Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken was an adult when he learned his family’s shameful connection to the most racist chapter in his city’s history.

Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were lynched by a mob on June 15, 1920, because Irene Tusken lied about being raped. She was the police chief’s paternal great-aunt.

The lawman doesn’t run from this awful piece of family history.

“I didn’t find out until I was early 30s,” Tusken told me in an interview. “My mother talked to the matriarch of the family and she said But we’ll never speak about this again. It was really a source of shame and great embarrassment having your family involved in what would truly be the darkest day in Duluth’s history. People didn’t talk about it. Kind of a missed opportunity but I don’t think unique to that era. I think nowadays what a tremendous opportunity it would be to tell that story. … It’s given me and my wife some opportunities to talk to our kids. You hope to never repeat the sins of the past.”

Reflections on that and 21st century policing have brought Tusken to the conclusion that the most important trait in a cop is character, followed closely by “kindness, compassion and empathy.”

Duluth has a monument to Clayton, Jackson and McGhie. Their murders are also consecrated at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. The April opening of the Alabama monument, also referred to as the Lynching Memorial, drew a busload of people from Duluth. Tusken flew in for the event.

“The community wanted me to be there and I really wanted to be there,” said Tusken. “It is so hard to look at. One of the first sights are signs about the slave trade. ‘Slave trade’ to me was something you read about in books but you don’t tangibly see or feel or walk in the footsteps of people who either were slaves or slave traders. Even to walk into those areas really brought a sense of how significant the history was; bad history of this country.”

The memorial and a companion museum are projects of attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. At a sold-out Minneapolis Institute of Art engagement June 22, Stevenson is scheduled to discuss the role that museums can play in healing the traumatic vestiges of the Jim Crow era. “Art and Healing: In the Moment,” an exhibition by Twin Cities artists moved by the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile, is at MIA Sunday through July 29.

 

Q: What are you doing to reduce biased policing?

A: Last year I brought in a national trainer on fair and impartial policing. Quite expensive. It was remarkably well received by our staff to get our people to say, “Listen, I have to be aware I have biases and that’s OK, but how I act upon those is more important.” Knowing the science and understanding it made people, I hope, think differently.

 

Q: Which of your priorities is proving tougher to implement: stopping the influx of heroin, addressing racial inequities, expanding community policing or hiring and promoting women?

A: Different priorities, different days sometimes. I took a job teaching community policing, not because I needed another job [laughs] and not because it pays well, but it is so important to have one-to-one contact with our students of color and females. As a result, I’ve been able to hire a number of them, so they have a foot in the door. The best people to do recruiting are the people in this building. I want to see us in high schools, recreational centers. We are about 92 percent white in Duluth, but the answers of how we’re going to police with inclusivity is to have diversity in our police department. It is so important to me to diversify, to get more females. We have [fewer women] today than when I started. The heroin issue is, of course, big. Some days that’s a priority.

 

Q: Are you surprised police officers have not become more careful given that there are cameras everywhere?

A: Yeah. Body-worn cameras are a game changer. They are never going to be perfect, [but] to me they are the most important innovation in policing since the portable radio. Our officers initially didn’t want them; they said it’s Big Brother. Now none of them would want to do this job without them.

 

C.J. can be reached at cj@startribune.com and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject.