MPD retrains officers in fair policing

Officer Yolanda Wilks, National Initiative Site Coordinator Glenn Burt, Officer Jeffery Webb, and Officer “Butch” Blauert (l to r).

Every sworn and civilian staff member of the Minneapolis Police Department will take a refresher course this summer on “procedural justice,” which emphasizes fair treatment in policing.

The course comes at a tumultuous time. The public is reacting to the June 23 officer shooting of Thurman Junior Blevins in North Minneapolis.* Former Officer Mohamed Noor faces a murder charge for shooting Justine Damond in Fulton. And the wrongful death suit of Terrance Franklin, who police shot and killed in a basement in the Wedge neighborhood, is headed to the Supreme Court.

“Use of force is the greatest singular act that a community will judge us on, and if that force is neither reasonable or justified, it’s going to fracture the trust that we’re trying to establish in our community,” Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said at a press briefing in May.

He held the briefing to highlight a 48 percent decrease in the citywide use of force rate since 2008, when stats were first recorded. Data show officers used force while responding to .22 percent of police calls in 2017. But the numbers won’t matter if the community sees unreasonable force in a single incident, Arradondo said.

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Police Chief Medaria Arradondo held a press briefing in May to highlight a decline in police use of force rates.

“The work isn’t done yet,” he said.

On a day in mid-March when Noor was charged with murder and manslaughter, several members of the MPD Procedural Justice Unit sat down with the Southwest Journal.

“We’re as in the dark as everybody else in the community and the rest of the police department,” said Sgt. Deitan Dubuc. “A lot of times you just want to reserve any judgment until it’s all done because we only have one side of the story — actually we don’t even have one side of the story, we have one witness account. … We’re just going to let the system take its course.”

“Either direction, hopefully we’ll be able to retain or build the trust back up when stuff like that happens,” said Officer “Butch” Blauert.

Out in the community

At a Kingfield neighborhood meeting, Blauert said that if officers are fair, listen carefully and explain well, people will agree with the officers’ actions about 80 percent of the time.

“What do you guys think the No. 1 complaint in Minneapolis is?” Blauert asked. “…It’s language and attitude, and that’s something that’s very, very correctible.”

He said much of an officer’s job involves communication, rather than defensive tactics or high-speed chases, but training in communication before now has been limited.

Resident Lisa Skrzeczkoski-Bzdusek, who works in the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office, talked with police after the meeting and suggested that clearly stating charges, and not swearing, would go a long way with defendants.

A resident of the Wedge, Alicia Gibson, participated in a procedural justice training session last fall. She said the discussion was intense, and one woman walked out. The training covered unconscious implicit bias, described as a natural human trait, and how it can impact daily interactions. She found it helpful to know officers are expected to treat residents equitably.

“It kind of changed my way of thinking about what’s possible for our police department too,” she said. “There are people who don’t think these old antiquated ways of interacting are appropriate and are working to professionalize their colleagues. There are officers of color who themselves were discriminated against as young people growing up in the city. Their way of addressing that and fighting against that is to become an officer themselves, and change the way that’s going to happen for other teens that look like them.”

Sgt. Dubuc said he often uses his personal story — growing up in Canada, and playing football in the NFL — to connect with people.

“When you look at me, I just look like a tall, big, white cop,” Dubuc said. “Then I tell them I learned English when I was 21. I understand what it feels like not to be understood.”

Gibson expects to plan a community training session next fall for residents of the Wedge. The Procedural Justice unit previously met with groups like the Victory Neighborhood Association and 4thPrecinct block club leaders.

Officer Yolanda Wilks is visiting the Shakopee prison to listen and learn why the women are incarcerated.

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“Procedural justice is treating people how you want to be treated no matter who they are. We’re not above anybody just because we wear a badge, and you’re not below us, just because you’re a citizen,” Officer Yolanda Wilks told the Kingfield neighborhood in March.

“We want to be an ear for them, we want to give them a voice as well, because maybe part of the problem was they felt unheard,” she said.

When a Kingfield resident asked police how they measure whether new training is working, officers said a quick measurement is officer complaints. While data since 2013 show that complaints submitted to the Office of Police Conduct Review typically fall between 40-90 per quarter, complaints jumped to at least 155 in the second quarter of 2018.

Changes at the MPD

The complaint metric is one of several new online data portals available through the City of Minneapolis. Raw data automatically posted online includes information on stops, crimes, arrests, use of force and officer-involved shootings, including information on demographics and incident locations.

The American Civil Liberties Union praised the MPD’s transparency, and said it sets a standard for other departments to follow.

New policies dictate that failure to activate body cameras can result in suspension or termination. Sanctity of life is the “cornerstone” of the use of force policy, according to Arradondo, and officers have a duty to report unreasonable force by another officer.

Officers are also now trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation tactics, he said.

“In the culture of the training of most police departments 10, 15 years ago, the training was to go in there and resolve it quickly,” Arradondo said. “…That has changed.”

Commander Todd Sauvageau, who oversees police training, said MPD use of force techniques are steeped in martial arts. Training is increasingly protective of the head, conscious of potential injury and aware of how a technique looks to bystanders, he said. The Taser was introduced around the early 2000s. And he said use of the baton, which looks bad and often isn’t very helpful, has dropped dramatically over the years.

“If the police have gotten less aggressive, I’m okay with that, that’s a good thing,” said activist Mel Reeves. “…The procedural justice thing is a good idea, if it actually works.”

Reeves said Arradondo has always been responsive, and he’s seen individual officers try to be fair. But the chief’s administration still conducted a “bogus crackdown” on marijuana sales downtown, he said.

“People are dying from opioids, not marijuana,” he said.

Responding to concerns about the disproportionate number of black men arrested over small amounts of marijuana, Arradondo issued a statement in mid-June saying the MPD will no longer focus details on low-level marijuana.

Reeves also pointed to a recent study highlighted in the New York Times, which showed police killings of unarmed black men hurt the mental health of black residents of that state, particularly in the months following the killing.

“People never ever get over it,” Reeves said. “…They have an added sense of betrayal, and that really does some psychological damage. … It’s no small thing.”

*This story has been corrected to say Thurman Junior Blevins, rather than Blevins Jr.