As Twin Cities suburbs look for ways to foster trust between law enforcement officers and communities of color in the wake of George Floyd’s death, some are looking to a long-standing model that began years ago in the north metro.
Formed with new immigrants in mind, the Joint Community Police Partnership began in 2005 in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, two of the most diverse cities in the state. Since then the partnership has gained national recognition and grown into a collaboration with Bloomington, Crystal, Hopkins, Richfield and St. Louis Park, as well as Hennepin County.
The goal remains the same: develop communication and understanding between officers and diverse residents. Each police department has an embedded community liaison, and police officials meet monthly with a Multicultural Advisory Committee (MAC) made up of residents.
The committees of volunteers have advised police on body camera policies and helped them understand consulate ID cards carried by immigrants. They’ve helped inform hiring practices and crafted more inclusive interview questions. And they’ve organized community events to bring officers into diverse spaces.
The members have also advised on ways to educate immigrants about local law enforcement and helped resolve cultural misunderstandings as simple as staying in the vehicle when pulled over by an officer — something that many Liberian immigrants, for example, had thought was disrespectful.
As the model moves into more suburban cities, against the backdrop of calls for police reform, leaders and committee members hope to see more engagement from residents, particularly African-Americans.
“This work has to involve both sides,” said Elba Guille Garza, a Latina real estate agent who has served on Bloomington’s MAC for three years. “We need to know how the police department works and they need to understand how our community works.”
Woodbury last year launched a similar advisory committee, and Roseville formed one this summer. Maplewood recently reached out to the partnership’s leaders for guidance about its new advisory committee.
“The best compliment an organization can be given is if others are replicating,” said Monique Drier, who worked as the community liaison in Brooklyn Center and now supervises the partnership program.
Many issues addressed by the partnership’s community liaisons fall somewhere between police work and social work, said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who Drier credits for championing the partnership since its start.
“This has created different venues for interactions between the police and various communities that aren’t just always on the street,” Opat said.
Brooklyn Center Police Cmdr. Rick Gabler said those relationships and the work of the committees have become especially critical amid the calls for police reform. The MAC was one of the first calls he made after an officer-involved shooting in Brooklyn Center on Labor Day weekend last year. He said officers were sharing information through MAC, and that created a “calming period and a little bit of patience” as facts came out.
“It’s one of those things where, if we didn’t have it, we’d really be struggling to reach out and build trust in our diverse communities,” Gabler said, calling it “one of our best vehicles” for building relationships.
Crystal Police Chief Stephanie Revering said her department joined the partnership in 2017, the latest to do so. But Crystal officials already had leaned on the partnership for help when 10-year-old Barway Collins, a Liberian immigrant, was murdered by his father in 2015.
“We found out very quickly that we didn’t have a collaborative partnership with our population of Liberian immigrants,” Revering said.
A liaison with the Joint Community Police Partnership, who had previously traveled to Liberia, helped during the homicide investigation.
Since Floyd’s death on May 25 in police custody and the subsequent unrest, Crystal’s MAC has met to discuss the city’s police policies and training, particularly its use-of-force tactics.
“This was really the first time in our history ... where I felt like we finally had the trust from our MAC members,” Revering said. “They could really be honest and just have these difficult conversations regarding race, saying what it is that we as police officers need to know.”
Revering said the Crystal MAC is continuing to talk about police reform. The department is looking to make its use-of-force data more transparent to residents, as well as making the department’s policy manual easier to find on the city’s website.
Brooklyn Park Deputy Police Chief Mark Bruley said his city’s MAC group “really take[s] the temperature of the community” while allowing residents to see behind the curtain of police work.
Brooklyn Park’s MAC, in partnership with the city’s Human Rights Commission, has recently started looking at police reform recommendations. Proposals include the creation of a civilian oversight board and hiring nonwhite officers who live in the city.
While Brooklyn Park’s work with the joint police partnership has built trust between law enforcement and immigrants, Bruley said, the city hasn’t had much success getting African Americans to participate in the advisory committee.
“Our diversity is very diverse,” Bruley said of the city, where 57% of residents are people of color and 28% are Black or African American. “Yet we don’t have them consistently at the table part of MAC, and that’s clearly what’s broken.”
Nigerian, Liberian and Hispanic communities are all represented on the city’s MAC, he said, but not African Americans.
“If you look at where we’re at today, it’s really the African Americans that have the most mistrust with the police,” he said.
Ahmed Issahak represents the Oromo community on the Brooklyn Park MAC group. He joined in late 2017 and has been working to recruit more African Americans. He sees the committee as a way to help identify ways to reform policing.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Issahak said. “[The committee] is so important because if we don’t have this, then it would be like a black hole: no communication, no flow of information.”
Garza is one of two Latinos on the Bloomington MAC. While the MAC model is a good one, she said, it’s dependent on involvement and hinges on trust and awareness that builds over time.
“We are that community connection, the bridge of trust,” Garza said. “But improving that trust is difficult. I now see how the police do want to listen and learn, but they need that input.”