A coalition has developed a list of suggestions for local police departments that includes hiring more officers of color, collecting data on race, prioritizing school counselors and social workers over resource officers, and forming or enhancing the role of citizen oversight commissions.
The recommendations come after a series of virtual community forums this fall on policing in Mankato, North Mankato and St. Peter.
The forums were organized by the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, ACLU Mankato, NAACP Mankato, B.E.A.M., YWCA Mankato, CADA and Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato.
Representatives of those organizations developed recommendations for the three cities and their police departments based on feedback received during the forums.
Organizers say the series, held in the wake of nationwide protests spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, aimed to develop ideas to improve racial equality and community trust and safety.
The forums and recommendations are drawing a mixed reaction from law enforcement leaders. The St. Peter City Council will discuss the suggestions at a workshop this week.
The fall series focused on policing, but the recommendations include some broader community equity initiatives.
“This work is meant to be positively working towards the kinds of communities and relationships that we all want,” said Yurie Hong, one of the leaders of the project. “It’s about coming together to admit there are ways to improve and that we need to take action on and that everyone should be invested in doing the hard work to ensure everyone in the community is safe and being treated with dignity and fairness.”
The group wants cities to create or expand the authority and transparency of civilian oversight boards. Currently St. Peter has a three-member Police Civil Service Commission that has some authority, limited by state law, on police department personnel decisions. The Mankato Department of Public Safety has an advisory committee that provides input on hiring and policy decisions. North Mankato does not have any such group.
There is a bill in the state Legislature to enhance the authority of citizen police boards, Hong said, and her group is encouraging cities to have citizen boards with the maximum authority allowed. In St. Peter they’d also like the board appointment process, which involves a mayoral recommendation, changed to a more open application process.
Several of the recommendations revolve around race.
The coalition suggests police departments track the race of the people they arrest and pull over and share the data with the public.
“Perceived race is a relevant measure because it is law enforcement’s perception of an individual’s race, not necessarily the individual’s self-identity, that may impact differential treatment for stops and arrests,” the recommendations report states.
“This data would demonstrate whether there was disproportionate policing of Black, Latinx and Indigenous peoples.”
Mankato and North Mankato already are doing this, their top cops say. In Mankato the data is used internally and North Mankato presented its data at a City Council meeting this summer.
The report suggests cities also conduct annual racial climate surveys and hold public forums to present and discuss the survey and race data tracking results.
The group also wants cities to commit to recruiting and hiring more employees of color and more employees from other marginalized groups — and not just within police departments but all city departments.
They also want cities to develop strategic plans for providing training and professional development opportunities for all employees revolving around equity and race issues.
They recommend efforts to enhance school safety focus on preventive and restorative practices. The report suggests districts “begin the process of removing school resource officers and replacing them with more appropriate means to address conflict and its root causes.”
Those alternatives could include more counselors and social workers, recruiting teachers from more diverse backgrounds, and more de-escalation training for staff, the report suggests.
The group also has some suggestions specific to each community.
It presses North Mankato and St. Peter to hold public hearings on policing, centered on the experiences of people of color. Mankato already has held some such forums, the report notes.
In Mankato the group suggests the city ban the use of facial recognition technology and hold public hearings before adding any other new surveillance technology or buying military-style equipment.
Facial recognition technology has racial and gender biases, the report says. And protesters in Mankato felt unease with officers being present in riot gear, said Julio Zelaya, an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.
The recommendation was made specifically for Mankato, Zelaya said, because it is the largest city and most likely to purchase such equipment.
In St. Peter the group also suggests more information be posted on the police department’s website, including the names and contact information of all officers, information on how to submit citizen complaints and annual reports. Mankato and North Mankato already post all or most of those items.
Hong said the coalition members recognize not all of their recommendations may be attainable. But they hope they provide at least a “starting point” for productive conversations with law enforcement and city officials about creating positive change, she said.
Mankato Director of Public Safety Amy Vokal also described the recommendations as “starting blocks.”
She has some questions and sees potential drawbacks to some of the ideas. A citizen oversight commission, for example, is limited by law to three members. The current advisory council has more members from diverse backgrounds who bring a broader perspective to the table, she said.
But Vokal said she is eager to discuss the ideas further, along with some other ideas developing from the forums held by the city and from meetings ongoing with a steering committee formed by the Department of Public Safety with the same objective and sharing many of the same members.
“At the end of the day we all want an equitable system,” Vokal said.
The top cops in North Mankato and St. Peter did not express a willingness to discuss the ideas further.
The organizers of the fall series say city and law enforcement leaders were invited to the forums. But St. Peter Police Chief Matt Peters said he was not invited to participate in the forums and the report contains “generalizations” that he called disappointing.
“It looks to me like it is an effort to undermine all the great work our SPPD officers do every single day to build inroads with underserved people,” Peters wrote in a written response to a Free Press invitation to comment on the recommendations.
Peters said the suggestions were developed by “special interest groups.”
“One of the best ways to enhance the public’s trust is to recognize that the police do not represent public opinion. We represent the public,” he wrote. “There is a wide difference between the two. We must represent not the excited opinion of special interest groups, but the real interest of the public, especially crime victims.”
North Mankato Police Chief Ross Gullickson said his department already is focusing on what he saw as the heart of the recommendations.
“I think the report speaks to some areas that are critical to effective, fair, and inclusive modern-day policing, such as transparency and accountability,” he wrote in a statement to The Free Press. “Speaking on behalf of my agency I am proud of how our officers engage with and interact with the community, and what we do to further our transparency and accountability.”
While North Mankato hasn’t held a forum as suggested, Gullickson said they’ve done other outreach and data sharing, such as participation in the Tapestry Project, coffee with a cop events and release of use-of-force data.
“The police officers and I are here for all, and we have done much outreach and communication with our communities of color,” Gullickson said.
Hong and Zelaya will discuss the recommendations with the St. Peter City Council during a workshop meeting Tuesday.
The group also is reaching out to councils in Mankato and North Mankato. Vokal said she’d welcome a city workshop.
The Mankato Department of Public Safety is working to add a dashboard to its website in coming weeks with a goal of increasing transparency, Vokal said. A number of data reports, budget information, easy opportunities to submit complaints and compliments will be among the items included.
Mankato will hold a virtual form in coming months, Vokal said, to showcase the online dashboard and present other forthcoming transparency and equity initiatives.