During a discussion on race and police behavior in north Minneapolis this week, Steven Belton told a personal anecdote that seemed to underscore the maddening complexity of the issue and the conflicted feelings it brings out.
Belton, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Urban League, is married to the city’s former mayor, Sharon Sayles Belton. Every day during her tenure, a police officer would pick her up at their home and drive her to work. Writing on his Facebook page, their son Coleman said that seeing police officers protecting his mother’s life every day gave him respect and undying faith in them.
Yet now, after repeated police-involved shootings of young black men in Minnesota and nationally, “He feels he’s one shot away from being the person lying cold on the sidewalk” due to an officer’s mistake or fear, Steven Belton said.
Thursday’s discussion, as frank as it was, might have had a different tone a day later, when Minneapolis announced there would be no discipline against the officers who shot Jamar Clark — one of the incidents that led to the community meeting. And months of talk about the need for frank discourse between cops and the community took a sad but almost comical turn Friday, when police and Mayor Betsy Hodges held a “town forum” on the issue — via conference call.
One of the participants at Thursday’s meeting, former state Supreme Court justice and Minnesota Vikings player Alan Page, succinctly described why it was called: “We’re here because as a country, as a state, we have a problem.”
Page said he became aware of black people’s fear of cops early, when he was about 10. “And it wasn’t new then,” he said. Page believes the problem is “leftover vestiges of how this country started. Slaves were three-fifths of a person. My ancestors came here against their will.”
“There have been issues of disparate [racial] treatment for a long time,” said Page. He cited a 1993 study of the judiciary that found that blacks were treated differently from whites in the courts, including higher bail and longer sentences for the same crimes.
“The difficulties here are almost mind-boggling,” Page said. He said, however, that it’s possible to come together if we “deal with the root causes, not the symptoms.”
Medaria Arradondo, deputy chief of the Minneapolis Police, has been a cop for 27 years. He said sometimes “our most well-intentioned acts have unintended consequences. No doubt, too many young black men are dying.”
Sometimes, Arradondo said, police are assigned to communities “to support bad policies” created by politicians and become the enforcers for bad strategies, making the community turn against them.
Belton responded that police have a “moral responsibility” to resist orders to engage in bad behavior or enforce unjust laws. “Because you have the authority to stop and frisk doesn’t mean you should stop and frisk more black people,” Belton said.
Arradondo said when he became an officer, “I took an oath to protect the constitutional rights of every citizen. If police officers just did that, we wouldn’t have half the problems we do.”
Arradondo said the department is making internal changes right now. He said Chief Janeé Harteau has assigned each leader in the department to study and implement reforms recommended in the 21st Century Policing report ordered by President Obama.
Then there was Chris Johnson, a junior at North High School, who offered the perspective of a young black man. Johnson said police-involved shootings of young black men have been discussed in class, where kids and teachers talk about how both the victim and the officer might have handled the situations differently. He said he and his friends have generally positive views of police because the school’s police liaison, Charles Adams, is also the football coach. He’s revered and respected by the students, Johnson said.
That’s one of the keys to improved police-community relationships, Belton said. We need to be “developing relationships that allow us to humanize one another,” he said. “It’s hard to act up in front of somebody you know.”
Page witnessed just such a relationship when he visited Lucy Craft Laney school in north Minneapolis. The officer had “healthy, normal” interactions with students, and they adored him, Page said.
Belton said several members of his family serve in law enforcement, so he emphasized that you can both support the police and criticize them when necessary. “We are not anti-police,” he said. “We are anti-lawlessness, including police anti-lawlessness.”
Belton, a former lawyer, and Page, the former judge, said it’s difficult to balance transparency and speed with due process in police-involved shootings, especially when so many are now recorded. They understand the practical reasons to withhold the videos — to avoid influencing a potential jury or tainting an investigation.
The Jamar Clark case, however, produced “a community narrative that he was shot in handcuffs,” said Belton. “Due process was trumped by transparency.” Getting the information out faster might have calmed the situation down, he said.
“I begin with hope,” said Belton. “Because I’m a pastor, I cannot live without hope.”
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