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A plea for change - Charge of obstructing justice dismissed for Bemidji pastor

BEMIDJI — The Rev. Bob Kelly’s appearance in Beltrami County District Court onTuesday was more than a routine function of the criminal justice system for the pastor of Peoples Church. For Kelly, it was an opportunity to address the community’s views toward and handling of poverty in Bemidji.

Kelly was arrested Nov. 29 after arguing with officers with the Bemidji Police Department. The officers entered Kelly’s church to arrest a woman who evaded police after testing positive for methamphetamine in a probation-related drug screening.

Kelly waived his right to trial Tuesday in Beltrami District Judge John Melbye’s courtroom, where he was represented by his attorney, Blair Nelson, of Bemidji, and saw the single count of obstructing the legal process effectively dismissed.

Melbye and Assistant County Attorney Randall Burg had their condition for dismissal — that Kelly remain law abiding for one year — and Kelly had his: If at any point in the next 365 days Kelly is unhappy with police actions regarding his church and the people who attend services or live there, the pastor can demand a trial and take his chances with judge or jury. Melbye and Burg agreed to allow Kelly’s stipulation.

“People aren’t comfortable with poverty, race and mental illness,” Kelly said following his appearance in court. “What I would like to see at my church is it to be respected as a place that people who are suffering, who are mentally ill, who are addicted, or who might be ignorant, can come.”

Kelly said the woman who was arrested that day wasn’t a violent felon, and didn’t warrant the police response her presence at the church prompted. Melbye said it would be problematic for police to begin ranking felons who flee from police by the nature of their crimes.

“Police have a very tough job,” he said. “Sometimes we need to have a cookie cutter response when it comes to arresting felons.”

In court, Melbye and Burg stressed the need for Kelly to work with Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin in regard to the population the church serves, which includes some people with active criminal cases. Mastin has been meeting with Kelly regularly to discuss issues related to the church, both since his appointment as chief of police more than a year ago, and during his time on the force prior to that. Both sides agreed that the church is responsible for a significant number of calls to police.

Melbye also acknowledged that police, the church, and Bemidji’s homeless and poverty-stricken populations must work together.

“We all have to come to the table,” he said.

For his part, Kelly maintained that the actions of police that day were overzealous.

“The person they were after that day was an addict,” he said. “I know what police did was legal, but was it a good idea? I don’t think this full court press was necessary.”

Mastin said his officers relied on their training that day, arresting a woman who, when she saw police, walked through the church in an attempt to avoid arrest.

“In this case, the suspect was a fleeing felon. It’s based on training. This is how we pursue people. You never know who has a gun or where they’re going or what they’re going to do,” Mastin said. “Why this came to what it did, I don’t know. But I hope it doesn’t happen again, and we’re going to continue to work on trying to improve our relations and help (the Peoples Church) with their mission of helping the poor in this community.”

The big picture

In Kelly’s mind, the case represents larger issues of poverty, race, addiction and how the community handles homeless people who use drugs or alcohol, or who are in trouble with the law. The Peoples Church is the only refuge for homeless addicts in Bemidji, Kelly said, adding that the community should pay more attention not only to who criminals are, but why they commit crimes.

“People should put the (Beltrami County Jail) custody website in their favorites bar and see who’s in there and why they’re in there,” he said. “People are obsessed with their grandchildren but don’t even know who their neighbors are. You can’t ignore someone once you know them.”

Kelly and Audrey Thayer, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the divide between rich and poor in Beltrami County is growing.

“All people who are poor have more in common with each other, even though they’re different races, than people who are wealthy,” Kelly said, invoking the political activism of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition. “We have people with a lot of resources and they live right next to the people with almost nothing. Let’s get to know each other. I want better for the little people who don’t have what I have.”

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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