Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park — the two most diverse cities in Minnesota — aim to celebrate that diversity and to connect community members with each other and with local police through a pair of upcoming events.
The first is set for this evening, Aug. 26, from 6-8 p.m. in Brooklyn Center. It’s a “Safe Summer Nights” get-together and is an extension of a program that was launched in St. Paul last year. It will feature free burgers and brats, along with a rock climbing wall, kickball and other activities, and will bring together residents, police and firefighters.
Next month, on Sept. 19, Brooklyn Park will hold a Community Diversity Day at the city’s Central Park. Brooklyn Park has held diversity events in the past, but a primary goal of this one is to foster relationships between community members and the police, said Police Department Community Liaison Paula Van Avery.
“It’s really to build friendships and understanding,” said Susan Blood, of the Northwest Hennepin Human Services Council. “Not very often do you have people from four different continents living on the same block.”
The Safe Summer Nights program was the brainchild of St. Paul businessman Tom Campion. In the spring of 2014, he approached the St. Paul Police Department about organizing a community-police cookout and offered to supply volunteers and food.
“I’ve been in the food business all my life,” said Campion. “Food can and will always bring people together.”
Starting in June of 2014, every week in a different St. Paul park, they held a cookout with activities for kids. The program has continued this summer.
“Nothing like that had ever been done in the community before,” said St. Paul police Sgt. Tina Kill, who makes it a point to talk with at least 15 strangers at each event.
Kill feels the spotlight on recent confrontations across the country has increased tension between police and community members.
“There’s distrust,” she said. “What goes on in the national news affects us on the local level.”
The St. Paul events typically have drawn 600 to 800 people, said Campion, but have seen as many as 1,750.
This year, Campion extended the project into nearby communities like Brooklyn Center.
“I think this is just one small conduit that can help,” he said. “I can’t tell you what the upside to this thing is, but I know there’s no downside.”
‘This is totally different’
The Brooklyn Center event will take place at Centennial Park, starting at 6 p.m. and going till 8. Tim Gannon, commander and acting police chief, said that while the department holds regular community meetings in various parks every year, this event will involve the entire city and be less structured and more festive.
“This is totally different,” he said. “When you have food available, it just draws people in. It’s a unifying thing.”
Helping out are community members who make up a multicultural advisory committee and a cultural services unit, which assist local police departments.
Akbar Hardowar, a Guyanese immigrant who lives in Crystal, serves on the Brooklyn Center multicultural advisory committee and said their job is to connect with, listen to and report on the concerns of residents.
“We have to be the listeners, and they’re the talkers,” he said.
Regarding tension between police and community members, he said, “I believe it’s miscommunication most of the time.”
Brooklyn Park event
A multicultural advisory committee is also working with the Brooklyn Park Police Department to put on the Sept. 19 Community Diversity Day.
Christian Vincent, a pastor at Cross of Glory Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Center, serves as a member of the cultural services unit, which provides a liaison between community members and emergency reserve personnel and police. Vincent, of Liberian descent, said he often discusses with Liberian community members things like how to follow emergency procedures for events like tornadoes or blizzards or how to react when a police officer pulls a car over.
Both Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center are home to a large immigrant communities, and according to Blood, people from war-torn countries often arrive with a certain attitude toward police.
“They’re afraid of police,” she said. “Police are not the people who come to help them.”
Van Avery, the police department’s community liaison, said they have noticed strained relationships between police and community members over the last year.
“We absolutely have,” she said.
Van Avery added that immigrants’ fear of being pulled over by police has been exacerbated recently in the wake of media attention on confrontations.
The free Sept. 19 event includes ice cream, face painting, squad and command vehicle tours and traditional Liberian, Somali, Asian and Mexican Aztec music and dance performances. Van Avery said the goal is to foster positive relationships not only between community members and police and between neighbors from different backgrounds.
“We’re hoping that cohesion develops,” she said.
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer. Her e-mail is email@example.com.