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Some Minneapolis observers worry about police

Brandt Williams | 91.3 FM

MINNEAPOLIS — A historic rift between African-Americans and law enforcement helped fuel this week’s angry reaction to the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

The aggressive response of Ferguson police in riot gear to demonstrations led people across the nation to hold vigils and protests against the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown — displays of solidarity that prompted people in other states to consider the relationship between local black communities and police.

In Minneapolis, some civil rights advocates worry that longstanding tensions between police and the African-American could erupt along similar fault lines. Some fear that despite efforts by the police department to improve its relationship with the community, the problem persists.

The undercurrent of mistrust was apparent Thursday, when about 150 people gathered outside the 4th precinct police station in north Minneapolis holding signs to protest Brown’s death. Many chanted “No Justice, No Peace.” Organizers say the demonstration, which started with a moment of silence for Brown and others killed by police officers, was one of about 70 held around the country.

The size and intensity of the protest was nowhere near that of the demonstrations held in Ferguson. But the conditions that exist for many African Americans in Missouri are also present for black Minnesotans, said University of St. Thomas law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds.

“Unless and until we shift the paradigm here in terms of how we do business —in terms of increasing police accountability, in terms of decreasing the levels of poverty, unemployment and housing instability that plagues the Twin Cities of Minnesota — something like Ferguson absolutely could happen here,” Levy-Pounds said.

The chants began after the vigil, when police detained Brittany Robinson, 30, for crossing the street as officers in patrol cars responded to a reported stabbing. After a meeting between protest organizers and members of the police department, police tore up the ticket.

Lt. Mike Friestleben, who explained to protesters why police made the arrest and why they decided charges weren’t warranted, said community members have a right to be angry at times. But Friestleben said the key to improving ties between police and the community ties is a willingness on the part of both to come together and talk.

“We have to work together,” he said. “And sometimes we’re not going to agree in the beginning. But we have to find a common ground.”

Friestleben, who grew up in north Minneapolis, has worked the streets of the north side as an officer for 26 years. He spends a lot of his time meeting with residents and community groups.

Earlier this year, Friestleben and the commander of the 4th Precinct, Mike Kjos met with a group of outreach workers who were angry that one of their members was searched by officers responding to a shots fired call. Kjos arranged for a follow up meeting between the canvassers and some of the officers involved.

However, some activists say such meetings don’t solve the underlying issue. The problem is that police try to maintain the status quo, said civil rights advocate Mel Reeves, who has been involved in many sit down meetings with police officers.

The system, he said, treats poor and minority residents unfairly.

“Things aren’t changing. We’re meeting with them, we’re doing stuff, [but] they go right back to doing what they were doing before,” Reeves said. “Hmm. Common sense tells me that if something keeps happening, over and over again, that maybe you’re doing it on purpose.”

The Minneapolis police force is not as diverse as the city’s population. People of color make up nearly 40 percent of city residents. About 21 percent of police officers are members of racial or ethnic minorities.

Reeves said hiring more officers of color doesn’t solve the problem.

Over the last two decades, dozens of incidents in Minneapolis have sparked widespread anger among African Americans.

In August, 2002, after young boy was wounded by a ricocheting bullet fired by a SWAT team member during a police raid on a house, a riot broke out in a predominantly black neighborhood in north Minneapolis.

But police didn’t fire tear gas to disperse the crowds, said former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, then head of the 4th precinct.

“One of the things we did was reach out to community leaders,” he said.

Dolan said those leaders helped convince rioters who had set fire to a car, vandalized a TV news truck and beat up several journalists, to leave the area. Since then, he said, department leaders have learned other ways to diffuse volatile situations.

In 2003, Stephen Porter, a black man in police custody, alleged that two white officers used the handle of a toilet plunger to conduct a cavity search on his rectum. The allegations caused swift and angry calls from black community leaders for charges against the officers.

Activists who did not trust Minneapolis police to investigate the incident welcomed the decision by city leaders to ask the FBI to investigate. But the FBI investigation exonerated the officers.

As to the unrest in Missouri, Dolan questions the decision by Ferguson police to leave Brown’s body on the street for a few hours.

“We changed our protocol on that,” Dolan said. “Yeah, forensics would want it left there for X amount of time —you have the coroner that doesn’t want it touched. But if you got a scene that’s very volatile like that, and it’s getting bad —get it out of there.”

While Minneapolis officials try to learn from the events in Missouri, they must also pay attention to police-community relations at home that recently were again strained when civil rights advocate Al Flowers claimed officers beat him up in his home.

In an attempt to calm tensions, Mayor Betsy Hodges and Chief Janee Harteau announced a third party investigation, led by Minneapolis attorney Don Lewis.