Colorful cop to step down;

Sarah McKenzie

University Police Sgt. Joe May will end his tenure with the department at the end of January — just a few days shy of 30 years.
His retirement comes at an opportune time for a number of reasons. “It’s just been long enough,” May said. He hinted that he is not working for the big money anymore — his pension rivals his current salary.
But May said it hasn’t quite sunk in that his career — colored with protests, professional thieves and bicycle chases — is ending in a matter of days.
“I don’t think about it a whole lot,” May said. “That’s not my style. I take things as they come.”
His style has attracted attention both within the department and outside of the University. This spring, national television network A&E is scheduled to air a segment on professionals with a keen intuition — May will be one of the featured subjects.
The program will show how May solved an arson case at Sanford Hall two years ago in a somewhat unorthodox manner: Using a videotape of the crime scene, May’s prescient mind predicted the sequence of events that followed small fires set in garbage cans and a kitchenette. The investigation led them to the arrest of a 19-year-old University freshman.
May’s investigative years are preceded by more than two decades of street-patrol experience. The uniform bike patrol idea sprung up shortly after his career began in the late 1960s — something that makes him particularly proud.
The Riot Years
Protests, tear gas and other Vietnam War era phenomena were at the backdrop when May landed on the University campus in the late 1960s.
University Police Officer Robert “Hawk” Hanley joined the department shortly after May. Fellow officers and roommates during tumultuous times, part of their duties included keeping tabs on protesters marching at Coffman Union from a station on top of Ford Hall.
“I staked out there for two weeks in the nice weather,” Hanley said. “I sat up there with nothing but my gun belt and a pair of tan pants.”
Other duties included guarding the Armory, a frequent target for protesters. The building was set on fire half a dozen times, Hanley said.
Both May and Hanley distinctly remember the day helicopters sprayed tear gas along Washington Avenue. Hanley said some of the gas seeped into buildings along the Mall, wreaking havoc in classrooms.
Protesters, professors and students scattered in chaotic confusion.
The climate for officers was very different those days, May said.
“There was something about the culture back then,” he said. “Cops were to be seen and not heard.”
In the following years, May said he took small steps to change typical police protocol and the relationship with the University community.
Bike Chases and Fried Rice
Before the days of the bike patrol, May pedaled after suspects on his own volition. He had an epiphany: the efficiency of a 10-speed bike challenged that of a patrol car. He had more autonomy and could navigate the campus with ease.
His idea caught on in the mid-1970s and other officers joined him on their bikes. May networked with individuals on campus and said he tried to rally support for the department. Nowadays, bike patrols comprise a particularly visual facet of both the University and Minneapolis police departments.
“I don’t consider myself a huge change agent,” he said. “I think I just always pressed a little ahead of the time.”
May became the sergeant in charge of investigations in 1995 and brought with him an ability to apply his ideas from working on the streets to the investigation team.
“He has really done a lot for the investigation division,” said Sgt. Jo Anne Benson, who is May’s successor. “He has always had a lot of innovative ideas. Some have worked and some haven’t — but he always tries.”
A gun and a badge never hindered May’s ability to befriend those outside of the department, however.
Jenny Zahn, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts, got to know May over the past five years while working as a waitress at the Village Wok in Stadium Village.
“He gives me the most trouble of any of my customers,” quipped Zahn. “He usually orders the fried rice and then asks for all kinds of extra things.”
Zahn said she didn’t even realize May had a job, let alone one as the head of the University Police.
“I never saw him in a uniform,” she said. “Then one day he came in with his police uniform and I assumed he bought it at a costume shop.”
May’s crazy antics kept Zahn and other employees at the Village Wok on their toes.
“May and the other officers always created a lot of ruckus,” Zahn said. “We really had fun when they came in.”
Now that he is retiring, she said she can wipe the sweat off her brow.
A Legacy to Live Up To
As May’s replacement, Benson said she doesn’t quite know what she is getting herself into yet, but looks forward to the challenge.
“I would hope that a year from now she would look back and say that she has done better than her predecessor,” May said.
But May cites improvements the department made under his leadership.
In the past six years, the number of arrests and clearance rates — the percentage of cases solved in a given year — has risen steadily. According to University Police statistics, the clearance rate for 1997 was 42.7 percent, up from 11.6 percent in 1993, May said.
He said the national average is around 22 percent.
May attributes the improvements in apprehension to an overall increase in police discretionary powers.
“I felt at first we were behind when I came into investigations,” May said. “We weren’t utilizing the quality our officers provided; I wanted higher standards.”
Those standards included a tougher, more aggressive policing strategy and enhanced follow-up on police reports.
“I encouraged the officers to go as far as they dared,” he said. “And no one has ever gone too far.”
Tackling student binge drinking has been one of the most compelling challenges during his career, May said. He took note of methods on other campuses and led an effort to join forces with Boynton Health Services, University administration and student judicial affairs to attempt to eradicate the problem, he said.
In addition to fighting student alcohol abuse, May said he has worked to link small property thefts together in order to pinpoint larger criminal activity rings. A small number of people are usually responsible for a large amount of the criminal activity, he said.
Swanson said May is also responsible for implementing a new trespass citation system, making it illegal for individuals not affiliated with the University to linger and loiter on campus property.
“He made it possible for us to take the people on campus committing crimes, and exclude them all together,” Swanson said. “I really give him a lot of credit for that system; it has made us far more successful.”