DULUTH - The Duluth Police Department's top priority for fixes, following the release of the 90-page Racial Bias Audit conducted by outside consultants and released to the public in August, is to hone the way officers engage in pedestrian stops.
The nearly yearlong study by the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute found that most of these are pretext stops to determine whether crimes are occurring — though they tend to end with a verbal warning or no action. These stops occur within four of the city's neighborhoods: Central Hillside and its adjacent business district, East Hillside and Lincoln Park. Nine stops involved use of force. Some 26% of the people stopped were Black, Indigenous or people of color — though there isn't enough data on all pedestrian stops to know whether this is a disparity, according to the report.
Police Chief Mike Ceynowa said officers have not consistently introduced themselves or the reason for the pedestrian stop, a shift from procedure that he thinks might have started with the pandemic.
"There is always that opportunity, once a situation is defused or de-escalated, to let people know why you're there and who you are," he said. "And I think that goes a long way to start to build that trust and that relationship."
This will be a top topic on the department's to-do list as it enters the implementation phase of the audit. The final of three public presentations wrapped up Sept. 7 at the downtown Family Freedom Center and the team behind the deep-dive into local policing stressed that the report is just start of the work. The audit team will meet with a group from the Police Department for several hours this week to talk about priorities, how to measure success, and a feasible timeline to get it done.
"The worst thing that can happen after an audit is for a report to sit on a shelf and for no one to do anything with it," said Katie Zafft, the institute's project manager who is coincidentally from Duluth.
The audit was instigated by the local chapter of the NAACP's call to bring use of force and arrest rates to numbers that were proportionate with Duluth's demographics. In 2021, Mayor Emily Larson announced that outside consultants would be hired to analyze the department. The Crime and Justice Institute was paid more than $270,000 and tasked with studying 11 categories, ranging from Black, Indigenous or people of color community relations to body-cam footage and recruitment and training.
Larson said she did not find anything shocking in the team's report.
"Now is when we have the community conversations, now is when we're engaging people," she said. "I've been grateful and impressed with the way the community is paying attention."
The presentations have been interactive, with community members asking questions about the process — or using personal experiences to poke at the findings.
At a recent meeting, a member of the audience passed around information about Mutual Aid Tail Light Repair, which offers free fixes for broken lights — an effort to curb stops based on the equipment failure. People snapped photographs of the brochure and kept the information circling.
Through the meetings, Zafft has listened closely and taken notes. A recent takeaway was the need to focus on police interactions with people who visit the Chum food shelf. The presentation at the Family Freedom Center covered the meatiest of the report's topics, Zafft said — ones related to Black, Indigenous or people of color relations, traffic and pedestrian stops, and the review of body-worn camera footage.
"People knew there were racial disparities, particularly in stops," she said. "That was anecdotal until the audit. We were able to put an exclamation point on things, to validate their experiences. People were nodding and looking at each other."