An October 2015 survey of Minneapolis’ highest-crime neighborhoods that included north Minneapolis found that only 23 percent of community members support how police behave, 34 percent feel safe around police, 16 percent believe police officers are held accountable for wrong or inappropriate conduct, and 64 percent believe police officers will treat you differently because of your race. The Urban Institute, which conducted the survey, concluded that North Side residents overall have particularly negative perceptions of the Minneapolis Police Department.
With that in mind, it was troubling to read in last week’s Star Tribune that a federal review concluded that the city’s response to the Fourth Precinct protest was “peaceful and measured” and that MPD Chief Janeé Harteau had been named by Fortune magazine among the world’s 50 greatest leaders.
As one who spends the better part of nearly every day in the heart of north Minneapolis, three short blocks from the Fourth Precinct police station, four blocks from the site where an unarmed Jamar Clark was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer, I cannot reconcile the insinuations of those stories with the day-to-day reality of the people who live or work on the North Side.
What I and others witnessed of the police response to the Fourth Precinct protest was neither peaceful nor measured. The first significant public action of the police command was to erect concrete barriers and a nearly 8-foot-tall chain-link fence around the perimeter of the precinct headquarters — a building that unmistakably appears as a fortress in the midst of a predominantly residential community. The barriers and fence invited rather than de-escalated tension and were viewed as an overreaction in the context of what became an adamant, but largely peaceful, protest.
While it is true there were few arrests during the 18-day occupation, the so-called “measured” police response also permitted nightly blockage of Plymouth Avenue, a major artery on the North Side, along with open-pit fires, in the neighborhood with the highest incidence of child and senior respiratory illness in the state.
The Minneapolis Urban League, which I lead, remained open during the occupation, despite its proximity to the Fourth Precinct. As a 91-year-old civil-rights organization and community resource, we had no choice. Our reality, however, included the near-constant interruption of helicopter noise from television news crews filming and reporting from overhead; canceled events; rescheduled meetings, and employees and tenants who had to be assured of their safety.
The occupation was unsettling, inconvenient, unnerving and absolutely necessary as a means of communal grieving, to express outrage and demand justice. But it wasn’t peaceful. The absence of hostility should never be confused with peace.
The MPD bunkered down and showed restraint as residents and neighbors along Plymouth Avenue hunkered down and were restrained from going about their daily routines. That reality apparently wasn’t weighed or factored in the federal determination that the police response was peaceful and measured.
Fortune magazine obviously didn’t consider the North Side community’s overwhelmingly negative perception of the MPD in its decision to proclaim Chief Harteau as a world’s greatest leader. Among the three criteria Fortune articulated for its ranking is that a leader must “build bridges.” But barricades are not bridges. The writ-large disaffection of north Minneapolitans with the MPD is a defining certitude of living or working on the North Side and is contradictory to Fortune’s commendation of Harteau’s world-class leadership.
But it’s never too late for the MPD to demonstrate peaceful and measured responses to African-Americans and others who live and work in north Minneapolis. And Harteau, whom I respect, can yet vindicate her dazzling designation. Indeed, the department and chief have made strides in the year-plus since Clark’s killing by mandating implicit-bias training for all sworn officers and creating a new division for community engagement and outreach.
These are important steps. But the most important change, which is yet to come, cannot be taught in a seminar and will not show up on an organization chart. It is a change of heart — when cops stop seeing black and brown people as presumptive offenders and adversaries, and when black and brown people have just cause to embrace their sisters and brothers in blue as welcome servants and protectors.
Ever the optimist, I pray and look forward to that reality.
Steven L. Belton is president and chief executive of the Minneapolis Urban League.