St. Cloud’s mayor sees “steady improvement” in race relations

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During most of his tenure there, which will be 20 years come September, St. Cloud State University Education Professor Michael Davis has seen both the school and the city in which it resides—St. Cloud—at their worst. Of the school and the city’s historical intolerance towards Blacks and other people of color, Davis, a New York City native, bluntly says, “St. Cloud doesn’t change…St. Cloud State is never going to change. I have never been in a place like this.”

During a recent interview, Davis expressed several concerns that include incidents of local police officers harassing people of color. He cited two examples involving a Black woman and “a Latino brother who had a heart condition” who, according to the longtime professor, were Tasered by St. Cloud police officers.

SCSU Black faculty members being stopped by police, oftentimes for no reason, isn’t unusual, says Davis. We brought up these allegations during a recent interview with St. Cloud’s mayor, Dave Kleis.

Regarding charges of racial profiling by St. Cloud police, Mayor Kleis responded, “I have a zero tolerance for racial profiling, or any type of disrespect for anybody or any race or color. Everybody [should be] treated with dignity and respect. I feel very strongly that there are some things that are not to be tolerated from any City employee.”

Additionally, Kleis said he is working to improve diversity on his city’s police force. “My number-one priority is to make sure that our police force also reflects the community,” he stressed.

“That has been a conscious effort, working with folks from the community to try to recruit officers of color to again make sure that it is reflective of the community,” said Kleis. “It has been translated very clearly to the [police] chief and the administration that it is my priority to make sure that our police force reflects the same type of diversity that is in the community.”

Especially since St. Cloud’s Somali population continues to grow, “I think it is important that we have an officer [who is Somali],” Kleis said. He added that St. Cloud has applied for a grant from the federal stimulus bill. “If we receive that, we will be able to hire additional officers,” especially officers of color.

All residents of St. Cloud must feel that they can trust law enforcement, the mayor told us. “But in order to gain that trust,” Kleis said, “you have to have leadership, boards and commissions that are reflective of the community. And certainly, the one arm that is the most visible, which is the police, has to reflect the community, too. And that has been the greatest challenge, the recruitment of officers of color.”

St. Cloud also has a police-citizen review board. “I think we have a very good group of people on the citizen review board, a very diverse group. When they make a recommendation, we don’t discard it. If there is an issue, we deal with it,” Kleis said.

He also would like to tweak the board to give it the authority to recommend disciplinary action when warranted. “I have been working on that for a year, but because it has to be agreed to by the [police] union, it is a more difficult thing to do. But I would like to see it happen that way.”

Now in his second term, Kleis said, “There’s still more work to do — there always is going to be work to do when it comes to race relationships, diversity, and a growing community. There has been steady improvement.”

According to him, the work to bring positive change to St. Cloud actually started two mayoral administrations before he took office, “and I wanted to put even more emphasis on diversity and community as mayor.” That includes being actively involved with CreateCommUNITY, a local multi-racial group that involves both City officials and SCSU members.

Kleis is working on a specific committee that looks at how local businesses and employers are being diverse in their hiring and other dealings with people of

color, continually asking, “Does it reflect the community? From a City perspective, the first thing I did was look at all my boards and commissions — do they reflect the community?” recalled Kleis.

“As a mayor, that is where I have the most control, because they run the City. They have the grassroots effort from zoning and planning, the library, to the police review board. These are the entities that advise me. I have control over that as far as the appointment process.”

He recalled a gathering of diverse folk set up by Marnita’s Table, a program promoting cross-cultural communication, at his home in April. During the meeting, Kleis said he spent time talking with a local Somali woman. “It wasn’t until the end of the meeting that she knew that I was the mayor. I asked her what board she wants to serve on, and she agreed.

“I have been looking for three years for someone from the Somali community without any luck. Now, in the last two months, I have one gentleman on our police review board [and a Somali woman on the library board].”

Kleis also has been working with SCSU President Earl Potter on diversity issues both on and off campus. “We have a great relationship,” the mayor said of his work with Potter. “The university is the community, and vice versa… [If] St. Cloud State does well, the city does well. If St. Cloud State University’s image is positive, the city is positive.”

Finally, as St. Cloud continues to grow and leave behind its sordid racial history, “I think it is important to embrace diversity,” the mayor said. “I think it is important to be a welcoming community, to work together on our challenges. You can’t have a welcoming, positive, growing community without strong communication.

“From my office as mayor,” Kleis pledged, “I can help facilitate that communication and work on those challenges.”

Watch for future MSR stories contrasting the views of SCSU Professor Michael Davis with the current realities of the city and university as perceived by others who live and work there. Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com, or read his blog: www.challman.blogspot.com.

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