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Controversies surrounding a spate of police resignations and city reforms to promote diversity and equity in law enforcement have carved divisions in Golden Valley, where the issues are expected to affect next week's election.

In a recent letter from Golden Valley Citizens for Civility, an ad hoc community group, 42 residents backed the city's police reforms while pushing back against opponents they said were spreading "falsehoods about the state of our police department."

The other side includes a handful of people supporting traditional policing led by Joanie Clausen, a former City Council member who says she lost her re-election bid in 2019 because of her support for the police. She's on the ballot again because she says the "progressive" agenda pushed by the council will result in police defunding and more officer departures.

"Our police are not happy," she said. "They don't feel they are supported by this council."

Mayor Shep Harris said Clausen and her supporters are politicizing the police and that her "fear mongering" is creating division when most residents support the city's initiatives. He said the city isn't defunding the police but addressing systemic racism.

Part of that process involved a recent letter from city leaders apologizing for the times when Golden Valley officers discriminated against and brutalized Black men — including jazz musician Oliver Lyle, who won a 1970 federal civil rights lawsuit against the police, and community leader Al Hixon, who was assaulted in 2005 by officers searching for a white bank robbery suspect.

Hixon, who won a $1.1 million excessive force lawsuit against the city, is among the residents who signed the letter from the Golden Valley Citizens for Civility. According to that group, much of the debate has been prompted by "perceived instability in the Golden Valley Police Department" having to do with the departures of 14 officers since 2020 — including the early retirement this summer of Police Chief Jason Sturgis.

Golden Valley currently has 26 officers, five fewer than its budgeted allotment. Two of the officers are on long-term medical leave and one is in field training, leaving 23 full-time, active-duty officers.

City leaders have budgeted for 30 officers in 2022, down from the 33 that the city had in 2020. Those three lost positions, including the department's school resource officer, will be replaced with community resource specialists to respond to mental health crisis calls, an ongoing focus of the department.

The city is trying to diversify the police department — which is 92% white — and focus on more equitable delivery of its services. A new policy enacted this fall bars enforcement of equipment violations, expired registration and other non-moving violations that don't endanger the public.

City leaders say that more policy changes and recommendations will come out of the newly formed police oversight commission and an upcoming equity audit of the department. But Harris said that changes in policing have fueled a series of misleading statements running up to the City Council election.

"The GV City Council IS NOT putting a charter amendment on the fall ballot like Minneapolis abolishing the police," the mayor wrote in a September post. "The GV City Council IS NOT 'defunding' the police."

Working on collaboration

Candidates running for the Golden Valley City Council on a platform similar to Clausen's include Andy Johnson, Drew Peterson and Orville Satter, who said he's concerned about crime spilling over from Minneapolis. Loretta Arradondo recently suspended her campaign but will be on the ballot.

Harris said he supports incumbent Gillian Rosenquist and Denise La Mere-Anderson, chair of the city's Human Services Commission, who are campaigning on equity and inclusion platforms.

Harris said the proposed 2022 city budget contains a nearly 7% hike to fund police salaries and vehicle maintenance, "a healthy increase for the GVPD just like it has for the past nine years."

But Jim Mortenson, executive director with Law Enforcement Labor Services — the union representing Golden Valley and hundreds of other agencies across the state — said the additional money won't fund more officers and that the recent vacancies were "self-imposed" by city leaders.

"You don't have that much change in a department of that size for no reason whatsoever," Mortenson said.

Fourteen Golden Valley officers have left the department since 2020, including 11 this year. Six resigned for medical reasons, three retired, three didn't get through field training and two went to other agencies. The city had been averaging three officer resignations every year since 2015.

Scott Nadeau, a veteran police chief who is serving as Golden Valley's interim chief, said that while diversity, equity and inclusion are the right principles, "the way that some of that work has been presented or implemented in the police department wasn't particularly helpful."

One example cited was an April meeting with the police department and the city's new equity and inclusion coordinator, Kiarra Zackery, who said she defined racialized violence and systemic racism in policing "as the disparity or overrepresentation of people of color experiencing all types of harm that can occur during police encounters."

Former Golden Valley police officer David Staaf, who left the department in July because of post-traumatic stress disorder, said that Zackery was asked at the meeting if the use of force with a person of color was always considered racialized violence. Zackery said yes, and added in an e-mail later that "some officers vocalized disagreement."

"It was asked how we fix it then and it was dead silent. Nothing was offered," Staaf said in a Facebook message. Harris said he wasn't at the meeting and hasn't listened to an unofficial recording obtained by the city.

Search for next chief

Nadeau said police and city leaders are discussing how to move forward with changes in a more collaborative way.

"In the last couple of months there has been a lot of work that has gone on trying to work through some of those challenges and make this a destination police department," he said.

Golden Valley just signed a $30,000 contract with America's Best Strategic Security Group to do an international search for the city's next chief. Harris said the city wants to cast a wide net and bring in a diverse slate of candidates who can adapt to the changing environment in policing.

The mayor said that given Golden Valley's proximity to Minneapolis, where voters next week will decide the future of their police department, there is a clear ripple effect of changes in policing underway.

"The Minneapolis election is making many people nervous in our community," Harris said. "If there wasn't an election now, I think we could have an easier conversation on this."

Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751