Police Department gives officer medal for shooting black teen in the back of the head

Jan. 16, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS - Police Sgt. Dan May has always maintained that he shot 17-year-old Tycel Nelson in self-defense in 1990. But May is white, Nelson was black, and the teen's death outraged many in the black community.

Now, the Police Department has given May a Medal of Valor for the shooting, and the old divide is opening up again.

Chief Bill McManus said the medal was awarded by a committee that doesn't need his approval. The same committee unanimously approved May for the medal in 1990, but then-Chief John Laux rejected it. A change in the mid-1990s allowed the committee to award medals without a chief's approval.

"Based on what I heard about this case, I wouldn't have approved the medal," McManus said.

May is now a supervisor in the police canine unit. He said he was surprised three weeks ago when he learned he would receive the medal, and that he realized the honor would open old wounds.

A fellow canine officer nominated May for the award. The committee hands out several honors during the year after reviewing each case. Medal of Valor recipients are usually officers who have faced life-threatening situations, said Lt. Rick Thomas, head of the committee.

Thomas said department administrators decided that May wouldn't receive his award during a ceremony with other award recipients. He said the committee knew the award would create some tension in the community, but that May met the criteria.

May said he appreciates the honor, but doesn't know why he was re-nominated. He said the shooting changed his life forever and that he's been trying for 15 years to forget about it.

"I think the ceremony was done in a low-key fashion because nobody needs to open old wounds in the community," May said. "But when there are officer-involved shootings to this day, my name is still brought up. I'm sure the Nelson family wishes this wouldn't come up again."

Nelson's mother, Earline Skinner, wondered if the department knew how much anguish May's medal is putting her family through.

"Me and my family were starting to be able to walk with our heads up in the air after being kept down for so long," she said. "Why are they doing this?"

The shooting occurred after a party of Disciples gang members was crashed by a group of rival Vice Lords. Then, two Vice Lords were wounded in shootings.

May was the first officer on the scene. He pulled out a shotgun and chased a man whom he believed was an armed suspect, who he later identified as Nelson. May has said he lost sight of the suspect momentarily, then spotted Nelson raising a gun at him. He said he fired only after Nelson ignored his order to drop the weapon.

No one else saw the shooting. Skinner later sued, alleging that May shot an unarmed youth who was harmlessly running away from him. Her attorneys were poised to make the most of three undisputed facts: Nelson was shot in the back; the .22-caliber revolver found at the scene bore no traceable fingerprints linking it to him; and May initially described the suspect he was chasing as wearing a brown leather coat, although Nelson was wearing a black-and-white-striped shirt.

A grand jury cleared May of any wrongdoing, but the city paid $250,000 to Nelson's family to drop the lawsuit.

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