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Only structural changes will significantly lessen community distrust of police

In the wake of the Ferguson protests, the Black Lives Matter movement has become an increasingly significant political force in the United States. In cities across the country, hundreds of thousands of people have followed the leadership of young black activists and organizers and joined them in the streets demanding racial justice and an end to police abuse.

Nationally, police organizations’ responses to the movement for black lives have been disgraceful. In a tone-deaf response to the claim that Black Lives Matter, police have responded with the Blue Lives Matter campaign. This move positions the interests of the black community as necessarily antagonistic to the interests of the police. It assumes that black people and cops are part of a zero-sum conflict. To affirm that black lives matter is, on their logic, to assert that police lives don’t matter. You’re either with Black Lives Matter, or with the cops, but you can’t be both.

Furthermore, police organizations and some (mostly right-wing) media outlets have interpreted demands for police accountability, civilian review of police misconduct, and an end of state-sanctioned police violence against communities of color as a “war on cops.” The rhetoric of the “war on cops” depends on ignoring overwhelming evidence that physical attacks on police are less likely today than they have been in decades. There has never been a safer time to be a police officer than right now.

Requirements of democracy

It also depends upon a fundamental misunderstanding of how democracy works. In a democratic society, all government officials are supposed to be accountable to the public they serve. Transparency is necessary to protect the public interest and enable civilian review of policies and practices. When police organizations claim that demands for accountability and transparency amount to a “war on cops,” they reveal a profound lack of respect for democratic principles and the constitutionally guaranteed rights of all citizens.

Here in the Twin Cities, the police response to the Black Lives Matter movement has been deeply unsettling. The actions of two officers in specific, Lt. Robert Kroll and Sgt. Jeff Rothecker, demonstrate a moral crisis in police leadership in the area. Both Kroll and Rothecker serve in police leadership positions. Kroll is the head of the police union for the Minneapolis police force. Until his misconduct was exposed, Rothecker served as the vice president of the Minnesota Fraternal Order of Police. However, it is important to note that both men are in leadership positions because of their support among the rank-and-file. They are not outliers — they are quite literally representatives of the broader body of police.

Between the two of them, they have advocated for denying constitutional rights of protesters and attempted to incite violence against community members they have sworn to protect and serve. Kroll has claimed that activists must be “silenced,” demonstrating his willingness to set aside their constitutional rights to speech and assembly. He has characterized police critics as “thugs.” Rothecker went so far as to call for violence against protesters by instructing people on how to run over marchers with their cars and use our flawed criminal justice system to get away with it. There is evidence that he repeatedly did so over a period of months. This is not an isolated incident, but instead a pattern of behavior in which someone sworn to uphold the law has advocated breaking the law to do violence against peaceful protesters engaging in constitutionally protected action.

I see Kroll and Rothecker as examples of the illegitimate power and immoral leadership that for many people has come to define police power in the United States. One question that we might ask about Kroll and Rothecker is whether they are just two “bad apples” or if their actions are predictable results of policy choices and structural features of the police forces in the Twin Cities.

Feelings of community

Research in political science can help us to answer this question. Cara J. Wong, associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois, has published work that demonstrates the significance of feelings of community for moral and political decision-making. In her groundbreaking book, Wong explains that all people see themselves as members of various communities. These feelings of community membership are subjective, meaning they depend upon how people think about themselves and whom they feel close to for various reasons.

Some people define community geographically, experiencing feelings of group closeness with other people in their neighborhood or city. Others may experience group closeness based on shared interests or characteristics. Everyone identifies as a member of some community; however our choices about which communities we feel a part of are idiosyncratic.

These feelings of community membership are profoundly important for moral and political decision-making. As Wong notes, there is a “light side” and “dark side” of community membership. The light side of community is that when we feel close to a particular community, we are more likely to care about outcomes for that community. As a result, we’re willing to engage in time consuming political action to serve that community. Even more, we’re willing to sacrifice for those communities we feel close to, often through taxing and redistributing.

The dark side: how outsiders are treated

Yet feelings of community membership and group closeness also have a dark side. Communities have boundaries. There are members of the community who are inside the boundaries. Non-members are positioned outside of the boundaries. The dark side of community is that outsiders or non-community members are often treated as morally irrelevant in decision-making. Non-community members, then, suffer from moral exclusion: They “are perceived as outside of the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply.”

There can be little question as to whether Kroll and Rothecker see Black Lives Matter protesters as part of their own communities. In fact, in his public comments Kroll has gone so far as to argue that Black Lives Matter organizers and protesters are not a legitimate part of any Minneapolis community. According to Kroll, protesters’ status as “activists” makes their community membership null and void. 

However, Wong’s research indicates that the boundary Kroll wants to draw between “activists” and the community is both deeply flawed and severely misplaced. It is precisely those people who feel deep ties to their community that are willing to sacrifice their time, energy, resources, and personal safety to work on issues of community concern. Activism is not and should not be understood as antithetical to community. Instead, activism is the deepest expression of community feeling. 

It should not be surprising that Kroll and Rothecker are willing to treat Black Lives Matter protesters as if they are morally irrelevant (as evidenced by their willingness to disregard the personal safety and constitutional rights of protesters). In part, policy choices and institutional structures have led to this situation. Three factors that are especially significant for understanding the breakdown in community and police relations are the repeal of the residency requirement for police officers, the unrepresentative racial demographics of the police, and lack of any meaningful accountability system in place for dealing with police.

Perceived as occupying force

Without residency requirements, cops are unlikely to see themselves as members of the communities they police. Their feelings of community will extend to the neighborhoods and suburbs they live in, rather than those parts of the city that they patrol. Police officers who are not members of the communities they police are likely to be perceived as an occupying force. As a result, members of the community are not likely to feel they can trust the police, because the police are outsiders, members of some other community.

This breakdown in community-police relations is exacerbated by the fact that the police force is significantly whiter than the population its officers have sworn to serve and protect. So, not only are police unlikely to view residents of their precincts as members of their own communities, they are also unlikely to do so based on demographic characteristics. A mostly white, almost entirely suburban police force patrolling urban communities of color is inherently problematic. It fosters the kinds of conditions that are likely to lead to community distrust of the police and a police force willing to disregard the rights and interests of citizens. 

These problems of geography and demographics are compounded by the lack of any meaningful community oversight of the police. Although the Minneapolis Police Department was subject to 439 complaints of police misconduct, not one of these complaints resulted in disciplinary action for any officer. Police who do not view the populations they serve as members of their community are unlikely to be internally motivated to treat those they police fairly. Without accountability structures in place that punish officers for misconduct, they are unlikely to be externally motivated either.

The need for structural changes

The recent responses of Kroll and Rothecker to Black Lives Matter protesters are deplorable and unacceptable for any public official. However, it’s important that we don’t ignore the larger structural issues that create a policing culture that makes this kind of behavior likely. Without structural changes such as reinstating the residency requirement, developing a culturally competent police force that more accurately reflects the demographics of the population they serve, and adopting meaningful accountability structures for police misconduct, it is likely that the attitudes exemplified by Kroll and Rothecker will be pervasive throughout the police force.

Policing practices and police culture in the Twin Cities need to change. Without serious structural changes in the way policing is done, we can expect more distrust, more conflict, and more abuse. The Minneapolis City Council, St. Paul City Council, and the Minnesota State Legislature must take up these issues. The quality of our democratic community depends on it.

Kathleen Cole, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Science at
Metropolitan State University. Her views do not necessarily represent the views of her employer. 


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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Pat McGee on 01/27/2016 - 08:59 am.

    Residency requirements and community-data please

    Bascially, prove that you can’t be part of a community without living in it. This assertion comes just after discussing how research shows community can be defined in many different ways. If you are defining it by geography (which a residency requirement does) are you further going to require that an officer really live in the community to which assigned? The lakes districts of Minneapolis are very different communities than the North side. Would you have an officer move every time their job assignment changes. In Minneapolis they change frequently! There’s a reason they say that you are only 10 days away from your next assignment.

    Community ties can be created and fostered in so many different ways than where your bed is.

    And how would you handle the norm, which is dual career couples?

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/27/2016 - 09:51 am.

    Police residency requirements

    When I grew up in St. Paul, there was a residency requirements for all city employees, including police officers. Having Officer Skalley’s squad car parked out front a few doors down from us made everyone feel a little safer, I’m sure.

    But then as suburbs like Woodbury and Eagan grew and newer, nicer schools were being built outside of town, more and more city employees wanted to move out of the city limits but were told they couldn’t do so.

    Eventually, one of the employees took it to court and won. The MN supreme court ruled that requiring employees to live in a specific locale was unconstitutional. A local legislator who also happened to be a cop, made it official by getting a state law passed to that effect.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/27/2016 - 12:21 pm.

      Well, No

      You’re only partially correct. The Minnesota Supreme Court has never held that residency requirements for police officers was unconstitutional. In fact, courts across the country have tended to uphold residency requirement laws.

      Minneapolis did have a residency requirement for police officers in the 1990s. It is my recollection that the Legislature allowed the law as a quid pro quo for the City foregoing a legal challenge to freeway expansion. “A local legislator who also happened to be a cop,” and who is now Hennepin County Sheriff, sponsored a bill to prohibit this requirement, and Governor Ventura signed the law in 1999.

      Apparently, local control over the institutions of government is not an idea we want to let get out of hand.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/27/2016 - 10:01 am.

    There is irony in placing this paragraph….

    ….However, Wong’s research indicates that the boundary Kroll wants to draw between “activists” and the community is both deeply flawed and severely misplaced. It is precisely those people who feel deep ties to their community that are willing to sacrifice their time, energy, resources, and personal safety to work on issues of community concern. Activism is not and should not be understood as antithetical to community. Instead, activism is the deepest expression of community feeling….

    …immediately in front of a couple of paragraphs saying that the police are not from the neighborhood they are serving. Time, energy, resources and safety, all to work on community resource.

    Minnpost just published a “shots fired” map of Minneapolis. It’s a very good proxy for a state of society that is dangerous to its residents (and the people who attempt to enforce the laws).

    It ain’t Mayberry and the criminals who cause disruption in these areas aren’t pie thieves.

    Maybe a single officer might live there, but in the present state would you have your spouse and children live in the area where violent revenge is sought many times a week?

  4. Submitted by Michael Hess on 01/27/2016 - 11:10 am.

    Glossing over facts

    The article goes to great lengths to detail examples of bad behavior and hostility from the police to the BLM organization and community. And while the author states there is a false dichotomy in supporting BLM and supporting police, she ignores the well publicized BLM protests which included very direct hostility toward police, encouraging harm (or self harm), the accusations that have been made (and not substantiated) that the police are behind some of the violence directed at protesters, and the lack of a BLM leadership disavowal of this behavior.

    When the comments of Rothecker came to light the police and politicians were quick to condemn them, as they should, and I would expect more discipline. However when you see a BLM protester verbally berating a Minneapolis officer of color, telling him to kill himself, or protesters chanting the now infamous “pigs in a blanket, fry em like bacon” and the leaders of that BLM march absolutely refuse to criticize or condemn those words, you see how the perception can grow that to be pro BLM equates to anti police. if you haven’t seen the video from the 4th precinct of the woman who was berating an African-american officer it’s easy to find online

    The article implies that a police force that was more diverse and based in the community would be better recieved yet here we have an example of such an officer being viciously denigrated, and no one from BLM leadership stepping up to say “that’s not Ok”.

  5. Submitted by Michelle Gross on 01/27/2016 - 01:36 pm.

    Another Perspective

    Thank you for an interesting article with a unique framing of the issue. As an activist on this issue for about 25 years, I have a somewhat different framing.

    As the article correctly points out, this isn’t about a couple of “bad apples” who just need to be removed. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be removed–they are barriers to culture change. And, by the way, there aren’t just a few “bad apples”–at least 150 MPD cops (out of 850) have 5 or more complaints from community members. Proportions are similar with the St. Paul PD. Ultimately, though, it is not really about bad cops but a bad system that encourages bad behavior through a lack of accountability.

    As an illustration, the author cites a piece in the Star Tribune from August 2013 about 439 complaints to the Office of Police Conduct Review with no discipline. We are now, over two years later, at about 1100 complaints from community members without a single one of those complaints being disciplined (two complaints were disciplined but both were from other police officers). This is not a mistake–it is a deliberate effort to discredit community concerns and enforce a culture of impunity.

    The author proposes a residency requirement as one solution. This is often raised by the community with the idea that “you don’t make a mess where you nest.” However, the residency requirement was overturned in 1999 by the state legislature after pressure from powerful political forces and it is highly unlikely that this will change. Even if some of the current bills in the legislature had a shot at passing, no studies have shown that a residency requirement actually improves policing.

    The author’s other proposals–“developing a culturally competent police force that more accurately reflects the demographics of the population they serve, and adopting meaningful accountability structures for police misconduct”–present more realistic ways of addressing the problem. Sadly, cities will not voluntarily adopt mechanisms that actually increase accountability because these mechanisms are also seen as increasing liability and are politically unpopular with the police unions politicians rely on for endorsements.

    Instead, we’re proposing that police officers be required to carry professional liability insurance as a condition of employment. Cities could pay the base rate for such coverage but any additional premiums from claims experience would come from the officer. This would relieve tax payers of a significant burden–about $3000 per year for every Minneapolis police officer is spent on judgments and settlements in police misconduct cases–while providing a financial incentive for officers not to engage in misconduct that would drive up their premiums. Much as bad drivers find their rates going up with each accident, problem officers would have a personal consequence for bad conduct and some repeat offenders could become uninsurable and off the force. This measure will be on the ballot in Minneapolis in November 2016.

    The bottom line is this: the real issue is police abuse of authority, the oppression that underpins it, and the lack of accountability that encourages it. All proposals for effective change must take into account these root causes and must be based in evidence and an understanding of the political forces at play.

  6. Submitted by Alan Muller on 01/27/2016 - 01:47 pm.

    Cole makes many good points

    In Red Wing the police brought forth a resolution that police are promoting nationally, a “hate crime” label for attacks on cops. It is sobering to realize how isolated and inwardly focused is much of police culture. How many cops feel they are under attack even though the stats show otherwise.

    Anybody who has been an activist, a participant in demonstrations against wars or pollution or whatever, knows that police hostility isn’t limited to racial or cultural minorities. Any mainfestation of dissent or deviance is likely to be met with hostility, often with repression, and all too often with criminal violence.

    Cops work for the powers-that-be, by definition, and ultimately those powers have to be held responsible for what their enforcers do. From what I’ve read, the Minneapolis police were out of control when Hubert Humphrey became mayor in 1945, and most of the time since. obviously the problem is systemic and blaming individual cops, not matter how repellent their behavior, will not fix the problem.

  7. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/27/2016 - 01:53 pm.

    It’s not always racism

    Yes, we, as a society, still have a long way to go to get rid of racism (and it goes both ways). But this article is barking up the wrong tree, in my opinion. What’s happening in North Minneapolis isn’t just about police thugs scaring the residents (for sure, there are police thugs in NoMi and elsewhere). It’s also about non-police thugs scaring the residents. It’s not just about cops killing unarmed kids. It’s about residents killing unarmed kids. At what point does the community not just demand that the cops respect them, but that the community respects itself?

    I’m afraid that I can’t get over the fact that what has ignited the recent protests is the shooting of someone who approached medics and cops tending to his victim. Did he have to die? No. But I’m not sure that anyone knows whether or not the shooting was justified. I’ve seen, firsthand, physical abuse–a person who perpetrates violence on someone weaker than themselves is not a “safe” person. At least 34 people died last year as a result of domestic violence, and around 1000 were treated at hospitals. Protecting themselves or another from imminent threat of great bodily harm and/or death is a justification for deadly force.

  8. Submitted by Pamela Braun on 02/10/2016 - 09:22 am.

    Community: Rights, Responsiblity and Respect

    Police officers may be safer than ever before as the article states. The article did not mention that dedicated police forces across the nation have worked hard and have been vigilant in their effort to make our communities safer for all. Many police officers are decent, caring individuals who risk their lives every day to help protect innocent people from criminals and to protect criminals from themselves.

    Police officers should have the right to live where they choose. In modern times, the world is seen by many as a whole community. I’d say that small minded and criminal types tend to see their communities as territory where those on the “inside” are enemies to those on the “outside.” Every day at any time police officers are targets of those who have no understanding of what community is.

    Some police officers are mean spirited and bad at their jobs. If these officers are not disciplined appropriately or able to educate themselves to get up to a healthy standard, they should have to turn in their badges before their actions cause disastrous results. Activists could work together with authorities to legally and safely hold a gathering on a bridge to mourn the loss of black lives to police brutality. This could be a yearly vigil – that would be a good example of community.

    Police officers take the brunt of psychic abuse from those whose only desire is to enslave good people body and soul – to feed off the pain of others. If a legitimate police force had existed in the South before the enslavement of African captives and their descendants became a way of life, those slavers would have been imprisoned for these crimes against humanity. Instead so many heroic individuals fought in the Civil War and lost their lives to free the slaves. Black lives – don’t let those slavers win in your hearts and minds.

    No one has the right to attempt to drive someone to suicide, to threaten to cook someone or to forcibly shut down highways and bridges which is apparently what Black Lives Matters is into. These are terrorist activities. Those actions don’t tell me that this organization cares about black lives. It’s more like this organization is using a cause as an excuse to act out in the community in a way that says they do not care about anyone.

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