Lessons From A Liberal Cop
Published on Monday, October 13, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Lessons From A Liberal Cop
by Harley Sorensen
 

One of the beauties of being a journalist, even a freelancer like myself, is that it opens doors.

So, last week, before heading to Minnesota for my annual pilgrimage "home," I took advantage of my journalist status to e-mail Neil Haugerud and ask if I could stop by and visit a bit. Neil reads my columns, and usually agrees with them; he said yes.

Who is Neil Haugerud? Briefly, he's a remarkable human being, one of Minnesota's great unsung heroes. Nowadays, I would guess, he's best known as author of a beautiful little book called "Jailhouse Stories."

His book is based on his three years as deputy sheriff and eight years as sheriff of rural Fillmore County in the picturesque hilly part of southeastern Minnesota.

Neil is 73 years old now and lives quietly a few miles west of Preston, the Fillmore County seat and a town of about 20,500, a good-sized small town by Minnesota standards. The sheriff's office/sheriff's residence/county jail where Neil once lived with his family has been replaced and is now a bed-and-breakfast.

I have long contended, though never publicly, that the people who understand life best are liberal cops. Most cops see a lot of life, and learn a great deal about people, but the conservative ones tend to use that knowledge to turn mean, or to justify the meanness they always had.

But liberal cops filter their street knowledge through their positive outlook and become wonderfully objective. Ex-sheriff Neil Haugerud fits my definition of the ideal liberal cop.

As such, he is vehemently opposed to the kind of training cops get these days, training that in essence teaches cops to shoot first and ask questions later. He is appalled by the number of mentally ill people killed by the police, unarmed people killed by the police, innocent bystanders killed as a result of reckless police chases.

In our discussion last week, I told him that I cannot imagine myself shooting a 97-pound woman armed only with a knife, as cops have been known to do. "No, you wouldn't shoot her," Neil replied, "nor would anyone who has not gone through police training."

When a cop defends a questionable shoot by saying his training kicked in, Neil said, he's telling the truth. The culprit, the retired cop added, is not the individual officer so much as the training that taught him.

I first heard of Neil, I believe, during his years in the Minnesota state Legislature, where he served eight years after resigning as sheriff. He served in the Capitol in St. Paul with one goal in mind: to reform Minnesota's estate laws.

That's what makes him a hero, in my opinion.

Until Neil came along, lawyers appointed as estate executors could charge the estate a percentage for their dubious services, which meant they could rake in tens of thousands of dollars -- or more -- for doing nothing more than writing a letter.

It was legalized robbery, money that poured into lawyers' pockets rather than into the deserving pockets of the next of kin.

That such a set of circumstances existed drove Neil nuts, and he ran for the Legislature to change it.

As soon as he got there, he told me last week, he was told that his estate-reform bill had no more chance than the proverbial snowball. Before such a bill could be brought to a vote, he was told, it had to go through the Judiciary Committee.

That committee consisted completely of lawyers, who were not about to derail any part of a gravy train benefitting lawyers. Neil's bill didn't have a chance.

It didn't have a chance, that is, unless circumstances changed. In spite of the lawyers in it, the Minnesota Legislature was pretty honest in those days, so Neil was -- remarkably -- able to muster enough help to abolish the Judiciary Committee.

That took care of the biggest hurdle, but others existed. Politics is dirty, even in Minnesota. One year, his bill passed and was then quietly repealed before it ever took effect. Another year, it passed but was invalidated because the state's revisor of statutes filed it out of numerical order, legally killing it.

The lawyers had no end of dirty tricks, but Neil and a few other honest legislators had no end of perseverance, and in the end perseverance carried the day.

With that mission accomplished, Neil bowed out of politics.

Although the state's estate laws are still less than Simon pure, thousands of Minnesotans now enjoy the benefits of inherited money they never would have seen but for Neil Haugerud.

Neil and I had a great time last week comparing notes on people we both knew. During my years as a reporter in Minneapolis, I often wondered about the honesty of a certain state legislator from that city. I could never prove anything against the man, but I felt certain he was involved in some kind of skulduggery. So I asked Neil if he knew the guy, who is now dead.

His response was gratifying. Without any knowledge of my opinion, which I hadn't expressed yet, he told me that that guy was the only out-and-out crooked legislator he knew of.

Ah, it was great to have my suspicions confirmed, but a little bittersweet to realize I didn't have the talent back then to smoke out a scoundrel.

I also told Neil I thought a certain statehouse reporter was one of the most naive people I knew, and he agreed and said the guy also was under the delusion he was extremely sophisticated, an observation with which I could cheerfully agree.

As a liberal who has seen a lot of life, Neil is naturally aghast at the Bush administration and its efforts to destroy the America in which he and I have lived our lives. His opinions pretty much mirror the beliefs I've expressed in my columns over the past couple of years.

He is equally aghast at our drug laws and the hundreds of thousands of people locked up because of them. He asked me why I thought legislators throughout America tolerated such dreadful and nonsensical laws.

I responded by citing the case of Warren Spannaus, a former Minnesota attorney general. As attorney general, Warren (who sat behind me in high school Latin I class) was the state's highest vote getter. But when he ran for governor, he got beat in the primary. Why?

Because he was for gun controls of some sort and not against legal abortions. His positions electrified the NRA and the conservative right, which rallied their forces against him. Because of their determination and effectiveness, Minnesota lost the services of a man Neil described as "the most honest lawyer I've ever met, a thoroughly honorable man."

In my opinion, I told Neil, it is the ability of the far right to destroy politicians that makes legislators unwilling to stand up for commonsense drug laws. Because of the far right, hundreds of thousands of worthy young men languish behind bars, as we run our states and our nation as a backward tribal society might.

Neil is contemplating another book, "Legislature Stories," and if he lives long enough in good health, I'm sure he'll write it. "Jailhouse Stories" made me laugh and made me cry, and it filled me with a desire to meet its author, which, thanks to my "journalist" status, I now have. If you want to find out more about the book, and Neil, you can at www.jailhousestories.com. If we're lucky, they'll make a movie of it someday.

Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist.

2003 SF Gate

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