Tony Bouza — outspoken, contrarian cop who once ran Minneapolis police — dies at 94

Tony Bouza grew up on Spain’s Atlantic coast in the 1930s, and had a firsthand view of oppressive state power, according to his son, Dominick. He told his children about a neighbor caught watching nearby Nazi German ships with binoculars and jailed.

A man poses for a photo
Former Minneapolis police chief Tony Bouza is shown in this Star Tribune staff file photo taken August 11, 1994.
Joey McLeister | Star Tribune via Getty Images

“His wife came every day for a week with lunch. And on the seventh day, they told her not to bother with that anymore,” Dominick Bouza said Monday, recalling what his father had told him. Police power had life and death consequences in Tony Bouza’s hometown, his son said, and “he understood that clearly.”

The insight served him his entire professional life, Dominick Bouza said — including a nearly decade-long run as Minneapolis police chief in the 1980s.

Tony Bouza died Monday at age 94 in Bloomington, at a memory care facility where he had been living with his wife of 66 years, Erica Bouza.

After joining the New York Police Department in the 1950s, he rose through the ranks and became a maverick reformer, grew frustrated and took a mid-career turn to Minneapolis, where he was the first prominent outsider to helm the department and challenge the long-standing power of the city’s police establishment and labor union.

After experiencing the Spanish Civil War, Bouza immigrated as a child to the U.S. He grew up in Brooklyn, worked initially in the Garment District and served in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s, his son said. He wanted steadier work and was weighing an application to the New York sanitation department or the police. His brother-in-law, already on the NYPD, convinced him to join the department.

He rose through the ranks and became a reforming force in the NYPD, single-handedly changing the dress code to allow women officers to wear pants if they chose. But he was publicly critical of police misconduct and eventually quit the force to be deputy chief of the transit police.

He ran into trouble there as well, his son recalled. Transit Police Chief Sanford Garelick and then-Mayor Ed Koch wanted to put officers on every subway train in the city.

“Dad said, ‘Come on, this is a huge waste of manpower. And we’re not going to catch anybody. Doing this the waste of time.’ But the people wanted it so they did it. It was so expensive. And there were terminations and Dad was one of them,” Dominick Bouza said.

But his efforts got the attention of officials in Minneapolis, who hired him to run a department that had long been one of the most powerful political and labor forces in the Twin Cities.

“He did want to hold police accountable for their actions, if they were in the wrong,” Dominick Bouza said. “If they were in the right, he supported them. But if they were abusive ... it just didn’t just get swept under the rug, they were addressed.”

Tony Bouza was reluctant to increase the size of the department and earned the ire of rank-and-file cops by ending two-officer squad car patrols. He also drew lasting criticism for downplaying the threat of street gangs and resisting what many city officials felt was a need for more cops.

But he served as chief for nine years, and then went on to be the state’s first gaming commissioner, overseeing the start of the state lottery and charitable gambling. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994, hurt by outspoken calls saying the state needed to crack down on gun ownership. DFLer John Marty beat Bouza in the primary, then went on to a historic defeat by Republican Arne Carlson.

Bouza was also half of one of Minnesota’s most publicly prominent couples. His wife, Erica, was an outspoken anti-war activist and was arrested repeatedly by police at protests at the offices of then-Minnesota-based Honeywell, which had grown from a systems control company to a well-known defense contractor and munitions manufacturer.

Tony Bouza supported her activism, their son said, saying “she’s her own person, she has the right to do what she believes is right — but if it crosses the line then she’s got to do time,” Dominick Bouza recalled. “When she was in jail he went and visited her.”

After he retired, Bouza lived in the Twin Cities with his wife, and was a columnist for the Southside Pride newspaper in Minneapolis. Besides his wife and his son Dominick, he is survived by another son, Tony, who is an attorney in California, and four grandchildren. There are no immediate plans for a memorial service.

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