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Talking police reform, Minneapolis mayoral candidate Dehn looks to move beyond two words: ‘disarm officers’

At an event last week, Dehn offered further details about his thoughts on police reform in Minneapolis. 

Mayoral candidate Ray Dehn, with Mary Steinmetz at right, at an event last week for the ACLU of Minnesota affiliate South Minneapolis People Power.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Shortly after the shooting death of a woman in southwest Minneapolis that led to the resignation of the city’s police chief, mayoral candidate Ray Dehn issued a statement that got him a lot of attention.

“We must divest resources, disarm officers, and dismantle the inherent violence of our criminal justice system which continues to uphold white supremacy,” it stated.

While there was a lot there, the reaction mostly focused on just two of the words: “disarm officers.”

The reaction to those words, said Dehn, might make one think “that I was a pretty heinous individual.” Among the kinder responses was someone wondering if the state representative from North Minneapolis “had bumped his head.”

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The response got even more intense when he tried to clarify his position the next day. He wrote that he supports “rethinking whether every officer needs to carry a gun. I believe public safety will be best served if fewer officers carry guns.” But he said he wasn’t against access to guns “in situations — such as when encountering a deadly weapon.”

In response to this clarification, one person on Twitter wrote: “Have you been deprived of oxygen?”

At an event last week for the ACLU of Minnesota affiliate South Minneapolis People Power that also touched on sanctuary cities and affordable housing, Dehn tried to move beyond talk of police weapons to other ideas about the police department.

“In my neighborhood in North Minneapolis we’ve been having those conversations for a long time,” Dehn said of the current discussion about the shooting of Justine Damond in the southwest corner of the city by Officer Mohamed Noor on July 15. “It’s really great that we’re having this conversation citywide now, because it’s a different kind of conversation.”

In his role at the Legislature, Dehn said, he was able to work with Rep. Tony Cornish, a Vernon Center Republican who few would accuse of being soft on crime, to triple the budget for police training statewide. “We have to do things differently if we expect different types of results,” he said.

The $12 million in ongoing funding will focus on cultural competency, implicit bias, mediation, de-escalation and responding to people with mental health issues. In Minneapolis, the police department instituted several new training curricula under former Chief Janeé Harteau that all officers have taken, including implicit bias training, de-escalation and recognizing and responding in mental health situations.

“We’re not talking about training all officers to be therapists or social workers,” Dehn said. “But they should be able to identify [mental health situations].” He later proposed, however, that among the places the city recruits officers from should be schools of social work.

Dehn agreed with an attendee that having just 8 percent of Minneapolis officers living within the city is a problem. “You have very little interaction with people other than on either 911 calls or other situations,” Dehn said of officers who might live in a suburb who come into the city just to work. “After awhile, you begin to believe that everyone who lives in Minneapolis is bad, which then creates a mentality that you’re really an occupying force in a community.”

“I don’t think that’s the best approach to policing and keeping the residents safe,” he said. “I also don’t think it’s the best approach to keeping officers safe.” State law does not allow a city to require police officers to live in the city, but Dehn said there could be more incentives and that recruitment could focus on those who already live in Minneapolis.

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Dehn said he has been asked to imagine his first meeting with Lt. Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis who has become a controversial figure. “‘Good to meet you Bob. I’m surprised we haven’t met before,’” Dehn said he’d imagine the conversation starting. “‘My job as mayor is to make sure the people of Minneapolis are safe and your job as the federation president is to make sure your officers are safe. So we’re not too far off. Let’s start talking about how we do that.’”

“I’m not naive to think that’s going to make him all warm and gooey,” Dehn joked. “As long as the rank and file elect a federation president who believes the best way to keep officers safe is to put more armor between them and the people of the community then I think it’s going to be a lot of work.”

Community policing is talked about, “but as long as between officers and the community are these military grade weaponry and vehicles, I think we’re just talking about community policing,” he said. “Because there are parts of the city where there’s virtually no trust between police officers and community members and that’s a dangerous situation for the officers as well as the people.”

Dehn said he likes what he has heard so far from new Chief Medaria Arradondo about changing police department culture. Arradondo was unanimously confirmed by the city council to fill out Harteau’s second term which expires in January of 2018.

“Let’s see what he does,” Dehn said. “Let’s see if he’s able to implement the things he’s been talking about. Ultimately a good chief has to work with the mayor’s office, the city council and the police federation. I think most of his skills will be put to the test.”

But Dehn said he didn’t think officers would automatically say “yippie, we get to do things differently.” 

“It’s not going to change until they want to change,” Dehn said, adding that turnover will help as younger officers replace older ones. And he pushed back on the position that the next chief must come from outside the department. Such outsiders are at risk of being resisted by the rank and file.

“When you promote from the inside, generally there’s an understanding,” he said. “But you’re right, they have been part of that system, they carry that culture.”