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What must be done in Minneapolis for true public safety

In the months ahead, let’s see the international spotlight shine on a city with the resourcefulness and goodness to rise from a tragedy stronger than ever and to take responsibility that it will never happen again.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson introducing Derek Chauvin to potential jurors during jury selection.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson introducing Derek Chauvin to potential jurors during jury selection.
REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

For much of the past year, it feels like an international spotlight has been focused on some of the worst moments in the history of Minneapolis. Left in the shadows is the beauty of our city, with its good citizens, innovative companies, music, arts and sports. Our great failing has been lack of racial justice and shameful disparities in health care, education, and criminal justice. The reckoning had to come.

The upcoming decisions about policing in Minneapolis give us a chance once again to show that we are a creative and healthy city, one that learns from our mistakes. Police reform has been perplexing and adversarial, but we can take the best ideas and come together behind the right solution. Three events arising from the death of George Floyd are showing us what must be done by any program for true public safety.

First, with the livestreaming of the Derek Chauvin trial, we are seeing in excruciating detail the flaws in the current policing model. But Chauvin’s own conduct is hardly a fair sampling of standard policing. What is more illustrative is what happened before he arrived on the scene. Responding to a report of nonviolent minor crime— passing a counterfeit $20 bill — within seconds of approaching George Floyd, Officer Thomas Lane was cursing and had his gun pointed at Floyd’s face, and Floyd is begging not to be shot.

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Not an aberration

Lane’s handling of the matter was not an aberration. Trial evidence from Floyd’s May 2019 arrest will show the same pattern: another nonviolent offense — a missing license plate — another officer approaching Floyd in a car, and sure enough, within seconds a gun is pointed at Floyd. This time Floyd didn’t die, but he did wind up at a hospital with a blood pressure of 216/160.

So we see why the one-size-fits-all model of militaristic policing has to change. It breeds a we/they mentality. The officers are afraid. The citizen is panicked. The police are armed and have been taught to maintain absolute control at all times. So as soon as Floyd gets emotional and delays showing his hands, out comes a gun.

Pulling a gun on a man prone to anxiety with a drug problem and a bad heart is unlikely to have a good outcome.

Nor can the racial element be minimized. I suspect that if I passed a bad $20 bill in the Lund’s in Edina, an officer would call me “Sir” and politely ask where I got it from.

On the other hand, a lesson on the importance of authority is coming from the George Floyd autonomous zone at 38th & Chicago. The reports from there are not just troubling, they are terrifying: 700 shots fired in 2020 compared to 33 in 2019, with houses, cars and 18 people hit, brazen intimidation, harassment of delivery drivers.

That unique site may not be a fair example. But residents of the Jordan neighborhood feel so underpoliced that they have filed a lawsuit. And more insight about what happens without adequate policing comes from the problems in the homeless encampments over the last year and the looting last summer of targets of opportunity like liquor stores and pharmacies.

The maturing of restorative justice

The third development is the maturing of restorative justice as a public safety strategy. Restorative justice processes have been successfully employed for many years across the country in victim-offender dialogues and sentencing circles in nonviolent and juvenile cases. Now the same techniques of healing relationships and addressing trauma are being used to build peace in communities and prevent violence in the first place.

People suffering from the pain and anger triggered by the Chauvin trial can now tap into a citywide web of restorative processing spaces, community healing circles, education sessions, and virtual prayer tents.

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Moreover, Minneapolis is linking up with sophisticated international initiatives to build peace from the ground up. For example, we will be seeing more bright colors on the street because the Nonviolent Peaceforce recently trained more than 80 local volunteers in unarmed civilian protection techniques. These folks are experts — NVPF’s four other training sites are in Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, and the Philippines.

Bruce Peterson
Bruce Peterson
Minneapolis is the home of the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute, whose internationally respected STAR training prevents violence by helping trauma victims break free of revenge and reconnect with others.

The point is that we can draw on a wide range of resources besides police officers to keep us safe.

Hard choices are coming. The city is evenly split between keeping the current police department and changing the city charter to replace the existing department with a new structure with a public health emphasis. Three reform proposals are moving ahead toward the November ballot. In the meantime, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo continues to reform the department from within, and the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention is expanding and innovating.

Three basic principles

The details of these alternatives are important and should be carefully considered. But whether change comes from within or outside the police department, or a bit of both, a reform program deserves our support if it is firmly committed to three basic principles.

First, peaceful and safe streets and neighborhoods, combined with the actual feeling of security by all citizens. Sometimes this will require armed force and coercion. One sobering consideration: Psychologists estimate that 1% to 3% of men have psychopathic personalities, meaning they totally lack a moral compass.

Second and non-negotiable: no more we/they, but us — respectful treatment of people of all races in all situations. The deep cultural changes in the current policing model that this would require might seem out of reach. But the heartbreaking videos of police officers valiantly defending the U.S. Capitol helped us all better understand the fear and danger inherent in policing. Maybe change can come from starting to talk less about demonizing the police and more about healing the police.

Third, deployment of armed officers only when essential. Otherwise, targeted use of community-based peacemakers with training in restorative justice and other specialties like mental health, substance abuse, social work, and follow-up criminal investigations.

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We have had a terrible time, but the future starts now. In the months ahead, let’s see that international spotlight shine on a city with the resourcefulness and goodness to rise from a tragedy stronger than ever and to take responsibility that it will never happen again.

Bruce Peterson is a senior district judge; he teaches a class on Lawyers as Peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School.