The young man, eyes glazed and arms covered with tattoos, sat handcuffed on the back steps of the East Side house his family rents. “I feel disrespected,” he said, as someone in an upstairs window captured video with a smartphone.
St. Paul police officer Chenoa Fields, in the midst of working 13 days in a row, smiled.
“Did we yell at you?” she asked. No, he said. “Did we tackle you or hurt you?” No, he said.
Fields and her partner Christopher Hamblin say they strive to act courteously but firmly with everyone they encounter on a call. But it’s not easy.
Officers across the Twin Cities say they are increasingly on edge — walking an uncomfortable line between accountability to the public and ensuring they survive their shift. From local protests to the White House, which hosted a conference on community policing last week, the way police do their jobs is the topic of high-profile and often heated conversation.
“It is stressful, it always has been,” said Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke, whose officers shot and killed a knife-wielding man as he ran from his car in a McDonald’s parking lot on March 17. “I have noticed a change in our officers — a hyper vigilance — where they are being extra cautious and looking over their shoulder more.”
After the most recent deaths of black men killed by police, including Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, the slaying of five police officers in Dallas, and the attacks on St. Paul police during protests last weekend, officers say they feel more threatened and more scrutinized than ever.
Balancing the need to be respectful to an increasingly demanding public while also remaining vigilant to danger may be a challenge, said Plymouth Police Chief Mike Goldstein. But police should be held to a higher standard.
“No one is forced to go into this job. We’ve chosen it,” said Goldstein, whose officers have been involved in two deadly shooting incidents in the past year. “No matter how hard things get, we have to stand above it.”
Officer Jordan Ziebarth has had extensive training in his time with the Cottage Grove Police Department. The eight-year officer has a bachelor’s degree from Metropolitan State University and worked as a paramedic before becoming a cop. Since then, additional training has prepared him to be a field training officer, a crisis negotiator, a use-of-force instructor and a Taser instructor. Still, the world today feels more dangerous, he said.
“It can be anywhere, anybody,” he said, pointing to police elsewhere being ambushed while responding to phony 911 calls or assaulted during traffic stops. “If you’re not paranoid, something could happen.”
Ziebarth witnessed the unpredictability firsthand.
In March 2010, he and another Cottage Grove officer stopped a car driven by a man suspected of committing a string of crimes. His partner was at the driver’s side door and Ziebarth on the passenger’s side when the driver decided to speed away.
The other officer, his arm caught in the door, was dragged more than 500 feet before he shot and killed the driver. The man’s wife and baby were also in the car at the time. A Washington County grand jury later found the shooting to be justified.
Negative incidents in other cities have made the public quicker to criticize officers without knowing all the facts, he said. Still, he insists, police officers who are found to have acted wrongfully must be held accountable — because what they do affects all police.
“Putting on the uniform, I’m every cop they’ve ever dealt with,” he said. “I don’t want somebody to tarnish the badge.”
Sgt. Angie Haseman, a 20-year police veteran, said the Plymouth Police Department has been blessed with “an incredibly supportive community,” as seen in the countless Bundt cakes, cookies and gift cards delivered by an appreciative public since the police killings in Dallas.
Yet, after those shootings, “My mom actually said, ‘I want you to quit,’ ” Haseman said. Her two oldest daughters, who have gone on ride-alongs with Haseman, have cried in fear for her safety.
“It really hits home for my family,” she said.
But training, demeanor, respect and staying calm can all keep officers safe and the public satisfied, she said.
Her chief agrees.
Goldstein has written about the need for police to be mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually fit. A holistic view of wellness helps ensure police interactions with the public remain healthy, he said.
“We need cops who aren’t broken,” Goldstein said.
Unfortunately, he said, despite the lessons of the ’60s and ’70s, despite the lessons of Rodney King, more needs to be done to ensure police interact respectfully with all segments of their community.
“As enlightened as we think we are, we’re slow learners,” he said.
Officers in several cities, including some who asked not to be identified, said safety isn’t the only thing affecting how they do their jobs. They worry that greater public scrutiny and criticism is pushing some to be less proactive — avoiding a stop for a broken taillight on the chance the driver may have drugs or a gun. No one wants to become a YouTube casualty, police said, especially when such videos do not always give a complete picture.
Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, said the job has never been tougher, thanks to technology and social media. In the shooting of Castile, he said, all the public saw was video after Castile was shot — not the circumstances up to the shooting.
“You’ve got to use force sometimes, and it’s always going to look bad,” Kroll said.
In St. Paul, where squads have been riding with two officers since the Dallas shootings, Fields said Hamblin “has had it much worse” from the community in the aftermath of Castile’s shooting — simply for being a black police officer.
“I’ve been called a traitor. An Uncle Tom. Worse,” Hamblin said. “They either really like me, or they hate me.”
None of that has changed the way he and Fields do their jobs, he said. Partners for two years, they spent a recent shift rolling down alleys and cutting across parks, looking for anything out of the ordinary.
The man handcuffed at the East Side house was eventually released, although another man there was arrested for violating a no-contact order and methamphetamine possession. At other stops, they questioned a pair of homeless men sprawled in a school doorway and several men lounging in vehicles on a block known as a dumping ground for stolen cars.
Halfway through their shift, they stopped at a convenience store. Hamblin talked quietly with a man, also black, who approached him inside.
As Hamblin left, he asked the man: “You good?”
“Yeah,” the man said. “All good.”