The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board announced this week that it is launching a civilian advisory review council amid public outcry over an incident Tuesday involving the Park Police Department and a group of Somali-American teenagers.
A viral video showed park police officers handcuffing four unarmed Somali-American teens at Minnehaha Regional Park and one officer pointing his gun at them.
The two officers involved are still on the job. Park officials have opened an investigation of the incident and of the 911 call that prompted police to respond. The caller reported a dangerous situation with weapons. Police said no weapons were found.
“The footage we’ve seen on social media is really hard to watch,” Park Board President Brad Bourn said. “If there are course corrections that need to happen, we will lead on those.”
Policing and police-community relations were hot issues in the last Park Board election, with candidates who have since been elected to the board pledging then to make changes with the park police.
Bourn said the new advisory council will help guide park police and leaders in developing police policies that work for everyone in a city that has struggled to build trust between law enforcement and minority communities.
On Friday, park officials met with families of the boys and some leaders of the Somali community to apologize and gain their trust.
“We really owe the community an apology,” interim Park Superintendent Mary Merrill said. “We want to say that our parks are safe and that the park police keep us safe.”
Amina Abdi, the mother of one of the boys, said she is not accepting any apologies and has asked to see the body camera footage.
“Sorry is not enough,” Abdi said. “We want the officers to be punished for the way they treated our sons. They didn’t have any proof that the boys were a threat. The officers’ approach was ugly and dangerous. Next time, they will kill our kids. Our kids are still shocked.”
NAACP chimes in
The Minneapolis NAACP, which has long raised concerns and even called for a boycott last year of the parks, said it has opened its own investigation and has scheduled a meeting with the top leaders of the park police and the Park Board. Leslie Redmond, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, said she’s not surprised by what she saw on the video at Minnehaha Park and stressed that police presence in the parks only traumatizes families of color.
“We talk about why black people don’t take advantage of the parks,” Redmond said. “These are public places, and we’re paying for it. We’re actually funding for our own oppression, but we will continue to fight against police brutality and we will continue to fight for inclusion, equity and the humanity of black people.”
At a public hearing held Wednesday at the Park Board headquarters, many echoed the same sentiment and criticized police handling of the incident, making repeated calls to slash police funding or perhaps nix the department altogether.
The Park Board oversees 6,804 acres of land and has an annual budget of about $110 million. In its 2018 budget, the Park Board included $6.1 million for the Park Police Department, which is responsible for enforcing laws and Park Board ordinances throughout the city. The department has 32 sworn park police officers and 21 non-sworn civilian patrol agents, who respond to crime in parks, enforce parkway speed limits and set parking restrictions, among other duties.
Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto said the idea of eliminating his department or disarming his officers in a city plagued by gun violence is unrealistic, noting that he receives few complaints regarding the conduct of his officers. In 2018, four complaints were lodged against park officers, three of which were registered internally. The current case is the only complaint filed by the public, Ohotto said.
“If we expect our officers to keep parks safe, that also involves confronting gun violence,” Ohotto said. He added that the department’s priority is to make sure park staff feel safe to do their work.
Park Board Vice President AK Hassan said he’s been struggling to cope with the incident and is working on creating a youth advisory board to work alongside park officials in decisionmaking.
“That could have been my little brothers,” said Hassan, the first Somali-American to be elected to the board. “I will make sure that we fix some of the park policies we have to ensure that everyone feels welcome in the parks regardless of their skin color.”
Park police policy is similar to that of the Minneapolis Police Department regarding training, record keeping and 911 dispatch.
‘Misleading’ 911 call
On Tuesday, park police were called to Minnehaha Regional Park about 7:30 p.m. when a caller reported that four men were holding knives and sticks. At the scene, one officer pointed his gun at the four teens, whose ages ranged from 13 to 16.
The boys were handcuffed and detained. The officers based their decision on the information the caller gave that there was an assault that had taken place and that weapons were involved, Ohotto said.
Police, however, found no weapons on the boys, and the accounts by witnesses were different from what the 911 caller reported. One officer is seen on the video telling bystanders that one of the teens who had been detained was a runaway and the rest were involved in a disturbance. The boy the officer said was a runaway was taken to the Juvenile Supervision Center and has since been released. The other teens were released Tuesday at the park.
“I’m extremely disappointed that our officers were put in that situation by a misleading 911,” Ohotto said. “That set into motion a series of events that’s regrettable and that we’re sorry happened.”
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) on Wednesday also called for an investigation into the incident that they said stemmed from a “fake call targeting Somali children.” The nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group has been working with families of the boys since the incident.
“The family is still distraught and they’re still looking for answers to what happened,” said Jaylani Hussein, CAIR-MN’s executive director. “The boys are still traumatized and some haven’t left home. Two of them have marks on their hands due to the restraint.”