BEMIDJI -- Residents of Bemidji made their voices heard Monday, sharing ideas about what a proposed police advisory committee should look like, and what its role should be.
During a work session held digitally, the Bemidji City Council listened to about an hour and a half of testimonies from a few dozen residents who either called into the meeting or attended at City Hall. This was in addition to written comments submitted to the council over the last week.
The session had been in the planning stage for a little over a month, with both Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin and the City Council showing interest in a committee to handle law enforcement matters. As this was only a meeting to hear public comment, though, no formal action was taken by the council.
During the meeting, several topics were touched on and many speakers talked about certain things such a committee must accomplish. Many who spoke Monday said a committee would need to be transparent and have the authority to hold law enforcement officers accountable to be effective.
Racial equity was also brought up several times by speakers, with some citing the Beltrami County Jail's high number of Native American inmates. During the period for comment, one speaker said the city should include leadership from local tribes, while another suggested a separate committee focused on racial equity should also be established.
"Tonight is just the beginning of a community discussion that will take some time," said Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht. "It may stretch out for a few months. So, the council will review the comments received tonight and also what comes after tonight and talk about what our next steps will be."
Attached to Monday's agenda were documents with research conducted by City Attorney Alan Felix. According to documents, state law mandates that a civilian review board does not have the authority to make a finding of fact or determination regarding a complaint against an officer, or to impose discipline on an officer. Instead, state statute allows a board to make a recommendation regarding the merits of a complaint, though the recommendation is advisory and non-binding.
"With the volume of information we've received today, both in written form and testimonies we heard this evening, I'd like to spend some time to assemble all of it and provide it to the council in a summary fashion," City Manager Nate Mathews said. "Also, with the council's help, research statutory allowances."
Monday's meeting comes after a summer where law enforcement has been under scrutiny both at the local and state level. In late May, following the death of George Floyd, several protests took place in Bemidji, as well as across the state and country.
Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 when then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd's neck during an arrest. Chauvin has since been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Days later, during the weekend of May 29-31, hundreds marched to the Bemidji Law Enforcement Center and an evening curfew was enacted on two nights in Bemidji after law enforcement agencies found what they called a series of specific, credible threats. In the days that followed, several rumors arose about the involvement of civilians in the law enforcement operations during that weekend.
The situation was investigated by the Brainerd Police Department and the case of civilians breaking the curfew was reviewed by the Crow Wing County Attorney's Office. According to the review, a mutual aid request was sent out to surrounding agencies. Agency officers responded and met at a Bemidji Fire Station.
Meeting at the same station were some concerned citizens who offered to help. The review states that Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel directed those individuals to watch for buses of anticipated protesters coming to Bemidji, and that those individuals were only to call authorities if this occurred. The review also found that at no point were citizens recruited to actively patrol the streets.
Following the review, the Crow Wing County Attorney's Office declined to prosecute.