It has been a year since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Nekima Levy-Pounds marked the anniversary Monday at a demonstration in St Paul. It was yet another protest against what she sees as an epidemic of overreaction by police nationwide to what are often petty offenses.
The next morning, she sat in an office at the University of St. Thomas, where she teaches law, emotionally exhausted. She quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ice Cube, and talked about a black physician she knew who was stopped by police last week and was still shaken by the incident. She also talked about how she sometimes has to call a police officer she knows in the middle of the night to help mediate potential conflicts.
It has been a whirlwind year for Levy-Pounds, who has drawn both praise and acrimony for her role in leading a discussion, sometimes a loud discussion, over police-community relations. In that year, she was voted president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, designated as one of the top Minnesota lawyers of the year, named one of Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s 40 under 40 honorees and won the Facing Race Ambassador Award.
And she was charged with several misdemeanors for the demonstration at the Mall of America, most of which were subsequently dropped.
I visited with Levy-Pounds because I wanted to know if she thought much had changed in the past year.
“I don’t think things are better than they were a year ago, no,” Levy-Pounds said. “I think there’s much more awareness of police violence and police-community relations. But with this conversation, we haven’t seen a huge change in public policy.”
Not surprisingly, Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, agrees there hasn’t been much progress since Brown’s death, despite the attention to police conduct and scores of protests.
“[Police] have been heavily scrutinized, but it’s a very small percent of police [involved in controversies],” Kroll said. “A very large percentage of us do the job, day in and day out.”
Kroll pointed out that all of the heavily covered incidents happened outside Minnesota, and he said that Minneapolis has some of the toughest requirements for police officers in the country. “We’ve led the nation in policing for years, ever since I’ve been here,” Kroll said.
Levy-Pounds is due to speak at the 2015 Criminal Justice Institute for lawyers on Aug. 17, on “things Minnesota’s criminal justice system can work toward to eliminate racism.” She said one of those changes began with the Minneapolis City Council’s recent decision to do away with spitting and lurking laws, which she said unfairly targeted minorities.
“We have to start with the notion of use of low-level arrests,” said Levy-Pounds. “This is a huge part of the criminal justice system.” She pointed out that many of the police shootings that are being questioned, or in a couple of cases prosecuted, started with a stop of a black person for a busted taillight or some other petty offense. That leads to mistrust between police and the black community, and often starts a process in which a poor person is ticketed, can’t pay the fine, then winds up in a spiral of offenses.
Kroll, however, said those stops are essential to police work.
“It’s the little nuisance crimes that lead to bigger crimes,” said Kroll. “When you are wanted for armed robbery, don’t jaywalk.”
I asked Levy-Pounds if the demonstrations, some of which in other states have turned violent, were actually helping to divide people.
“I don’t think you could divide people more [than they are now],” she said. The protests “are actually exposing hidden attitudes that people have that have been there all along.”
I asked Kroll if protests have any positive impact.
“No, not at all,” said Kroll. “It’s been destructive. I don’t think an increase in attention or more videos are going to do anything.”
Kroll said protesters have been way too quick to jump into action and assume a police officer is guilty of overreaction before the evidence is in. He said that in many cases there’s evidence that the officer’s actions were justified, but those findings are dismissed by protesters.
That’s because distrust of the criminal justice system is well earned, said Levy-Pounds. She said officers who don’t have much experience with minorities are “dropped into neighborhoods and expected to do a good job. Police culture needs to be re-examined.”
So do the motivations of protesters, Kroll said.
“If black lives matter, where are they when a black person kills a black person?” Kroll asked. “Where is the outrage?”
So there we have it, a year of deaths, of protests, of rancor. Farther apart than ever.