Could it happen here? That’s the question civic and law enforcement leaders have heard from citizens since George Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed.
The question brought new attention to how Central Minnesota’s police and sheriff’s departments operate so incidents of racial injustice don’t happen here.
The Central Minnesota NAACP chapter organized a Zoom discussion on Aug. 1 with top law enforcement officers and about 50 other participants to build relationships between police and community.
Discussion revealed citizens’ concerns, but the event was also a chance for law enforcement to share perspectives on policies and programs.
The event was a good start. While in-person meetings are out of the question now, more virtual and later face-to-face engagements should continue. Unfortunately, the Zoom session conflicted with Muslim prayer time so people of that community could not participate.
Chiefs and sheriffs talked about how much community support they’ve received this summer – at least a small sign some members of the community trust them.
Actions and observations from our area police and sheriffs show they are taking racial injustice seriously.
St. Joseph Chief Dwight Pfannenstein said people want police to be transparent and accountable. That need led his department to add a second sergeant. Would George Floyd be dead if there was a senior supervisor on the scene to provide leadership? His officers will soon be wearing body cameras, which can exonerate officers but also expose bad work.
Sartell Chief Jim Hughes recounted the community policing programs his department offers, including sports and games for young people and another program aimed at older citizens.
When it’s time to hire new officers, he’d like to recruit the city’s young people to “come back and work with us in the future.”
Hiring the right people to uphold the law requires more than looking at a resume, Hughes said. Sometimes deep background checks reveal issues references won’t talk about, such as Fourth Amendment violations.
Hughes and other leaders talked about the larger role of police. “People think we are the answer to every situation (such as mental health). We know that is not the case.” Waite Park Chief Dave Bentrud added “cities need to come together to help the revolving door of people with mental-health issues.”
When there’s trouble, police get called first because people don’t know who else to call and there aren’t resources to deal with what are mental health or social issues, not crimes.
Stearns County Sheriff Steve Soyka outlined a number of his department’s community outreach programs including one that helps people who are now in jail but who will soon be out in the community. The program works with social services to prepare prisoners for housing and jobs, so they become good members of society when they are released.
St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson talked about bias and how officers need to deal with a person’s behavior and not race or ethnicity. Deadly force should be used only when all other options have been exhausted. “Whenever force is used, it’s not going to be pretty, no matter how minimal,” Anderson said.
These frank exchanges should continue. When there’s a chance for in-person engagement, the entire community needs to take part. The law enforcement leaders showed they welcome the discussion and are ready to act. Other Zoom participants included St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott, Wright County Sheriff Sean Deringer and State Patrol Capt. Brad Ouart.
Benton County Sheriff Troy Heck zeroed in on the solution. “We need to sit down and listen, break down barriers, instead of yelling at each other.”