DULUTH – The city’s new policy dictating when and how police can don protective riot gear drew questions from community members, a handful of whom expressed concerns Monday night that the equipment could still be used against marginalized groups.
A majority of the few dozen locals that came out to a meeting at Denfeld High School, including many that spent months serving on the committee that crafted the policy, responded that they hope the gear is never deployed. But in the rare case that it is, they feel the new policy — which was officially presented to Police Chief Mike Tusken on Monday — will help promote safety and accountability.
The collaborative policymaking process — which involved police, local lawmakers and activists — began after protesters decried the $83,000 purchase of new gear in 2017. In January, the city of Duluth announced that it will use a four-tiered system to respond to civil disturbances. Only the chief or his designee can deem a situation worthy of a “level four” response and deploy officers with protective gear — a helmet, shield, baton and protective pads.
The Star Tribune talked to five Duluthians at Monday’s meeting about the policymaking process, the new protective gear protocol and what it means for the city. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Duluth City Council member
“There is a lot of tension, especially around politics and how political decisions are made. Everything that you see on our news about police in a lot of other communities, people attribute that to police officers all over the place. Some of that criticism is absolutely 100% fair, and some of it might not be. It was necessary to have a whole lot of conversation and dialogue around this issue.”
chairman of Duluth’s Citizen Review Board
“This could be a national model. We really need to start generating change throughout the state. I think this is much needed, given the impact of what’s gone on in Minneapolis and St. Paul. If and however we can, we wanted to make sure that everybody, in every way, was covered. And that nobody was left behind.”
social and legal activist
“Freedom of expression is something we’ve been arguing about and fighting over since the Constitution. The policy is just too vague. I think any organization that has as much power as the police do — with all that power comes responsibility. And I want to see a responsible document that holds the police accountable for respecting rights. There’s too many loopholes. We have a really good police chief. What if he goes away?
“I don’t like seeing marginalized groups get abused by the vague, low-level laws — people of color, LGBTQ, those with long-term persistent mental illness. I have a long history of PTSD and depression and anxiety. These groups, among others, we regularly get abused.”
deputy police chief
“I think having the protective gear serves a few purposes. It helps the men and women of the police department to keep our community safe. And it also helps keep the men and women of the police department safe.
“It reaffirms the high level of service that the men and women of the police department are already doing. The policy committee and all the different individuals that made up the committee had an amazing perspective. We learned a lot of things from each other. We challenged each other.”
Sandra van den Bosse
social work professor at University of Minnesota Duluth and facilitator of the policymaking committee
“It will be interesting to see if we ever have to use the gear, how it’s going to go. You don’t want to see the gear be used. But if it ends up being used, I would like to see a thorough analysis. The feedback mechanism we built in should improve accountability.”