Park Board votes to reduce ties with MPD, distinguish its officers

The 2018 Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board posed with Mayor Jacob Frey (front, center-left) during a Jan. 2 swearing in ceremony. Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

Shortly after the first Minneapolis police officers arrived at 38th & Chicago on May 25 and began the interaction that would result in the killing of George Floyd, a Park Police vehicle came to the scene to offer support. 

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted to eliminate such instances and reduce its ties with the Minneapolis Police Department. The Park Board voted unanimously June 3 on three measures: 1) To place a moratorium on Park Police providing backup assistance to MPD for nonviolent calls, 2) To cease using MPD to provide additional security for events in parks and find alternative security staffing by August, and 3) To have their officers wear distinctive green uniforms.

“This is a starting place,” Park Board President Jono Cowgill (District 4) said of the newly passed reforms that adds the MPRB to the list of public and private entities breaking ties with the MPD in the wake of Floyd’s death. 

The resolution also calls for staff to bring forth an alternative safety plan to the board by June 17. Vice President LaTrisha Vetaw (At Large) said many parents in the city had reached out to ask her how the board would ensure safety in the parks if ties with MPD were cut. “I think it’s only fair to give them a plan,” she said. 

The Park Police are a different entity and department from MPD, but it can be hard to distinguish between the two. The Park Police have different vehicles, but their uniforms are the same light blue, with a slightly different patch. An approved resolution calls for the department to change its uniforms to a mostly green design that will differentiate the department from MPD. A proposed amendment to refer to park police as “rangers” failed to pass. 

“We are long overdue for better distinguishing our officers from the Minneapolis Police Department,” an emotional MPRB Superintendent Al Bangoura said.  

Bangoura, the first black man to serve as superintendent, said he felt the pain and sadness of the African American community. 

“I stand in solidarity with those seeking justice,” he said. 

Hundreds of residents submitted comments encouraging the Park Board to cut ties with MPD.

A proposed amendment from Commissioner AK Hassan (District 3) called for disarming Park Police officers, but that proposal failed to garner support from other commissioners. 

Commissioner Brad Bourn (District 6) suggested the board re-evaluate whether the park system needs police officers going forward, but others suggested the board use its authority to fix the department. 

“This is our department. Let’s reform it and let’s do it right,” Commissioner Kale Severson (District 2) said.  

There are 33 sworn officers in the Park Police department, charged with responding to incidents in more than 6,800 acres of parkland across Minneapolis. At any given time there are about five officers on patrol, according to Chief Jason Ohotto. The Park Police do not work overnight, and are not patrolling between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m.  Severson asked Ohotto if the department could adequately serve the parks without backup from MPD. 

“It is very easy for our resources to be overwhelmed if we have large situations in multiple locations in our parks, which we frequently do in the summer,” Ohotto said. 

Park Police are members of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, the same group that represents MPD, which has come under fire from local activists and politicians as an impairment to reform. Parks officers also receive some training from MPD, mostly on technical systems. 

The Park Police officer who answered a call for backup in the incident that resulted in Floyd’s killing was not involved with the arrest and has not been charged in the death. The officer was about 120 feet from the group of MPD officers arresting Floyd, watching over the two people in the car Floyd had been in when stopped by police, and did not have a direct view of the incident, Ohotto said. The department has released that officer’s body camera footage of the incident. 

After Park Police officers pointed guns at and arrested four Somali teenagers at Minnehaha Park in the summer of 2018, in an incident later found to be sparked by a false 911 call, the Park Board voted to form a Park Police Advisory Committee. That committee was officially appointed last spring and began meeting in June 2019. Since then there have been eight meetings, two of which failed to reach a quorum, according to official minutes. 

The Park Board’s intergovernmental committee also voted to add repealing the Stanek Law to its lobbying agenda at the state Legislature. The law, named after former Hennepin County Sheriff and state representative Rich Stanek, was passed in 1999 and banned Minneapolis and St. Paul from placing residency requirements for police officers.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mislabeled MPRB Superintendent Al Bangoura as the first black superintendent. He is the first black male superintendent. 

The original version of this story misstated the responding Park Police officer’s role at the scene of George Floyd’s arrest.