The transformation of an old furniture store into an education and economic development center in North Minneapolis was in the works for years. And by the time groundbreaking day arrived in early December, it should have been a happy occasion for the community.
But just weeks earlier, a 24-year-old unarmed black male, Jamar Clark, was shot and killed by Minneapolis police after officers responded to a domestic-violence call. Questions lingered about the circumstances surrounding Clark’s death, and activists spent the following days and weeks camped outside North Minneapolis’ 4th Precinct police station demanding answers.
At the groundbreaking, though, the $8 million project seemed like a stand in for something larger: general mistrust of law enforcement in the black community; widening racial disparities across the state; the response — or lack thereof — by Minnesota lawmakers.
“This is a project that epitomizes moving on, moving forward and moving ahead, and beginning to build together a better North Minneapolis,” DFL Gov. Mark Dayton told the crowd.
As legislators look toward the 2016 session, which will convene with the state having a projected $1.2 billion budget surplus, many lawmakers are preparing for a robust debate on how to address racial inequalities, which could touch on everything from police body cameras to work-force training in North Minneapolis.
But with many competing views, and a short, 11-week legislative session — one that’s also expected to tackle tax cuts and transportation funding (among others) — the question may not be how the state can address such a complex issue, but whether anything can get done at all.
‘Police policing police’
To understand the complexity, look no further than police body cameras, a tool both law enforcement and police accountability groups agree could help ease overall police mistrust in the community.
More than three dozen local law enforcement agencies in Minnesota already use police body cameras, but there’s no overriding state policy guiding their use. Each local government sets up its own policies. Minneapolis and St. Paul, for example, are each rolling out their programs soon.
Body cams are going to be good in a very practical way “for people who have been victims of overzealous law enforcement officers, as well as for those good, law abiding and law enforcement officers who are getting swept up in this stereotype,” Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said. “It’s also really paramount to sending a strong message to these communities that we are serious about making sure law enforcement is doing their job.”
But despite broad agreement over utilizing the cameras, negotiations on an overriding state policy stalled last session over surveillance and data privacy concerns. A bill proposed in the House last session would have declared all videos collected by law enforcement private, but senators passed a proposal that made the video public in certain cases, such as those under investigation. A new bill, authored by Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, would classify most video data in private homes or property as private, while most arrest data in public places would be public.
But there are still major disagreements over the details, including whether officers should be the ones who decide when they turn the cameras on and off. Some agencies are concerned about the costs of storing hundreds of hours of footage.
“You can’t have police policing police,” Dianne Binns, a St. Paul resident and member the city’s civilian police review board, said at a recent hearing on the proposals. “Someone else needs to be doing that. Someone other than that police officer, other than that supervisor.”
Some legislators want to see more state money put into into de-escalation techniques and training for law enforcement, while others think there should be certain residency requirements for police officers. Ninety-four percent of sworn Minneapolis police officers do not live within the city limits, according to an analysis done by MinnPost earlier this year, raising questions about whether the force reflects the diversity of the city.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he will push his proposal to require outside, independent investigations whenever there’s an officer-involved case. The Clark case is being investigated by the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, but Minneapolis police have investigated their own incidents in the past. St. Paul Police always do their own investigations, Latz said.
“These are bigger questions than just Jamar Clark,” Latz said. “We don’t know yet what the results of the investigation are. My goals are not based on any factual conclusions in the Jamar Clark case but rather recognizing the history of mistrust between the community and law enforcement agencies.”
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, says there’s broad support in the House Republican caucus for his bill to make it a felony with automatic jail time if someone interferes with public safety personnel who are trying to render medical assistance. During the incident in North Minneapolis, Clark was allegedly interfering with paramedics who were responding to an assault report, and protesters at the 4th Precinct blocked roads as they occupied the station.
“I think, not just in Minnesota, but across the country there have been attacks on people who work in public safety, and we want to send a strong message that there will be zero tolerance for that,” Garofalo said. “The important thing is if you interfere with a public safety officer who is trying to render medical aid, that’s bad and we are all against it.”
Need to ‘send a strong message’
Some legislators want to focus efforts on tackling the roots of Minnesota’s racial disparities. The state has one of the worst education achievement gaps between black and white students in the nation, and recent data from the U.S. Census showed that the median income for black Minnesotans fell from $31,493 to $27,440 between 2013 and 2014. In that same time period, the poverty rate for black Minnesotans rose from 30.5 percent to 34.7 percent, compared to an 11 percent poverty rate for the state overall.
As a starting point, Dayton said he will push for $15 million to address racial disparities and improve the community in a possible special session of Legislature. How legislators spend that money — or if a special session will even be called — is still up in the air.
Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, thinks legislators should put more money into job training for black youth, which would also help with the state’s shortage of skilled workers. He’d like to allocate money to build an all-new union apprentice facility closer to North Minneapolis where workers could get direct training.
Hayden thinks the best approach is to engage with businesses to create incentives for companies to hire black employees. He also said programs like Step-Up, which helps place teenagers out of school in summer jobs, have proven to help put young black Minnesotans on the right track. “It puts money in their pocket, and teaches them work ethic, but it also takes up a ton of their time when school’s out,” Hayden said. “How can we expand that? There’s already infrastructure there.”
Then there’s the education gap and low graduation rates in some urban schools, Hayden said, a persistent problem in Minnesota that probably won’t be fixed in a single session.
“This is going to be a fast session,” he said. “We’ve got a good amount of money to spend, but I don’t know what the appetite is going to be for spending. We are not in lock step with the Speaker [of the House Kurt Daudt]. I do think that we need try as best we can. We certainly can send a strong message and start the conversation in earnest.”