BEMIDJI -- Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin spoke passionately about his vision for a police advisory committee during a city council meeting on Monday night.
A police advisory committee has been in discussion for a while now with multiple meetings being held on the subject, along with a listening session on Aug. 10.
“The concept of a police advisory committee has been generating with me for some time. I grew consistently more frustrated with, it seemed, every initiative I came up with, someone would have a negative comment, or tell me, you’re talking to the wrong people,” Mastin said Monday. “That point of frustration made me advance this a little more and think about how to expand this.”
Mastin sees the potential group as a committee to create trust, dispel rumors, learn about departments and share information. He suggested hosting community meetings, assisting the department with public relations events, participating in ride alongs and bringing community perspectives as potential duties.
For Mastin, the overarching goal seems to be that the group serves as a liaison between the police department and the community.
“This is what I envision the group could do for our department,” Mastin said. “To reach those people that I’m not talking to, or we’re not reaching, to act as information specialists about our department. To explain things maybe better than our department can, in terms that people can understand.”
This vision is contrary to the vision of some members of the public who attended the Aug. 10 listening session, who spoke of their desire for a police advisory board “with teeth,” meaning, one with the ability to wield discipline or penalties against the department.
Mastin said this is not something the department is open to. He referred back to the June 27 “Rally for Our Rights” in Bemidji, where he received a comment from an individual that said his job would be in peril if he allowed the rally to occur. He said having a committee with teeth could've changed his actions that day, if he feared for the future of his job.
Attendees expressed desire for the proposed committee to be able to review complaints against officers.
According to Mastin, data regarding the complaints filed against Bemidji police officers over the last five years was brought up by an attendee of the Aug. 10 listening session, as proof that officers cannot police themselves.
Mastin negated this.
In the last five years, 12 complaints have been filed against officers, of those, five were found to be substantiated after investigation. Mastin tried to put this into perspective by adding that the BPD responded to 152,000 calls for service during that time.
“We all make mistakes, and officers are no different. Some of those mistakes result in complaints,” he said. “We are all human and we all make mistakes.”
None of the founded complaints involved the use of force, Mastin said.
He gave a brief overview to the council as to how the complaint process and investigation work.
“I’ve heard discussion about a compliant review committee, now don’t twist my words and say that I’m opposed to it,” he said. “The reality is, I’m very much in support of the idea. I would love for people to participate in the process and see the professionalism, patience and compassion shown by our officers.”
He said this might be difficult, however, due to existing laws and policies, adding that only three law enforcement agencies in the state have a complaint review committee.
Mastin also responded to statements made at the Aug. 10 listening session regarding the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people arrested in the area.
He showed graphs displaying the increase of Native Americans in the Beltrami County Jail by 4%, and said this was during a time of “no-proactive policing” due to COVID-19.
“The causation of the jail population is not the result of racist police actions,” Mastin asserted. “There’s something bigger happening here.”
Mastin spoke about social media and its effects on the public, mentioning since he realized the breadth of Facebook’s algorithm, he has not had personal social media accounts.
Mastin highlighted social media posts from community members, including one posted around the four-year anniversary of Jeremy Jourdain’s disappearance, stating that the search for Jourdain had gone on “four years with no real help from the Bemidji Police.”
Mastin negated this fact as well. Since his disappearance, law enforcement has conducted over 200 follow-up investigations in the search for Jourdain.
Mastin displayed a screenshot of the post to the council, but did not show the poster’s name, just identifying her as someone who works with students.
“With that message coming from an adult that children trust, what else are they supposed to believe?” Mastin said. “This is irresponsible, and breeds an untrue fear in children, and perpetuates mistrust that if they go missing, we will do nothing to find them, and that is not true.
“As much as we try to build community, there’s always someone who continues to break it down, and this is a point of frustration with me,” he added, noting that it is the community’s responsibility to help build trust with the department.
“This type of rhetoric needs to stop if we ever want to build trust,” he said.
Some councilors bristled at Mastin's retorts to community members via this platform.
Mixed feelings on the council
Councilors Emilie Rivera and Michael Meehlhause expressed concern with Mastin’s report.
Rivera said the actions Mastin has taken to try to build trust are commendable, but that a portion of the community does not see this.
“I don’t want to minimize people’s trauma,” Rivera said. “They need to be heard.”
“I hope you’re not feeling as defensive as it sounds,” she added. “It wasn’t the intent of the council when discussing the formation of a committee to make you feel like we were calling law enforcement into question.”
Councilor Meehlhause spoke about the need to build trust between the department and marginalized communities in Bemidji.
“There is an air of defensiveness, there is an airing of grievance with social media posts, and I don’t think that builds trust,” Meehlhause said. “I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated with this report, I’m frustrated with what I’ve heard tonight because that’s not how we build trust, how we build trust is we listen to people.”
Councilors Ron Johnson, Nancy Erickson and Josh Peterson expressed support for Mastin’s vision.
“There’s been a lot of damage done to law enforcement this past year, and that’s pretty concerning,” Councilor Johnson said, expressing the desire for appropriate mental health training for law enforcement.
Councilor Erickson said she didn’t believe there is as much anti-police sentiment in Bemidji as one might think.
“I’d like to assure Chief Mastin that there is a great deal of confidence in the police in our community,” she said.
She added that she wanted to leave the formation of the committee up to Mastin, saying, “I would prefer that as a council we turn that duty back over to him.”
Councilor Peterson said he agreed with Erickson.
A committee to form a committee
City Attorney Al Felix cut in. “I hate to be a wet blanket,” he said. “A committee of the city has to be created by the city council. Certainly, the idea that Chief Mastin has brought forward is very important, but the creation of that committee is uniquely yours as a city council.”
It seems there was an air of confusion as to whose responsibility such a committee would be if formed.
“This was my idea, this is my vision, and I would like to continue that,” Mastin said. “I thought this was my initiative to begin with, and that’s what I would like it to continue as.”
He mentioned that he would acquiesce to the council’s decision.
Felix clarified that the council does not have the authority to let Mastin select and oversee the committee alone.
In the end, the police advisory committee was not officially formed Monday, but the council unanimously approved a motion creating a work group that will ultimately lead to the committee at some point.
Also during the meeting the council:
Proclaimed the day after Black Friday as Small Business Saturday.
The council heard a report from Jamie Anderson on the state of the Bemidji Parks and Recreation Department during COVID-19. Anderson reflected on the ups and downs of programming during the COVID-19 era, and spoke about the formation of an E-Sports club.
Approved a resolution to take over roads from Beltrami County -- Birchmont Drive NE, Lake Avenue SE and Balsam Road NW.