A tough but necessary conversation about policing

Be the Change
Minneapolis Police at an Aug. 2016 community event in Painter Park. Photo by Ryan Stopera

At a political event last fall someone asked, “Did you read that article about the voter guide that asked the question if candidates could envision a world without police? How crazy can you be?”

I told him I had read it because I was on the team that put the voter guide together. It was uncomfortable, but we challenged each other to look deeper at what safety means, what resources go into our communities and what our vision of the world was.

We are living in a time when police continue to kill black, brown and indigenous people with impunity over and over again. When municipal budgets pay for excessive militarization of the police while human needs of education, employment and housing face cuts from already depleted resources. That is crazy.

The police have killed 264 people across the country in 2018, according to data from Mapping Police Violence.

We were recently reminded of the cycle of trauma and injustice when hearing of the murder of Stephon Clark in Sacramento. The 22-year-old black man was shot by police 20 times, mostly in his back and after he was already falling down, while he was standing in his grandparents’ backyard holding a cell phone officers believed was a gun.

Weeks earlier, Louisiana state authorities announced they would not be charging the police officers that killed Alton Sterling. Within moments of an encounter at a convenience store, police shot Sterling in his chest and three times in his back.

Misguided fear and quickly escalated interactions continue to lead to a loss of life for many encountering the police. So it’s not surprising that fear is the first response for many community members when they hear that Minneapolis plans to increase the number of cops in the city.

Across Minneapolis, residents are having tough conversations about community safety, resulting in a range of responses. On March 28, members of the Public Safety Committee of the Minneapolis City Council, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and Mayor Jacob Frey held a public meeting about community safety at the Davis Center on West Broadway in North Minneapolis. Questions were raised about what safety means to residents and the allocation of resources to address the root issues of crime

In 2017, the City spent $163.2 million, or 11 percent of the entire city budget, on police, while $14.3 million was spent on affordable housing.

In a MinnPost interview in December, Frey proposed that Minneapolis’ low police-to-resident ratio was a factor in the city improving police relationships with the community. Minneapolis has 20 cops for every 10,000 residents. Frey suggested that having fewer cops impacted their ability to de-escalate, and that adding police to the department would help to build relationships.

Residents of the Lyndale neighborhood have been discussing community safety and policing over the past few months. Members of the crime and safety committee, the board and the neighborhood have engaged in dialogues, forums and door knocking with messages such as, “Let’s build a safer neighborhood and decide what safety means for us in our neighborhood.”

Lyndale Neighborhood Association Executive Director Brad Bourn shared the importance of neighborhoods creating space for these conversations.

“Everyone in our neighborhood has the right to feel safe, and feeling safe means different things to different people,” Bourn said. “Sometimes that feeling of safety is connected to people’s interactions with the police, and many of those interactions are positive.”

He acknowledged that, as a neighborhood association, they do not have the power to develop a budget or allocate resources for policing, but they can be a space for the community to gather, discuss and advise the city on community safety.

So what power do we as individual residents have in creating community safety measures for our city?

MPD 150 is an independent, community-based initiative evaluating the first 150 years of the Minneapolis Police Department. Through historical investigation, interviews and research they have produced a performance review that examines the department’s past, present and future, focusing on demilitarization and a transfer of public resources. Exploring the questions around community safety and policing challenge the idea of police preventing crime and improving safety.

If so many encounters with police result in violence, who is safer as a result of them? If the majority of the policing activity in our neighborhoods is broken-window or quality-of-life policing, then the crime has already been committed, and police aren’t preventing it. What would our communities look like if more tax dollars went to schools, social workers and employment resources?

Sheila Nezad, a Lyndale resident and LNA board member, shared that the broad range of experiences residents have with policing and safety suggest we need to look deeper at the issue. She said one resident in the meeting reported that most of the crime is petty theft from vehicles, like cell phones stolen out of cars, due to a lack of housing and employment opportunities.

“That’s why I came to the neighborhood meeting, because I believe safety can mean more things than just police,” Nezad said. “It would be valuable to invest in addressing the root causes of structural inequality and crime instead of increasing police presence that doesn’t always make people feel safe for many reasons.”

Neighbors on all sides of the issue spoke up at the meeting and gained perspective on each other’s experience. We are living in tough times, with growing density and changing demographics. Conversations at a neighborhood level shouldn’t always be comfortable, so we can address tough issues and better understand our similarities and differences.

Norma Pietz is staff liaison for the crime and safety committee at the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, which was one of the first committees formed there.

“A lot of the people have been on the committee for years. They’ve seen a lot of changes over the years,” Pietz said. “A lot of younger people new to the neighborhood don’t have experience with how we worked closely with the police to clean up the drug use, gang activity and graffiti.”

Lyndale has implemented some community safety alternatives, such as the Lyndale Walkers and Bike Patrol, involving volunteer neighbors who are out in the community talking to residents on the streets. The history of partnering with the police in Lyndale has led to some disagreements about whether or not police should attend neighborhood meetings.

“I understand that some people have a fear of police if they’ve had bad experiences,” Pietz said. “We meet once a month at the 5th Precinct, and it makes us feel closer to the officers.”

“The more we know about the police department and the police in the neighborhood, the better we are as a neighborhood,” she said about some of the different experiences within the neighborhood.

Simply adding more police is not the solution to the problems our communities face. We can do better.

Increasing funding for resources that address the root of these issues is a first step. Listen to your neighbors, and consider what it’s like to live a day in their shoes.

We must continue to have difficult conversations, think critically, dig deeper and develop a vision of the neighborhood we want to live in.

I’m grateful that the Lyndale neighborhood creates space for these conversations.