An incident last month in which Minneapolis police officers ordered three Oromo-American men out of their car at gunpoint after a white bar owner thought they might be armed has stirred racial tensions in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
But department officials said the officers involved were responding to a "credible report" about a person with a gun in a high-crime area, which necessitated a more aggressive response.
Burhan Israfael, a community activist, said he was angered at the way the owner of Nomad World Pub, who called 911, handled the situation. He also questioned why, with all the talk of how aggressive policing has alienated minority neighborhoods like Cedar-Riverside, officers responded in the manner they did: keeping their guns drawn on the men the whole time, even as bystanders loudly insisted they were unarmed.
"You would think they would do a better job of assessing the situation," said Israfael, who was among those who posted a video of the incident on social media.
Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said his officers acted reasonably in the incident outside Nomad given the circumstances, while adding that the department remained committed to principles that "never allow for, or tolerate, biased policing of any kind."
"After reviewing all the facts and context to this potential public safety threat, much of which the video in and of itself does not provide, I believe the officers acted appropriately," he said in a statement released through a spokesman.
A message left at Nomad was not immediately returned.
On June 2, Gamada Awuni, a friend and Awuni's cousin had parked outside Nomad, a popular watering hole at 501 S. Cedar Av., after returning from a friend's graduation ceremony earlier that day.
As they were getting out, they said they were confronted by the bar's owner, who accused the men — ages 21, 22, and 25 — of waving around a gun and threatening passersby. He threatened to call the police.
According to Awuni, the men first tried to reason with the owner, telling him that he had mistaken them for someone else and that they were unarmed. The owner eventually called 911.
The caller never mentioned race to the dispatcher, instead describing the men's car and saying one of them was wearing a "USA" tank top, before hanging up abruptly, because, according to a transcript of the call, the men were "approaching me right now."
Within minutes, their BMW sedan was swarmed by police officers with guns drawn who yelled at the three to drop to the ground. A 45-second video clip of the encounter that later surfaced online shows the men being held at gunpoint as a bystander tells one of the men to "stop talking" so as not to antagonize the officers. The bystander also informs the officers that "he doesn't have a gun."
No weapon was found in the car or on its occupants, and the men were released a short time later. Still, Awuni said, the ordeal still left him feeling disrespected and shaken.
"All three of us, we really thought we were going to die that day," Awuni said.
In Cedar-Riverside, leaders say that community relations have improved in recent years as the department increased its outreach efforts in the area, long home to the city's East African population. Still, some residents say that police harassment continues unabated.
Arradondo has acknowledged that officers are not immune to bias, while pointing out that some situations are influenced by the unconscious prejudices of the people who call police.
He often uses a hypothetical example in which officers respond to a call about a suspicious group of black youth hanging out on a street corner, only to realize that they are, in fact, waiting for a bus. But from the youths' perspective, they likely felt they were being racially profiled by the police, he says.
Officers are now trained to act in a "procedurally just" way in every interaction they have with the public, Arradondo said, while also learning to recognize and reduce the effects of racial stereotypes in their public interactions.
For the past few years, 911 dispatchers have undergone similar training, according to Sarah McKenzie, a city spokeswoman. She said in an e-mail that dispatchers are taught to distinguish between calls based on bias and evidence, teasing out more details by asking follow-up questions such as, "What's suspicious about the person/circumstances/vehicle?"
A series of viral videos in recent months had fueled tensions, according to Pastor Pamela Cook of Sojourner Truth Community, a multidenominational congregation based in the Twin Cities.
On April 30, a parent called campus police about two American Indian brothers who were part of her tour group at Colorado State University. The same day, a group of black women were questioned by police while leaving their Airbnb rental in Rialto, Calif., after a neighbor suspected they were burglars. And late last month, a white woman in Oakland called police on two black men for barbecuing in public, an episode that later became a meme called "BBQ Becky."
Each incident is another reminder of how young men of color are viewed more suspiciously than their white peers, said Cook, after leaving a police reform rally outside City Hall last week.
"It's hard to live in a society where people look at your black or brown skin as a weapon," she said.