Thirty-five people sat in a circle at an East Side church with St. Paul City Council Member Jane Prince on a cold Monday night in early December.
In two days, the council would vote on a controversial proposal to remove police officers from the commission that reviews police misconduct complaints. Officers opposed the idea, while many residents supported it. At that point, only Council Member Dai Thao had backed it.
But after people at the church shared stories of disrespect from police and distrust in the system, something happened that community members had hoped for but did not expect: They changed Prince’s mind. She agreed to vote to take officers off the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission.
Her pledge helped flip the vote — a rare occurrence at City Hall. Two emotional public hearings and last-ditch meetings organized by community activists culminated in a council shift from 6-1 against removing police to a 5-2 vote in favor of the proposal. Starting next month, St. Paul will have an all-civilian police review board, an uncommon arrangement in Minnesota.
Prince said she is still wrestling with the decision she made, but felt she had to represent members of her community who had shared “really difficult, painful, emotional stories.”
“The people who have the most powerful stories were the residents, and I really think that’s what helped change these votes,” said Yingya Vang, who lives on the East Side and went to the community meetings.
St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus has a different take. He said the majority of city leaders want officers on the board, but “they buckled to anti-cop pressure.”
As the decision approached, Council Members Chris Tolbert and Dan Bostrom remained vehemently opposed to removing police from the commission. Thao supported it. When the activists met with Prince, the other votes were in play.
Side of justice?
Community members organized a second last-minute meeting, this one with Council Member Rebecca Noecker, before the vote. Several people said after that gathering they lost hope. She would not commit to removing police from the panel.
“Nowhere, no how did I believe she would do it,” Vang said, noting that the local Police Federation endorsed Noecker during her campaign last year.
Noecker returned home after the community meeting and said she barely slept. The decision she made the next day, supporting Thao’s amendment to take police off the commission, was the hardest in her first year on the council, Noecker said. She didn’t want the city’s approximately 600 police officers to feel like she had let them down.
“I also heard all the pain and anger and fear,” Noecker said. “People felt like the system was just completely unbalanced against them.”
Residents flooded City Council members with e-mails and calls before the Dec. 7 vote on the amendment, said Wintana Melekin, an East Side resident who works at Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.
“You have to be on the side of justice,” Melekin said she told Noecker.
The amendment passed. But others in St. Paul did not see the removal of officers from the oversight board as “the side of justice.”
It will result in a commission that lacks an officer’s perspective, is less educated on the issues they are voting on and potentially biased against police, Titus said.
“The vote is what is telling,” he said, and it sends a message to officers. “We support you, until we have enough angry, organized advocacy groups … breathing down our back.”
During the final council vote Dec. 14, Tolbert said removing police hurts the legitimacy of the commission, which is responsible for reviewing misconduct allegations and making disciplinary recommendations to the police chief. He and Bostrom voted against removing the two police from the commission.
But the four other council members — Prince, Noecker, Amy Brendmoen and Council President Russ Stark — joined Thao in removing officers from the commission.
It was the most dramatic change to a City Council vote this year, Stark said.
St. Paul and the police department need to make other changes to improve community trust, but this vote was a significant step, several residents said.
“We’re cracking the system,” said Chauntyll Allen, a St. Paul resident and supporter of the local Black Lives Matter chapter. “It’s going to take that next generation breaking it down and building it up.”