arradondo, head of the Fourth Precinct's community response team, for the key role he played in critical incidents. Harris, a Fourth Precinct investigator, was passed over for appointments in favor of white officers, the suit said.

Potential 'catalyst for change'

While several white homicide officers got more than 150 hours overtime during the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, no one informed Adams of that opportunity until the last days of the detail, the suit said. The department fired Hamilton for infractions that didn't get white officers fired, the suit said.

The department demoted Edwards, former head of the homicide unit and an inspector, after accusing him of driving a department vehicle intoxicated and making offensive comments to subordinates. But the suit said the department then replaced Edwards temporarily with a white lieutenant with a lengthy history of civil rights violations.

Edwards, cleared recently of criminal wrongdoing in a federal corruption investigation, was suspended without pay for related departmental violations. The department's Internal Affairs Unit found that he violated codes of conduct and ethics in dealing with a high-ranking member of the Gangster Disciples gang. He faced six internal affairs allegations; four were sustained in a report completed last summer.

"Litigation, especially litigation with current employees, can be hard on everyone," said Assistant City Attorney James Moore. "We want to ... move forward on the important business of the Minneapolis Police Department. We also look forward to having plaintiffs work with us to accomplish our goals."

Zach Metoyer, former co-chair of the Police Community Relations Council, said he was happy for the officers. But he added that he wished the court would have ordered the department to change how it treats officers of color.

Citing the same perceived shortcoming, Al Flowers, who had been on the Community Relations Council, said "he was flat-out disappointed" with the settlement.

But attorney Muller said it could have long-term impact.

"No one would wish to go through what these five officers went through," said Muller. "The suit could be a catalyst for change. Time will tell what the department's commitment is to those issues."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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