The Stenvig Years


Tony Bouza

Nostalgia is morbid homesickness. We are all susceptible.
Take, for example, the Stenvig Years.
The Seventies. Charles Stenvig, the president of the police union, got elected mayor three times for two-year terms, almost explicitly on the premise he’d control Black riots.
The echoes I hear are of a reasonably harmless, lovable buffoon.
That is not the view I developed.
Gordy Johnson, one of the three Stenvig police chiefs, died in March. He was described as having “initiated 911.” This is not true. 911 came to Minnesota in 1983 after I, with help, finally managed it. A heavy lift with surprising opposition, including St. Paul’s then police chief. I had to visit him to stifle his opposition.
Success has many fathers. Failure is an orphan. In 1980, 911 was not a popular idea in Minnesota, except for a very few believers.
Why should it matter? Because of the risk of repetition.
Homophobia—in the form of gay bathhouse raids—was rampant. The last such was on 2/10/80. I was sworn in the next day and bounced the Vice Squad commander—a consummate bully—and his boss—a tittering idiot.
History demands truth.
Stenvig launched the most corrosive spoils system ever seen in American policing. Cronies and political hacks were richly rewarded. Johnson was one of three prime examples. I got to know them all since they returned to the ranks—as captains—when Stenvig gave way to Hofstede. I had occasion to deal harshly with all three.
All pretty harmless ancient history, right?
Gays were harassed and abused. Blacks were routinely brutalized and any thoughts of effective policing buried under the weight of political expediency.
Stenvig gave way to Donald Fraser (not directly, but certainly cause and effect).
Consider it.
Does it matter?
Do you care if Blacks are harassed; gays paraded obscenely; or legitimate issues ignored? This is what bad governing looks like. To be fair, the department was not corrupt—only racist, brutal and homophobic.
Could George Floyd have happened under Fraser? It didn’t and it wouldn’t.
The Gordy Johnsons and their ilk are wonderful reminders that governing does matter; truth is relevant; spoils systems and cronyism in government are real and truly harmful.
Bad governments are costing you (every person in the city) about $70 apiece for the Floyd case, and then there’s the Damond case, and on and on. Thank God you’ve got deep pockets.
Stenvig and Johnson are gone but not forgotten. They are not ancient history but surprisingly contemporary and relevant. Floyd, Damond, et alia, are stark illustrations of how rarely we escape history.
How comforting they’re gone—but metempsychosis teaches us that their spirits live on in Minneapolis—to its citizens’ eternal shame and regret.
Today we face a genuine crossroads—chaos or order. The future is not bright. Minneapolis looks like a community that has lost its way. The costs are high and the consequences daunting.

Comments are closed.