News Chief concerns

Bill McManus’s political savvy has made him popular with minority leaders, but not always with the cops under his command

When Bill McManus takes command of the San Antonio Police Department on April 17, he might feel like he’s stuck in a time warp. The problems McManus will encounter with the SAPD are remarkably similar to the headaches he inherited in Minneapolis two years ago.

Bill McManus: Widely viewed as a reformer, he’s drawn fire for publicly criticizing police officers. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

By 2004, the Minneapolis Police Department had become a lightning rod for criticism from high-profile minority leaders and a target for lawsuits alleging misconduct (the department paid out nearly $10 million in claims from 1995-2004). The SAPD has experienced a recent spate of officer-involved shootings and nagging perceptions — deserved or not — that it is unfairly targeting African-Americans. This din of criticism reached an outrageous crescendo with a San Antonio Observer cover depicting a local police officer in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

The headline screamed “I’m Scared.”

If you tried to design the perfect police chief to confront such political turmoil, that chief would look a lot like Bill McManus. Handsome, articulate, and well-educated, he’s uniquely attuned to the concerns and fears of minorities. He has built a reputation as a reformer dedicated to bringing diversity to the highest administrative levels. On a more personal level, his wife, Lourdes, is Latina, and his family makes a point of speaking Spanish at home.

McManus’s progressive credentials, built over three decades of law enforcement experience in Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, are so respected that African-American leaders favored him for the Minneapolis post in late 2003, even though three of the other finalists considered by Mayor R.T. Rybak were African-American. Robert Bennett, a Minneapolis civil-rights attorney who has filed several lawsuits against the MPD, says McManus’s publicly expressed sensitivity to racial issues caused some of his critics to snidely dub him “Black Manus.”

McManus’s too-good-to-be-true résumé and political acumen suggest nothing so much as Bill Clinton with a badge, but as with Clinton, his careful attention to style points invites criticism that he’s nothing but a calculating politician who says all the right things to benefit his image. “I think he’s very good at controlling the message and making friends where he needs to make friends,” says Michael Friedman, member and former chairman of the Civilian Review Authority, a Minneapolis oversight board that investigates complaints against police officers. “It’s not an easy trick to be both very popular in the community, and once he had a little bit of tenure here he was supported by officers here and supported by the union, and that’s pretty unusual. I think the officers saw the reality of his leadership and found it to their liking, and the community saw the communications skills and not necessarily the reality of reforms.”

Given McManus’s reputation for limiting use of deadly force by police officers and for responding to police misconduct with swift punitive action, you would expect Friedman to be one of his allies. But Friedman says McManus refused to meet with him, and showed little regard for the Civilian Review Authority.

“It was very disappointing,” Friedman says. “Right from the outset, he was very hostile to the form of civilian review that we have in Minneapolis and immediately set out to change it. When there wasn’t a political interest in doing that in the city, he basically ignored aspects of our law that he didn’t like. The net result was we had a couple of years where we were kind of at an impasse. Where we found misconduct by an officer, over 80 percent of the time he would choose not to take any formal action as a consequence of it.

McManus addresses the local media at the announcement of his selection as San Antonio police chief.

McManus walked into the Minneapolis job “with both guns blazing,” according to John Delmonico, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. Nine days into his tenure, McManus suspended three of the department’s most seasoned officers over questions about the handling of an investigation into the near-fatal shooting of Duy Ngo, an off-duty cop mistaken by one of his fellow officers for a criminal assailant. One of the officers suspended, Lucy Gerold, had been a finalist for the position of police chief, and her suspension — without proof of wrongdoing — struck some rank-and-file cops as an act of political ruthlessness.

“By doing that, he eviscerated the top homicide cops,” says Fred Bruno, an attorney who has represented several Minneapolis officers disciplined by the police department. “Everybody was puzzled by that one, and very dismayed. He complained about stepping on land mines. Well, you have to know where the mines are, and that’s part of your job.

“He didn’t understand that in Minneapolis things are done by process and not by autocracy. When he came in, he misunderstood the powers that a chief of police in Minneapolis may or may not have.”

Based on his conversations with members of the force, Bruno says “morale was very low” during McManus’s tenure in Minneapolis. It’s an opinion shared by Tim Lauridsen, police chief in Osceola, Wisconsin, who previously served in Minneapolis under McManus.

In an e-mail to the San Antonio Police Officers’ Association, Lauridsen offers his condolences over McManus’s imminent arrival in the Alamo City. He says after nearly 14 years on the Minneapolis force, he “had to get out” after McManus took over the department.

“He is a political machine catering to the lowest common thug, as long as the thug has access to a microphone. Beware all street cops who love the job, you will not have any backup in the chief’s office,” Lauridsen states in his e-mail. (Lauridsen declined to speak to the Current about McManus.)

Such complaints can also be heard from officers who served under McManus in Dayton, where the antagonism between the chief and his foot soldiers became so bitter that the city’s police union issued a unanimous “no confidence” vote against him.

Delmonico had similar initial concerns in Minneapolis. He pointedly failed to attend the December 24, 2003, city-hall ceremony in which Rybak presented McManus as his choice for police chief, believing that the mayor should have chosen a qualified candidate already within the department. Nonetheless, Delmonico now says, “I think he’s done a good job. He’ll openly say he regrets some of the things he did early on, and I questioned where he was getting some of his information about the department. But we had a good working relationship. You always knew where you stood with him.”

Delmonico blames Rybak for using McManus to shore up his own progressive credentials with minority voters, and then “treating him like shit” when McManus proved to be an independent thinker. It’s typical of the confused, ambiguous relationship that emerged between the mayor and police chief that Rybak dragged his feet on reconfirming McManus for a second three-year term, then unsuccessfully tried to speed his confirmation through city council when he realized McManus was on the verge of leaving for San Antonio.

Bennett has frequently tangled in court with the police department but he calls McManus “an adversary I respect.”

Bennett adds: “I found McManus to be honest, honorable, and very intelligent. He’s the kind of police chief I wish we’d been able to retain.” As for what the SAPD can expect from its new leader, Bennett says, “I would think the African-American and Hispanic officers would be very pleased to have him. They’ll get a fair shake.”

By Gilbert Garcia

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