Armed with hammers, power drills and bottles of wood glue, a handful of Minneapolis' top cops leaned over tables in a City Hall conference room, pondering their next moves.
Piece by piece — with a few jokes about needing holsters for drills and the challenges of putting together Ikea furniture — they assembled six colorful boxes that will soon be filled with books and placed inside police stations around the city. Like the other Little Free Libraries that have popped up in neighborhoods all over the country, the department's libraries are aimed at getting more people reading and interacting with officers in a new way.
Chief Janeé Harteau said she hopes the books will give children a reason to talk to police in a situation that isn't an emergency. Too often, she said, kids' only experience with officers comes when something sad or scary has happened. But stopping by to pick up a book can be a way to start a more natural conversation — for the people on both sides of the conversation.
"In today's climate, there's certainly mistrust and concern with police officers," Harteau said, "and so this is a way to really support the good, hardworking officers out there and to keep them wanting to come back and do their job every day."
Little Free Library, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization, has been selling and setting up the tiny house-shaped libraries for three years. Neighborhoods or individuals set them up and fill them with books, and people are free to borrow something to read and leave a book of their own.
Todd Bol, the group's co-founder and executive director, said there are 28,000 libraries registered with Little Free Library, plus another 3,000 to 5,000 that have gone up on their own. By Thanksgiving, he expects there will be about 36,000 — a point at which there will be more little libraries than McDonalds restaurants.
Over the last few months, the organization has turned its attention to police departments, setting up dozens of libraries in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Detroit, El Paso, Texas, and Cleveland. The group also joined up with the Boys & Girls Clubs to get boxes and books set up in Ferguson, Mo.
Bol said he's been troubled by the tensions that have erupted across the country between police and communities that feel they've been treated unfairly.
"It's like throwing big rocks at each other," he said.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Bol thought about what the late civil rights leader would have done to solve the problem. He figured King would have suggested building bridges rather than throwing rocks, and he figured sharing some books would be a good start.
In Minneapolis, four of the libraries will go in precinct headquarters. The library built for the First Precinct, which covers downtown, will be placed in a police substation in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, while the sixth library will be at the department's City Hall headquarters.
Little Free Library plans to donate several books, and officers are being encouraged to bring in some of their own.