Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Freddie Gray. Walter Scott. Eric Garner.
The several hundred people who gathered at a University of Minnesota lecture hall Thursday hushed as Mark Kappelhoff recited the list of black men and one child killed in confrontations with police in cities across the United States.
Kappelhoff has intimate knowledge of the cases involving Brown and Gray. He supervised the Department of Justice’s investigations into the policing practices in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, where the two were killed and riots broke out.
The deaths sparked long-overdue national conversation about police and community trust, he said. But the topic had been a priority for Kappelhoff long before their deaths became front-page news.
“I met with the Brown and Gray families, and I heard their pleas for justice,” Kappelhoff said.
No matter what state his job takes him to, he hears the same perspectives that cause tensions in the community: Police officers feel attacked and residents believe officers aren’t respecting their rights. “Some say we are at a point of crisis,” he said. “But I call it an unprecedented opportunity to build back trust.”
To that end, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minneapolis put together a panel of local and national civic leaders to discuss whether the demonstrations and unrest that took place in Ferguson after Brown’s death could happen in Minneapolis. Without hesitation, at least three of the panelists answered “absolutely.”
“I know people don’t want to hear it,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor and president of the Minneapolis NAACP. “But the reasons it happened in Ferguson are already in place here, such as lack of equal employment opportunities, over-policing in communities and too many minorities in jail compared to their population in the state.”
Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County’s chief public defender, agreed with Levy-Pounds, saying the criminal justice system continues to marginalize people of color through implicit bias, unfair bail requirements and a culture where minorities almost expect they will be arrested at some point in their life.
On the flip side, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the local justice system has some faults, but not like Ferguson, where officers were using citations as a huge money generator for the city. He has repeatedly gone to the Minnesota Legislature to make it tougher for low-level drug offenders to spend significant time in prison, he said. He also said that police officers have better training and that his office has a more diverse staff.
A second panel debated solutions to prevent another “Ferguson incident.” They talked about community policing, expunging criminal records to make it easier for people to get housing and jobs and allowing officers to have more discretion whether to arrest somebody and bring him or her to jail. Minneapolis is also one of six U.S. cities selected for a federal project to improve relationships between minority communities and the criminal justice system.
Peter Bell, who has served with numerous local and national social and civic organizations, said the solutions have to start with black community residents taking accountability for black-on-black crime and the disintegration of black families.
“The other ideas talked about by the panel can help,” said Bell, who is black. “If there is a high level of crime, you can’t have good relationships with police.”
Said Kappelhoff: “Improving policing isn’t a pipe dream.”