Editor's note: This editorial, originally published Saturday evening, has been updated to reflect news developments.
The four-hour occupation of Interstate 94 on Saturday night that left more than 20 officers injured was a frightening illustration of why Minnesota and the nation as a whole must find a different way to deal with race relations, which now are heading down a dangerous path.
Protesters have a constitutional right to peaceful assembly. They do not have a right to block roads. It’s that simple. While the restraint shown by local law enforcement is admirable, protesters crossed a line that should have been enforced with the very first venture onto a freeway or rail line.
Now the unlawful actions must stop, before the next “occupation” ends in tragedy. It must also stop because it is ineffective and threatens to backfire on a movement that is needed as a motivating force for changing the status quo. The death of Philando Castile was a wake-up call for many Minnesotans who only now are realizing how very different day-to-day life is for some in this state.
The Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized public attention. Footage from Saturday’s protest showed a crowd that was young and old, white and black, linked in common purpose.
Is there enough strength of purpose now to turn from hazardous theatrics to the hard work of real change?
There is much we still need to learn about the officer shootings of Castile in Falcon Heights and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. But we already know there is a problem. We need action. And there is a template, if everyone is prepared to channel their grief and frustration into something constructive. The report from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (http://tinyurl.com/p4augo4), issued more than a year ago, lays out a clear formula — not an easy one — for effective policing that makes the community a true partner in public safety.
Many of the recommendations are common-sense, and not all are costly. Some police departments in Minnesota are already moving in the right direction.
First and most important is a change in the culture of policing, from a warrior mind-set to that of guardian. The model for effective law enforcement has come a long way from the old “let’s-catch-bad-guys” stereotype. More than ever, those who carry the power of life and death over us must be highly trained, cool in a crisis, prepared to forge strong bonds with the communities they protect and prepared to de-escalate volatile situations whenever possible. That’s a tall order — and officers need the time and support necessary to make those connections — but it will pay off in defused tensions and stronger relations that will help police and citizens alike.
Second is a fresh and much stronger commitment to policing that involves a true sharing of power and responsibility, making communities partners in creating policies. As Police Chief J. Scott Thompson of Camden County, N.J., testified before the task force: “Community cannot be a program, unit, strategy or tactic. It must be the core principle that lies at the foundation of a department’s culture.” It is, he said, “the only way to significantly reduce fear, crime and disorder.” That includes things as simple as respectful language, because studies show that offensive, harsh words quickly escalate even minor situations. Force must be a last resort, with an emphasis on less-than-lethal options. Public safety should take priority over revenue generation. What does that mean?
Maybe a malfunctioning light gets a warning, not a costly ticket. We already have such a model in transit police, who typically issue first-time warnings to rail riders who fail to buy a ticket. (The St. Anthony Police Department, whose officers stopped Castile, issued 5,400 tickets last year in two communities with a combined population of about 8,000.)
The task force report also calls for greater use of body cameras, and in the Castile shooting, such cameras could have provided needed evidence of how a seemingly routine traffic stop ended in death. Collecting data on use-of-force and officer complaints is another step on the road to greater trust and a way for departments to improve their policing and training.
Of particular note is the recommendation that agencies release, as soon as possible and within 24 hours, the facts surrounding officer-involved shootings. Earlier this week public officials refused to confirm even the reason Castile was stopped or whether there was dashcam video of the incident. Such nondisclosure is intolerable. Officials in Minnesota should commit to swift release of information that does not jeopardize investigations.
The task force, which included police officials, cited the Dallas Police Department for its commitment to best practices. After more training and better data collection, complaints about excessive force plummeted 64 percent in five years. There has been a 30 percent decline in officer assaults and a 40 percent drop in officer-involved shootings. Dallas now has the lowest rate of officer-involved shootings of any large U.S. city. Sadly, the sniper who took five lives in that heartbroken city was angry about the deaths here and in Baton Rouge, La.
Minnesotans have a chance to transform their grief into action that will unify communities and heal the divisions between police and the citizens they are sworn to protect. It will take an enormous, ongoing effort that goes beyond prayer vigils, beyond protests, beyond the same-old meetings that fail to yield results.
There is no more time to waste on symbolic gestures. Do what matters.