In what top police officials called an "unprecedented" effort to mend frayed relationships with citizens, Minneapolis officers hit city streets Tuesday to connect with citizens at more than 1,400 National Night Out events.
At Heritage Park on the city's North Side, the discussions were generally positive, although some residents expressed long-standing concerns involving how some officers treat people of color.
The effort to talk with city residents came in the wake of alcohol-fueled incidents in Green Bay, Wis., and Apple Valley in which off-duty police officers allegedly fought with black men and used racial slurs.
Elsa Svenningsen, 69, said she's certain those incidents were in the back of Police Chief Janeé Harteau's mind as they discussed the grandmother's request for more friendly, interpersonal contact with officers in her neighborhood.
Svenningsen said that she's glad Harteau "is in charge" and taking steps toward doing that.
"It's good to always be visible and touchable, especially if you hold public office, and to be out in the community to address any concerns that need to be," said Candy Bakion, a member of the Heritage Park neighborhood association and the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing.
"I think they just need to be softer and authentic," Bakion said of police officers.
For some, including Marie Lewis, a 63-year-old lifelong resident of the neighborhood, the concerns are deep and long-standing. She said the recent incidents are only symptoms of underlying problems that some officers have with people of color.
Lewis didn't get a chance to speak with Harteau, who had left for another Night Out gathering, but said she'd have told her that they need to better screen police officers before — and after — they are hired.
Nagassa Yadetie, a father and Ethiopian immigrant, said he's felt discriminated against, particularly in traffic stops.
He said more training is needed for police in racial sensitivity, especially in a community where residents are not only diverse in race, but from many cultures worldwide.
Harteau said that Tuesday night was to help to connect with the community and gain input on how the department should move forward by sending all of its chiefs, inspectors, commanders and lieutenants, along with precinct beat teams and community crime specialists, to block parties around the city.
"Tonight is an opportunity, as it always is, to get out and celebrate the successes of the officers throughout the year with the community," Harteau said at Heritage Park. "But it's certainly an opportunity for me, and for the officers, too, to hear directly from community members about what the MPD can be doing to earn the public's trust.
"And for those folks who don't have ideas on what we can do, I'm asking them, 'What is it that we're doing that's working?' and we can duplicate that."
She heard from residents that said they like cops to get out of their cars and interact directly with people, Harteau said.
She said she wants to create opportunities for police to meet with people who are not in crisis, not just after a 911 call. "I create those opportunities for myself, and I need to extend that to officers on the street," Harteau said. "Right now, I'm getting a lot of positive feedback. People like what they're seeing from the Police Department, and it is about building those relationships."
As a Fourth Precinct commander, police inspector Mike Kjos said, he's heard from residents who say the incidents in Green Bay and Apple Valley don't reflect what they see in their neighborhoods. Residents are telling him "that the cops come out, and they do a great job, and they're there for the community all the time," Kjos said.
Council Member Don Samuels, a mayoral candidate, and head of the City Council's public safety committee said "When you go out and face things publicly, and in a case like this, disapproved publicly, people feel comforted, and that reassurance actually eclipses the shock they felt when the incident happened."
A black woman in her 50s who spoke with Samuels echoed the sentiments of others, he said, when she told him that "if the police show up and treat them well, then people will trust them and give them information and so on."
On Monday, Harteau said she plans to examine the department's training and hiring practices but said that most Minneapolis police officers conduct themselves appropriately when dealing with the public and are distressed that the off-duty officers' confrontations have generated negative impressions of all city officers among some citizens.
In both cases, the officers were out late at bars when the fights happened, and in both cases the officers behaved disrespectfully toward local police officers who showed up to investigate, according to police reports and video.
One of the incidents occurred June 29 in Green Bay; the other was late last year in Apple Valley. Five officers from the two incidents are under internal affairs review. Two SWAT team members were suspended with pay in one case, and two officers pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in the other.
The two cases have led to an uptick in criticism of expectations and accountability in the department and demands for change.
In a brief interview on Monday, Harteau said she plans to convene her Chief's Citizens Advisory Council on Wednesday, with invitations to city faith and cultural leaders, as well as the police union, to talk about the issue. Many of the department's rank and file have been upset by the allegations, she said.
"They are tired of the negative actions of a few that overshadow the great work they do every day," said Harteau. "Enough is enough."
Staff writers Randy Furst and Pamela Miller contributed to this report.