Mankato residents can be confident that the Mankato Department of Public Safety has been making progress on the kind of community policing that can prevent the tragedies like the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. But future success will depend on how that department and city leaders react to the volatile and violent times ahead.
A report to the City Council last week by public safety leaders showed the city has already put in place many, if not all, of the mandates of the police reform bill recently passed by the Legislature. The department does not use chokeholds and never taught neck restraint techniques. It doesn’t allow so-called “warrior training.” It has in place systems that require officers to intervene when colleagues use excessive force. All officers live within 15 minutes of Mankato. All of these policies are laudable.
The community can feel hopeful for race relations knowing that Mankato public safety has been working for several years on neighborhood relations and connections with community groups like the Greater Mankato Diversity Council and the Tapestry refugee project. Officers are assigned to geographic neighborhoods to not only get to know residents, but hear and understand their problems even if those problems are not related to public safety.
But while public safety leaders told the City Council they were doing many of the right things, they said they could improve. And that is a continual conversation among staff. We agree.
Since the Floyd incident, which Public Safety Director Amy Vokal correctly called “murder,” the department has put together a group of 12 diverse community members and will begin a series of listening sessions to take feedback on how it can reform and restructure its operations.
Still, as Vokal pointed out, the key to successful community policing and a department that is truly about public safety falls on the character of the officers. She noted that no amount of training could have stopped Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin from killing Floyd. To that end, Mankato conducts six hours of psychological exams for its recruits before they are hired. It requires two weeks' worth of background checks.
But is that enough? That’s a question the community must weigh in on. The city is currently investigating a photo of a Mankato police officer at one point in time appears to be kneeling on the suspect’s neck. The community is waiting on that report.
Moving forward, the department plans a number of initiatives for improving its community policing, but we believe collecting racial data on arrests and compiling complaints on officers should be a priority. Police leaders say a new website should be up in a few months that will detail the racial data and a new system will be created to make it easy for community members to file complaints against officers.
Right now, accountability for officer misconduct seems to be the missing piece to Mankato community policing program. We believe police misconduct data should be released to the public as soon as it is available, even before it can be adjudicated. Minnesota laws, unfortunately, contain loopholes for bad actors to resign instead of be fired and therefore avoid public scrutiny. And governments take advantage of those laws to avoid embarrassment.
The city of Mankato has built a good base for community policing. It now needs to take serious steps to create a culture of public service and, more importantly, accountability.