It was a raw discussion between people who are often at odds. It was about race, responsibility, privilege and trust, and it was about the most contentious and critical issue in the Twin Cities for the past two years.
But the forum about the jagged line between public safety and racial justice at University of St. Thomas Wednesday was also about something often absent in these discussions: civility.
The forum featured local law enforcement officials and community activists, as well as two nationally known speakers. Nekima Levy-Pounds sat on the same stage as Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. In the aftermath of recent shootings of black men by police, the two were often publicly and loudly at odds.
The goal of the forum, according to one of the organizers, Hank Shea, a St. Thomas professor and former assistant U.S. attorney, was to find common ground — now, while the heat is low. They did.
Everyone agreed, for example, that inherent bias, based on experience, exists. That the war on drugs was a disaster. That black men are stopped by police far too frequently, and die at the hands of police far too frequently, compared to whites.
Everyone agreed — law enforcement, prosecutors, civil rights advocates, a former Minneapolis mayor — that young black men should comply completely when stopped by police. They also agreed that too often, that is not enough.
The forum drew a few hundred people, mostly white. Audience members nodded a lot to all sides of the debate. But when Nkechi Taifa, advocacy director for criminal justice for Open Society Foundations, asked for a show of hands of those who thought they had been stopped unjustly by police, almost all those hands were black.
Cedric Alexander, a CNN crime analyst and member of the White House-sponsored Task Force on 21st Century Policing, said we are "at the tipping point of a social issue that has been going on since the beginning of policing."
Freeman explained his decision to abolish the use of grand juries in police shootings, but acknowledged the racial imbalance of the justice system still inspires distrust among communities of color. He promoted "sitting down in mutual respect. We need it peacefully, we need it with voices lowered," he said.
R.T. Rybak, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation, said his biggest disappointment as Minneapolis mayor was the failure to "move the dial" in the relationship between police and the black community. When he won his first term, there was animosity between police and both the black and gay communities, he said. That changed dramatically with the gay population, but not blacks, he said. Rybak said we needed more officers trained in human relations than criminal justice.
"We know there are good cops out there," said Levy-Pounds. "But when we talk about police misconduct, they get defensive. If a cop witnesses misconduct and writes a false report, that is not a good cop."
Freeman praised Levy-Pounds' efforts to eliminate nuisance crimes that tag blacks, and promised to work with her to examine disproportionate stops for minor vehicle violations.
Small steps, baby steps, in lowered voices.
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