It has been almost half a century since I spent five years working on police community relations in the 1970s, first in Maryland, and then three years here in Minnesota from 1973-76. In my last year I headed the police planning division of the Minnesota Commission on Crime Prevention and Control.
This was a citizens’ commission under the direction of Robert Crew, who was appointed by Gov. Wendell Anderson. It was set up to administer the significant federal funds for the criminal justice system allotted under the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 passed by Congress.
The purpose of the legislation was to improve all aspects of the criminal justice system throughout the country through a bureau in the U.S. Justice Department called the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA).
An important impetus for that effort was widespread and destructive rioting in the summer of 1967 that engulfed many major cities throughout America, almost all incited by the killing of African Americans at the hands of their local police. Given the national backdrop of these tensions, our focus, as it pertained to police, lay heavily on improving how police interacted with the community.
While many visionaries in law enforcement leadership agreed with this emphasis, there was huge resistance by many police and sheriff associations to any funding that was not strictly for upgrading equipment and enforcement training. However, programs to improve the caliber of officers and their effectiveness in the community also were funded and institutionalized.
This rather short-lived influx of federal funds for law enforcement died in 1982. And clearly, we can see today that whatever efforts made then and since have fallen short of creating the kind of policing of which we can all be proud.
I believe there are four major problems we identified then that are still problems today:
1) Accountability for unacceptable performance remains a problem. Police conduct must be accountable to elected officials, with internal systems that expose and correct problems. In the 1970s, I witnessed numerous training sessions where some of the participants (certainly not all) had wildly unsuitable responses to situations with people in distress. But police unions could prevent any weeding out of personnel based on suitability of personality for the work, even after management became aware of these problems.
It appears past problematic behavior is still not accountable, given what we know of the officers involved in the George Floyd killing.
2) The second issue is the paramilitary culture of law enforcement. While no longer true today, police departments historically excluded or impeded nonveterans from joining the force, and there was no emphasis on hiring women or people of color. This has changed, but not entirely.
A few years back, I saw a recruitment video of a local police department in which the opening image was of a gun barrel, as if this would appeal to the target audience. While we know some progress has been made to change this mentality, I would submit that those who might want a career in community service most likely do not consider a law enforcement career as a first choice.
3) The third systemic issue is even a bigger challenge. Police must operate in a surrounding culture of violence, amid the presence of guns. An armed populace creates a problem for a law enforcement organization, even as it earnestly may try to turn away from a war mentality. This is our fault, not the police’s fault.
4) The fourth problem is systemic racism and the growing inequity among our population. Social ills create social needs that must be met with empathy and a search for solutions, not violence.
Perhaps the terrible upheaval we are going through now will motivate the community to begin to address these four issues: personnel accountability, paramilitary thinking, community violence and racism. If not, all of us will be diminished. We are all responsible for this violence, not just our police. We must step up and say, no more.
Sandra Larson lives in Minnetonka.