Police departments push back on some of activists’ proposed changes

Police in three Southern Minnesota cities are pushing back against some recommendations growing out of a series of community meetings on law enforcement held in the aftermath of protests over the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police last year.

The proposed changes “to improve racial equality and community trust and safety” in Mankato, North Mankato and St. Peter came from a group of activist organizations listed by the Mankato Free Press.

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.

Their proposals include the familiar call for increased civilian policing of the police, as well as banning facial recognition technology and holding hearings before purchasing protective riot gear for law enforcement officers.

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

Some of the proposals are already standard operating procedure in one or more of the police departments, such as collecting data on the race of individuals who interact with authorities.

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.

Vokal said she’s open to additional forums and discussions. But the police chiefs expressed reservations about some proposals, amid questions about a process that St. Peter ‘s chief clearly viewed as counterproductive.

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.”

But the activists’ agenda went beyond public safety, pressing the cities to prioritize race-based issues and attitudes across the board in their policies and policing.

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.

Meantime, North Mankato’s top officer plans to keep on doing what they’ve already been doing.

“The police officers and I are here for all, and we have done much outreach and communication with our communities of color,” [North Mankato Police Chief Ross] Gullickson said.