Gov. Mark Dayton is creating a commission to improve policing in minority communities around the state, a move that comes after two fatal police shootings of black men in Minnesota over the last year and mounting criticism of law enforcement across the country.
The commission is made up of law enforcement officials and a diverse range of community groups, two sides that have recently clashed over the role of police and use of force by law enforcement. The governor is asking the groups to craft solutions to improve policing that can be implemented statewide.
“It is essential that Minnesota’s law enforcement and criminal justice systems work for all Minnesotans, including both our law enforcement officers and the communities they bravely serve,” Dayton said. “This council is an important first step to ensuring greater trust, safety and justice for all Minnesotans.”
States around the country have been grappling with how to improve policing, balancing community criticism about excessive force and the concerns of law enforcement agencies under increasing political pressure to tamp down crime rates. Across the country, states have been considering a range of measures to grant more rights to victims of police brutality, roll back special protections for police accused of wrongdoing and allow greater transparency of police disciplinary boards.
In Minnesota, recent police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, two unarmed black men, resulted in weeks of protests and clashes between police and community activists. A July melee during a Castile protest on Interstate 94 resulted in injuries to more than 20 St. Paul police officers.
In his executive order, Dayton asked the council to take a broad look at policing practice and the criminal justice system, including sentencing reform and prosecutor discretion. The panel will include faith leaders and one representative from Black Lives Matter.
Dayton wants recommendations on how law enforcement groups recruit, train and retain police officers. The council is modeled in part on a similar task force convened by President Obama.
Co-chairs of the council are Fourth District Court Judge Pamela G. Alexander and Grand Rapids Police Chief Scott Johnson.
Police chiefs react
Some police chiefs in Minnesota welcomed the formation of the council, particularly the inclusion of so many diverse stakeholders.
“When I look at the group that the governor identified, it’s very clear that what he wants, and what I’m sure we’re in store for is a really robust conversation about policing,” Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell said.
Schnell heads a 52-person police department in a suburb that has grown increasingly diverse. City officials have formed a similar advisory group that is tackling many of the same issues Dayton’s council will be debating.
“Our communities are changing,” Schnell said. “These are the people that are owning businesses, that are buying homes, working in this community — and we better represent their interests. That means we come back and take a hard look at things.”
Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau said she hopes the council will reach out to her department to learn about some of the efforts it has undertaken. Minneapolis police have started using body cameras and began reviewing its use of force policy last summer. The department has also announced policy changes that include emphasizing de-escalation training and requiring that officers report any potential misconduct.
Harteau expressed some concern about the size of the statewide group.
“The challenge will be prioritizing,” she said. “At this point, I’m not sure really what impact this council will have on the Minneapolis Police Department because we’re doing all the things I’ve seen so far that they’re looking at.”
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said that the city has labored to improve community relations in recent years. “An intentional statewide conversation is an important next step that I applaud,” Hodges said in a statement.
Faith leaders, who have played a prominent role in raising awareness of racial bias in policing, welcomed their involvement.
“It is beyond timely — in fact, overdue — to recognize the impact of policing on our communities, particularly communities of color,” said the Rev. Brian Herron, pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Minneapolis, who will serve as the representative for ISAIAH, a coalition of faith leaders. “The trauma caused by police bias and police violence is very real and is the evidence that there is a demand for a positive change in policing and community relations.”
Anthony Newby, executive director of the Minneapolis nonprofit Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, expressed concerns that the council appears weighted too heavily in favor of law enforcement.
“We’re supportive of the governor’s initiative to tackle a deep and sophisticated problem,” Newby said. “More can be done to tip that balance in favor of broader community-based solutions to the problem.”
He added: “Asking the police to police themselves is not a recipe for big, bold systemic change.”
Dayton’s council will put together preliminary recommendations by Feb. 15, about a month after the start of the 2017 legislative session. A final report is due June 30.
Ricardo Lopez • 651-925-5044