Duluth's police chief says he will hold off on a plan for purchasing updated riot gear, at least temporarily resisting a national trend of militarization of local police departments.
The decision came after members of the City Council expressed reservations about the message the equipment might send, and after citizens demanded a discussion about the plan at a council meeting Monday.
Chief Mike Tusken wrote in a letter last week to City Council members that any purchases would be made only after public input from elected leaders and the community.
"Ultimately, the Duluth Police Department does not get its power or authority from a gun, a badge, or a uniform," Tusken wrote. "We get it from the social contract we have with our residents."
During a budget hearing, Tusken informed the City Council that the department intended to purchase more than $83,000 worth of riot gear next year and another $41,500 in 2019 to replace outdated and mismatched equipment.
The new equipment, which would include helmets and protective elbow and knee pads and chest protectors, would serve about 100 of the department's 150 officers. Police now have enough riot gear for about 20 officers.
Duluth City Council President Joel Sipress raised concerns about the tendency he's seen in other departments to justify the use of equipment they obtain.
"Many residents, myself included, are concerned about the general trend around the country toward the militarization of law enforcement and the negative consequences from this that we have seen in a number of communities," he said. "I am approaching this issue with an open mind, but believe we should approach it with caution, given both national trends and the concerns that have been raised by local residents."
In his letter, Tusken said the department takes community relations seriously, pointing out that the department was one of the first in the state to use body cameras and that it has invested in de-escalation and bias training.
"Duluth as a community has a sterling track record for gathering peacefully and civilly when we protest or rally. Residents continue to show that in Duluth, we honor and value the public's right to gather and to do so in a calm, peaceful way," he wrote.
Duluth police last used their gear in 2012 when a group of white supremacists and counterprotesters clashed at the city's Civic Center.