A group of Minneapolis police officers and community organizers have teamed up to have the kinds of frank conversations around race and criminal justice they say are necessary to break down the barriers that divide them.
Dubbed the Police and Black Men Project, the year-and-a-half old experiment in community policing has brought together black and white officers with area black men — some who have had scrapes with the law — in meetings where they hashed out their differences and searched for common ground.
The group, which has always met in private, made its first public appearance earlier this month at an anti-violence forum hosted by Augsburg University. Among the attendees were police Cmdr. Charlie Adams, longtime organizer Guy Bowling, and Bill Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor in the department of Family Social Science who oversees the project.
“It starts with humanizing one another,” said Bowling, manager of the Minneapolis-based FATHER Project, a nonprofit that empowers fathers to support their families. “But another step is just understanding communities that you work in.”
The project was born out of the massive protests that roiled the nation two years ago after a series of high-profile killings of black men by police officers, including the shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in July 2016.
One participant, Sgt. Dave O’Connor, pointed out that the public discourse surrounding each incident usually followed one of two paths: advocates of police reform calling for greater accountability and oversight, while police supporters emphasized the importance of personal responsibility — with neither side conceding much ground.
O’Connor, who is white, said the competing narratives set “up both groups for a bitter and fractured relationship and makes relationships harder to achieve.”
The project is spearheaded by Doherty, who founded Better Angels, another group working toward bridging the trust gap between two groups with sometimes have conflicting views: Democrats and Republicans. Since January 2017, the six officers and five activists have been meeting every other week as part of the program.
No topic was considered off-limits, as conversations bounced from the deep distrust of police after past violence to persistent gun violence in minority neighborhoods. Early on, the sessions often devolved into shouting matches, with both sides discussing their perceptions of each other.
“As black men, we’re all products of slavery, so trust me, that came up,” said Adams, who oversees the Police Department’s community outreach efforts. “Trust me, the brothers up here, we know where we came from.”
But over time, he said, there emerged new levels of understanding.
Convincing those outside the room hasn’t always been easy. Several of the activists said they were accused of “snitching” for talking with the police, while some officers said the project drew sneers from some colleagues.
“I think a lot of the backlash comes from that these are tough conversations, not a lot of people want to have these tough conversations,” said O’Connor.
In September, the project launched the “action phase,” with plans for hosting community listening sessions, providing input on police training and partnering with community groups, its organizers said. Among its targets is the housing challenges facing residents in crime-weary neighborhoods.
The initiative is independent of the department, but has Chief Medaria Arradondo’s support, Adams said.
George Warzinik, a longtime North Side police officer and one of the program’s participants, said that he went into the sessions with preconceived notions. But now, he said, he is better able to relate to some of the people he encounters on the job.
“It’s given me a whole different perspective when I’m out on calls,” he said. “A lot of times when you’re working in north Minneapolis, you’re on a call and there are four more waiting for you — It’s turn and burn.”