‘We’re not interested in a kinder, gentler racism’

Minneapolis residents respond to a new initiative on police-community relations

Story and photos by Colleen Steppa

The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a $4.75 million grant to address police-community relations, held a community meeting which was hosted by the American Indian Center on East Franklin Avenue in June.

The meeting was attended by members of the local Minneapolis community and several advocacy organizations, including St. Stephens Human Services and Communities Against Police Brutality. Staff presenting the National Initiative were members from a consortium of experts from the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the Urban Institute.

Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, an associate professor of Social Psychology at UCLA, co-founder and president for research at the Center for Policing Equity stated that their mission is to improve relations between police forces and the communities in which they serve, including a decrease in incidents of police brutality. The collaborative project intends to conduct community surveys over 3 years in 6 cities in the United States to gather information about community concerns, then formulate with researchers to develop best practices and training for communities and police.

The scope of the problems addressed are nation-wide policing reforms in light of police brutality concerns and poor relations between police and communities. People across the country, particularly in low-income areas or populations of color, are disproportionately affected by police brutality, and the issue is gaining particular attention at this time due to increased media coverage and grassroots organization like the Black Lives Matter movement.

Dr. Goff has expressed his views publicly on police brutality, racial profiling, and the psychological underpinnings of violence against young African-American men in a recent interview with Tavis Smiley on PBS.

In this interview, Dr. Goff calls it an “American embarrassment” that the United States does not already have a national database to document instances of police violence, and explains the Center for Truth and Justice is working hard to create this research. Dr. Goff explained that “while we don’t have the full road map, we’re getting the map by getting the data.”

Attendees in the audience represented many racial and social groups. After a brief introduction, the majority of the meeting was allotted for the public to give opinion. Many individuals cited experiences with a previous effort from the DOJ to address police brutality and claimed that nothing was resolved, stating “without shifting the balance of power I don’t see how there can be reconciliation.”

Michelle Gross and her coworker Michael.

Michelle Gross and her coworker Michael.

Michelle Gross, founder of Communities Against Police Brutality, stated that out of all the police brutality claims their organization receives, only 1 in 1,000 was actually followed up with any kind of penalty to the police officer. Communities Against Police Brutality runs a 24-hour hotline based in Minneapolis to field claims of police violence against civilians.  

Dr. Goff responded to several comments and questions. “Reconciliation is a process,” he said, stating that an important element of the initiative is to “own the history so people don’t have to hang on to parts of the past they don’t want to.” Goff listed racial reconciliation, implicit bias, and procedural justice as the three pillars of the new initiative to address the prevalent mistrust in law enforcement.

Other comments from community members included statements like, “the problem isn’t about police-community relations, the problem is about police conduct”, “we’re not interested in a kinder, gentler racism”, and “the police department has cancer–they need to diagnose it and get rid of it.” Commentary also included urgings to “include our black boys and our black men as they are those bearing the brunt of this abuse” and a plea from a young man to have police make an effort to get to know high schoolers in a non-criminal context as his Somali friends have had “100 percent bad experiences with police.”

In a statement released by the Department of Justice on September 18, 2014, the initiative will:

“simultaneously address the tenets of procedural justice, reducing implicit bias and facilitating racial reconciliation. The initiative will compliment and be advised by other Justice Department components such as the Office of Justice Programs, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the Civil Rights Division and the Community Relations Service.

This Initiative addresses a recommendation in the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force report released in May. The Task Force recommended the Department of Justice establish a vehicle to build capacity in communities and build the evidence base around enhancing procedural justice, reducing bias and supporting reconciliation in communities where trust has been harmed.”

Dwight Hobbes, writer for the MN Spokesman Recorder, expressed his mistrust with the meetings, saying they would likely “generate a lot of paperwork, then after it’s gonna be business as usual.”  Hobbes recalled previous initiative from the DOJ when “nothing happened, problems didn’t get solved, it just dried up and blew away. Anytime that the police department isn’t the least bit nervous about the DOJ coming in,” he said, “I smell a rat in a cheese factory.”

To those with doubts about this current initiative, Goff responded that “this is at the top levels of the DOJ. It’s new, and the level of research and knowledge is different. Give it a chance–what’s the worst that could happen?” Goff continued to reassure the audience that, “this is not a DOJ-only initiative” saying it would be the public’s role to “hold us accountable.”

Dr. Goff stated there will be more meetings to follow and citizens will be involved with the process via surveys as the project progresses, and via PolicingEquity.org  or TruthInJustice.org.

For more information about Communities Against Police Brutality or to report an incident of violence you have witnessed, call their hotline at 612.874.7867 or search cuapb.org.

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