With police-community relations frayed across the state and country, St. Paul police and local activists decided to take a novel approach: send a group of officers and community members to the nation’s capital to confront a painful history.
A group of about 17 police officers, civilian employees and community members recently spent several days in Washington, D.C., on the third annual trip visiting sites and then discussing issues of race and policing, among other topics.
“I wanted to come on this trip because I’ve had conflict with police — not feeling safe, or feeling like I’m being judged,” said 27-year-old Melita Eyton, a Richfield resident who is biracial (black and white) and also has American Indian heritage. “This experience is so short lived, but it has such a tremendous impact.”
The trip is a partnership between St. Paul police, which funds much of it through a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust, and the Circle of Peace Movement (TCOPM).
Russel and Sarah Balenger started TCOPM in St. Paul’s historically black Rondo neighborhood in an effort to end violence and promote racial healing.
The trip to D.C. started after a group of community members, including Russel Balenger, attended the 50th anniversary celebration in 2015 of the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., considered a flash point in the civil rights movement, with leaders from St. Paul police.
Deputy Chief of Major Crimes Paul Iovino said the department wanted to build on the pilgrimage to Selma and began sending people on an annual trip to D.C.
“It isn’t just visiting a museum,” said Iovino, who went to Selma and attended the recent D.C. trip. “There are always circles that follow as a result of these cohorts that are forever changed and forever bonded as a result of these experiences.”
Russel Balenger leads “circles” reflecting on visits to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, among other institutions. Attendees are arranged in a circle so everyone can see one another as they speak one at a time.
“Everyone has an opportunity to speak and to be heard, and everyone gets to listen,” Balenger said. “There are great lessons in that.”
Community members from all racial and ethnic backgrounds are invited to attend the three-day event. St. Paul resident Lorenzo Lamb, 19, said he wanted to attend as a black man and an aspiring police officer.
“Bridging the gap and having the police and community come together, it’s very important,” he said. “It’s essential to know who you’re around every day.”
DeWayne Givens, a close friend of Philando Castile, a black man who was fatally shot by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016, said after the trip that traveling as a group also helped them forge a deeper understanding.
“I think society-wise, there’s a crisis of disconnection, and this is true even in St. Paul,” said Sgt. Natalie Davis, who went on the trip. “So to go to a place with people I don’t know very well and to experience the painful history together helps unify us and understand each other much more as humans.”
A 2019 trip is planned, but it’s unclear how long grant funding will support the effort.