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The professors and the police: How a Minneapolis project may change the way cops everywhere relate to the public

The three-year, $4.75 million project will see academic theories about police and community relations turn into practice. 

MinnPost illustration by Hugh Bennewitz

Call it Minneapolis in the petri dish.

Over the next three years, the city will be one of six in the country that will test whether social science research that’s more at home in academia than city hall can help improve troubled relationships between police and residents.

“There has never been a more formative time where our country has looked at this issue of police and community trust,” Mark Kappelhoff, a deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, told the Minneapolis City Council earlier this summer. 

What Kappelhoff was describing is the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a three-year, $4.75 million project with a massive mission: to use data collection, social psychology and best practices to repair and strengthen the frayed relationship between cops and communities. 

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The national initiative, which grew out of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper campaign, took on greater urgency in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer last August. 

“We thought, ‘Why don’t we do something proactively rather than waiting for something bad to happen in Ferguson or Baltimore or some other place,’ ” says Kappelhoff, a Minneapolis native who spent 15 years in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division before taking a teaching post at the University of Minnesota law school in 2012.

A year ago, he took a leave from the U to return to the DOJ to take part in the federal investigations into the Ferguson and the Baltimore police departments, and to work to implement many of the programs pushed by the Obama administration. “We have evidence-based practices that work around the country,” he said. “Why don’t we collect those practices and disseminate them broadly throughout the country?”

Addressing three aspects of community-police relations — implicit bias, procedural justice and racial reconciliation — the new initiative is being led not by cops or politicians but by academics from UCLA, Yale Law School and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (as well as several institutes, ranging from UCLA’s Center for Policing Equity to the National Network for Safe Communities). 

In essence, the program is where academic theory about police and community relations will turn into practice. And Minneapolis is about to become its laboratory. 

A lack of data

“In other public sectors — education and health care — we collect a lot of data,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, an assistant professor at UCLA. “But we do not have the same evidence base when it comes to policing in America. We just don’t collect the numbers.”

Phillip Atiba Goff
Phillip Atiba Goff

The new initiative will seek to address part of that problem by surveying police officers and community members, conducting training and holding public meetings. Goff said every cop will answer questions about how they feel about the community and their jobs. Some will take a longer survey and have their responses matched up against performance data, information such as how many stops and arrests they make, or how often they use force.

That data could help identify attitudes that predict certain behaviors and help the city head them off, Goff said.

There will also be a community survey to measure attitudes of residents about the city, city government and the police. The training will include: “How to engage in procedurally just policing, policing that is less vulnerable to implicit bias and to engage in racial reconciliation.”

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Defining the issue

But first the team members have to explain what the three terms even mean.

Procedural justice, Goff said, describes the process by which police and courts enforce the laws. “Compliance with the law begins with trust in the law, not fear of the law,” he told the council. “A neighborhood where people are afraid to call the police is a great neighborhood for criminals to reside in.”

The initiative briefing material describe it this way: “people welcome being treated as equals with a stake in keeping their communities safe, as opposed to being treated as subjects of a capricious justice system enforced by police who punish them for ambiguous, if not arbitrary, reasons.”

Procedural justice, therefore, works to make the system more transparent and more fair. “We’ll take a look at how we do business to make sure it is equitable,” said Mayor Betsy Hodges, who, along with Police Chief Janeé Harteau wrote letters to the federal government asking that Minneapolis be part of the national initiative. 

Said Kappelhoff: “What studies have shown is that when someone gets pulled over by police and gets a speeding ticket, it oftentimes isn’t whether they received a ticket, it’s how the police officer engaged with the person and whether they feel they’ve been treated fairly, respectfully and whether they had their say in the process.” When that doesn’t happen, “that’s when the relationship breaks down between the community and the police department.”

The initiative will conduct training of all members of the police department on how to apply principles of procedural justice to their contacts with residents. And it doesn’t want to lose sight of actual crime and actual victims. Its work plan includes outreach to subgroups, including crime victims and domestic violence victims, high-risk youth and the LGBT community.

The initiative’s project director, Tracie Keesee, a 25-year veteran of the Denver Police Department who holds advanced degrees in criminal justice and intercultural communications, told the council that it is also important to respond to concentrated areas of crime such as North Minneapolis. “How do you focus on the 10 percent who are creating the unrest? How do you hold them accountable under the law but also how does the community hold them accountable?” 

‘Racism without racists’

Implicit bias seems to be the hardest concept to explain. Goff and others have done research into “the automatic association people make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups.” One example: the assumption that black people are talented at sports.

“If I know there is an association between black people and being good at basketball, that doesn’t make me a racist; it means I am paying attention to the stereotypes of the culture,” said Goff, who described himself as being “black my whole life” but whose basketball skills are suspect thanks to his size and shape: short and round. If someone was picking people for their pickup basketball team, he joked, they would be better off overriding their implicit biases and picking the taller Kappelhoff over him. 

People, including police officers, might not be overtly racist, but they can use implicit bias about people and groups as shortcuts to decide how to react to situations. “That’s a human psychological universal, it’s not about your character,” Goff said. In fact, a key point made by the team is that implicit bias is not a synonym for racism — Goff often speaks of “racism without racists” — and training can be designed to help officers recognize those biases and not let them control how they react.

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‘A solid basis for trust’

The third part of the initiative, racial reconciliation, requires historically more powerful elements in a community to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of less powerful groups — and apologize for them.

“If that doesn’t happen, it’s very hard for an aggrieved party to feel there’s a solid basis for trust,” Goff said. “It’s happened in Germany. It’s happened in South Africa. It’s happened in Australia. But we’re bringing it to a new context here; we’re doing it with policing in America.” 

Nekima Levy-Pounds is a St. Thomas law professor and president of the Minneapolis NAACP. She said the goal of racial reconciliation is desirable, but that it’s “definitely ambitious given the atmosphere we’re in, especially with so many people who don’t want to even acknowledge that race is an issue.

“I’m interested to see if that is possible in a process like this,” she said. “Is three years even enough time given the long history of racial relations?” 

Council Member Blong Yang chairs the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Emergency Management Committee. His ward is one of two that include north Minneapolis, the center of strained community-police relations.

“In my ideal world, racial reconciliation is us going to every single door to build a relationship with every person out there,” he said. “We talk to leaders. We should talk to leaders as well as those at the bottom. We need to do a better job of being out there.”

But Yang said he thinks real reconciliation should mean that everyone — including police rank and file and white residents of high-crime areas — feels free to say what they think, even if it is unpopular. 

“How are we going to be engaged in conversations about race when folks are afraid to say anything?” he asked. “They shouldn’t be shouted down. We don’t allow people to make statements from their perspective even if it sounds racist to some people. We need conciliators who can create a safe space so people can say what they think.”

Using data to create better policing

The six cities where the initiative is being conducted (the others are Birmingham; Stockton, Calif.; Gary, Indiana; Pittsburgh; and Fort Worth) will be used both to test new police practices and to collect data that might point to ideas that haven’t been tried yet. 

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Tracie Keesee
Tracie Keesee

Like what? Along with Keesee, Goff is the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity. He gave an example of how collecting and analyzing data can lead to better practices. He looked at use-of-force incidents in Las Vegas and noticed that many of the complaints of excessive force came after foot pursuits. Goff did a ride-along and even took part in a foot pursuit.

“When you arrive, your adrenaline is up and you want to do something to this guy because they made you run,” said Goff, who described himself as more peaceful than Gandhi. “So it’s a major thing for me to think, ‘Let’s get this guy’ but that’s the situation. That’s not me being a violent person.” 

Goff and his team recommended a new policy to the Las Vegas police: Whenever possible, the first officer to reach a suspect should not be the first person to “go hands on” with him or her, leaving it to those who arrive later. The results have been a 30 percent reduction in use of force, Goff said. And since foot pursuits predominantly involve black and Latino neighborhoods, the racial disparity in use-of-force incidents will also go down, he said.

Why Minneapolis?

Minneapolis was one of 100 cities that asked to be included in the initiative, and was chosen to provide balance in terms of both geography and population. But selections were also based on a city’s history of social tensions, level of violence, economic conditions and willingness to collect the data that will help demonstrate the effectiveness of the program.

But it is a demonstration of how much work the initiative has to do that the very act of having city and police leaders invite the Department of Justice in has raised suspicions. As Council Member Cam Gordon explained to Goff at a meeting: “The fact that the city invited you in — that you’ve been communicating and working so closely with them — does pose some risk to the credibility of it.”

Levy-Pounds agreed that the initiative sponsor’s relationship with the police department causes concern. “How much contribution does the department have in determining what aspects of the department is being investigated?” she asked. “It is still very much a department-led initiative.” 

Levy-Pounds said an earlier assessment by the Justice Department’s Diagnostic Center — an examination into police officer oversight and discipline — was not well received by Minneapolis’ African-American community, largely because of the lack of involvement of community members in the process, but also because the results were presented as Powerpoint rather than issued in a final report.

“It was unacceptable,” Levy-Pounds said. “We hope they can recover from that.”

While she’s glad that Minneapolis was selected for the national initiative, Levy-Pounds does worry about the ability of those conducting it to effectively reach those who are most affected, she said, a job made more difficult because of continued behavior by police that has created hostility and mistrust.

“People feel under siege in their own neighborhoods,” she said. “I get calls all the time about people getting beaten, being arrested for minor offenses. It’s hard to build community trust and confidence when the department isn’t sensitive to what is still going on.”

Yang, the council’s first Hmong-American, said the question of trust in police would get different answers in different parts of the city and different groups. “If you measure it across racial lines, the trust level of whites [toward police] is much higher than blacks,” Yang said. “Other minority groups are closer to blacks and that’s pretty low.”

Hodges said she has high hopes for the initiative, despite the challenges. “We are safer if police and the community have a relationship of trust with one another,” she said. And she has hopes that the project will make things better because everyone — police and community — have in interest in that result.

“Minneapolis is not unique in having tension between law enforcement and the community,” Hodges said. “We ask a lot of our officers. But not having trust works against officers. It makes their job more difficult and lack of trust has negative impact on both sides.“

What defines success?

The Department of Justice’s Kappelhoff acknowledges that building trust is crucial to the success of the project. “If you don’t have buy-in it’s not going to be successful,” he said. “You can’t just impose it.”

Mark Kappelhoff
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Mark Kappelhoff

He thinks the engagement of the community members and leaders is encouraging, illustrated by a public meeting in July that attracted 250 people. And Kappelhoff said he thinks that having the city and police department leaders on board is an asset, not a handicap. “When we have police chiefs that invite us in and work collaboratively with us, the results at the end of the day are always better,” he said.

Researchers usually aren’t supposed to have a stake in the outcome of research. But this is different, Goff said. “We want this to work.”

Throughout the three years there will be training, interventions with police and with targeted groups in the city. A reduction in crime, however, is not a prerequisite for success. 

“The hope is that you’ll see improved community/police relations,” Goff said. “That’s the goal of this thing. I wish I could say that at the end of this process that racism will be over but obviously that’s not what we’re going to be able to do.”