Police, community exchange views at forum

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Police Chiefs John Harrington (St. Paul), Tim Dolan (Minneapolis) and John Laux (Bloomington) met with around 70 community residents August 19 at St. Paul’s Martin Luther King/Hallie Q. Brown Recreation Center to discuss criminal justice issues and concerns. The event was hosted by the Council on Black Minnesotans (CBM).

Both the participating residents and the three Twin Cities police chiefs agreed that hiring more Black police officers would greatly improve community relations. But, “There are not enough persons of color who want [to be police officers]” not to mention the difficulty of convincing them to move to the suburbs, said Laux.

Hiring and retaining Black officers is “the new challenge [for his department],” claimed Dolan.

Harrington told the audience that since he became chief, a 40-percent goal has been set for police recruits who are women or people of color, as well as speaking a second language. However, he added that St. Paul needs more officers on the streets to help foster better community relations: “We are a town of beat cops,” he noted.

The three police chiefs also spoke on important criminal justice issues in their respective cities.

Violent crime and juvenile crime are two main problems in Minneapolis, said Dolan, adding that police officers will be back in local schools and high school athletic contests. “We get a huge benefit in having five or six officers at football and basketball games, meeting with families,” he noted.

Funding “after school and weekend programming that would keep these kids off the street” would be among Dolan’s top priorities for legislators to focus on next year, he said. “If you take the juvenile [crime] problem away, in three to four years we don’t have a problem.”

Although homicides in St. Paul have dropped almost in half, “Almost all are Black-on-Black crime,” reported Harrington. “Our biggest push is to keep reducing those numbers.”

Reducing domestic violence “is my number-one priority,” Harrington continued. “Gangs and guns are my number-two priority.”

Bloomington “has a lot of emerging cultures, and we need to know how to deal with them,” noted Laux.

Along with stressing the importance of diversity, the three police chiefs all agreed that the state legislature should remove some of the current restrictions in recruiting new officers, such as being able to accept persons without four-year college degrees. “We have to compete with the Honeywells and 3Ms for four-year-degree people,” said Dolan.

Harrington agreed that changing the current hiring standards for officers “would help diversify the department.”

Unlike many past meetings with police, last week’s CBM criminal justice forum was not as contentious as community residents seized the opportunity to express their concerns after the police chiefs spoke.

CBM asked longtime North Minneapolis resident Ora Hokes and Diana Binns, a Hennepin County parole officer who lives in St. Paul, to give formal community responses.

“There is a failure of [local] law enforcement to sit down and talk to the community in a positive way,” said Hokes. Binns added that there still are police officers who see Black young males “with stereotypical eyes,” explaining what her grandson once told her: He is always subject to be stopped or arrested by “the jump-out gang,” a new term young people today have for St. Paul police officers.

“I want you to do the job in my neighborhood as you do in Minnetonka, Edina and Bloomington,” Binns stressed. “All we want from the police officers is to be fair.”

Harrington was asked why the public isn’t better informed whenever disciplinary action is taken against an officer. “We go through three or four steps of different grievance processes while they continue to work,” Harrington pointed out.

“My discipline is on hold until [the officers] go through their grievance process,” Harrington responded. “It slows everything way down in order for due process [to] take place.”

Observed CBM board member Martha Holton Dimick, “People were giving some real concrete concerns, and they were sharing that with the police chiefs. I also think that the police chiefs were giving their honest opinions in regard to what their goals were.”

She added that she was “quite surprised” that the police chiefs said diversity and cultural training were top priorities. “I think cultural training is very important, and I think that could possibly break down some of the barriers in terms of communication,” Dimick said.

“We promise you that we will continue to pursue these issues,” said CBM board chair Brother Michael Collins as he closed the two-hour session. Afterwards, he added, “People responded and interacted. I think we are off to a very good beginning of this process.”

“I [thought] the discussion was great,” noted Dolan.
Harrington added, “I felt pretty good that I got my information and some ideas out, and I got some information that can help me when I go back to the department tomorrow.”

“I wished we could have been more focused on policy,” surmised forum facilitator Natalie Johnson Lee. “But when people have the opportunity to speak to police chiefs, they want to be able to say what they want to say.”

“It is going to be important for the council, the communities [of color], and other agencies and organizations to put forth a [criminal justice] agenda that is going to make a difference in 2009,” said CBM Executive Director Lester Collins.

Last week’s forum was the first of a series designed to discuss issues important to the Black community that can be taken up by the Minnesota Legislature next year.

Dimick concluded, “I think this was a great first forum. I was very impressed with the people who showed up. I hope we double and triple our attendance at the next one [scheduled for October].”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com