Eli Miletich, former Duluth police chief, dies at 86
The West Duluth native spent 10 years leading the department and was long active in local politics.
DULUTH — Eli Miletich, who grew up as a member of the hardscrabble "Raleigh Street gang" in West Duluth and went on to become the city's outspoken police chief, died Monday. He was 86.
Miletech spent 33 years with the Duluth Police Department, long representing the rank and file as union president before assuming leadership of the agency in the final decade of his career. He retired in 1992, but remained an active voice through recent years, particularly in city politics.
"He ruffled a few feathers," nephew Mike Stainbrook said. "I think the best way to describe him is he was ugly honest. The truth was more important than making friends. But he did have a lot of friends, and he was a very generous and kind man. He had a lot of empathy for those with lesser means and those who couldn't really protect themselves in society."
Miletich, appointed police chief in 1982 by Mayor John Fedo, was credited by colleagues with ushering in more professional standards of law enforcement in Duluth, along with pioneering tactics such as mandatory arrests in domestic violence cases.
"I think he understood leadership, and at the same time he had a lot of finesse," Fedo told the News Tribune this week. "Sometimes he was perceived as a quote-unquote strong leader, but at the same time he was very articulate; he was educated. He made a point of understanding issues, and, in a police department, that's how a lot of problems are solved: putting yourself in the person's shoes, and Eli could do that."
Miletich was a first-generation American, the son of immigrants from Yugoslavia, born in Duluth on Sept. 23, 1935. He didn't speak English until kindergarten.
A graduate of Denfeld High School and the University of Minnesota Duluth, Miletich served in the U.S. Army in Germany post-World War II before joining the Duluth police force.
Miletich spent 17 years at the helm of the Duluth Police Union, representing all officers except the chief, and became a sergeant in charge of the Narcotics-Vice Unit. Stainbrook said that was dangerous work, recalling that there was at least once a contract put out on Miletich's life, prompting his family to leave their home for a while.
"He was a very brave guy, a courageous guy," Stainbrook said. "And I think Duluth is a better place because of Eli."
Former St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said Miletich, as chief, worked with early advocates of domestic abuse victims to "build a better and model response to domestic violence."
"Eli was a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy," Rubin said. "He was tough, demanding and fiercely loyal. He believed deeply in the work of law enforcement. He expected a lot of me as a young prosecutor, especially being from the same end of town and we had the common bond of what was once Yugoslavia. Even more, because he was also someone who was one my dad’s friends."
Miletich found himself on the outs after Gary Doty defeated Fedo in the 1991 mayoral election. It was a tumultuous period for the police department and city politics, and Miletich was known to butt heads with some, including successor Scott Lyons.
"He was a tough police officer," a conciliatory Lyons said this week. "He demanded a lot of things from his staff."
Miletich's son, Dana, eventually followed him into law enforcement, currently serving in the region as a lieutenant with the Minnesota State Patrol. While his father was known for a sometimes-gruff public persona, he said law enforcement "was just his job" and that he had a much softer side at home.
"He was just Dad to me, and Grandpa to my kids and my nieces and nephews," Dana Miletich said. "The story I like to tell is that he would complain about spending $5 too much for a pair of tennis shoes, but he would spend thousands of dollars on kids and grandkids for trips and memories and stuff like that."
In retirement, an FBI agent friend recruited Miletich to serve a year with the United Nations International Police Task Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia — the warn-torn region that was formerly Yugoslavia — where he was visited by family and was able to travel to his parents' native village.
Miletich, who later authored several books about his life and career, sought public office on at least one occasion, running an unsuccessful campaign as a Republican against incumbent state Sen. Sam Solon in the 1992 election. But he was also a close friend and ally of many on the DFL side, from Fedo to former Vice President Walter Mondale.
In more recent memory, Miletich served on the Duluth Charter Commission, where he advocated for term limits, and was a plaintiff in a years-long legal dispute involving the health care benefits of retired city employees.
Dana Miletich said his father had been in declining health over the past year and that he had a chance to visit with many longtime friends before dying with his family at his side Monday. He was survived by Carol, his wife of 61 years, three children and many other relatives.
"He grew up on Raleigh Street, and even though he was 86 years old when he passed, he's still from Raleigh Street," Dana Miletich said.
Visitation will be held Sunday from 2-4 p.m. at Dougherty Funeral Home and again Monday from 10-11 a.m. ahead of a funeral service at Christ Lutheran Church in Duluth. A private burial will be held at the Minnesota Veterans Cemetery near Duluth.