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Why mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds is ‘optimistic but cautious’ about police reform in Minneapolis

“Police shootings — thankfully — are relatively rare,” says Levy-Pounds. “But racial profiling is not rare. Police harassment is not rare. … And those are the issues of reform that still need to be addressed.”

Nekima Levy-Pounds: "Police shootings — thankfully — are relatively rare. But racial profiling is not rare. Police harassment is not rare. Use of excessive force is not rare."
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

It was three years ago, almost to the day, when Nekima Levy-Pounds took to her blog to post an open letter to Mayor Betsy Hodges.

The letter was inspired by the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But it wasn’t the shooting itself that sparked Levy-Pounds’ decision. Instead, it was the failure of then-Police Chief Janeé Harteau to attend a community meeting in South Minneapolis to talk about the policing issues raised by Brown’s death. Harteau cited a security threat, but Levy-Pounds has maintained that there was no threat.

In that letter, Levy-Pounds asked for a number of things: for a public apology from Hodges; for “drastic steps” to be taken to address the culture within the department; for an outside audit of the department; for quarterly progress reports; and for community input on body worn camera policies and procedures.

While Hodges issued an apology and has taken steps to reform the police department, relations between the police and many segments of Minneapolis remain strained, three years on. And a response to community concerns over an excess of officer discretion in the use of body cameras came only after the July shooting death of Justine Demond — during which officers failed to turn on their cameras.

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“We needed to put these issues on the table,” Levy-Pounds said last week about the post-Ferguson community meeting convened by Minneapolis Council Member Alondra Cano in 2014. “We had Ferguson as sort of a flash point for us to look internally at our policies, at our practices, the concerns our citizens were raising and to make major reforms. But I felt outside of the mayor’s response and the body camera pilot project, they didn’t do as much as they should have done to reform the department and shift the culture within it.”

She summarizes the MPD’s culture problem like this: “The department has been allowed to get away with perpetrating violence on residents of Minneapolis for a very long time — especially on the poor and vulnerable and people of color. I’m not talking about all officers. I’m talking about the culture, I’m talking about about officers who have engaged in violent conduct. But I would also extend that to officers who consider themselves to be good officers who watch in silence as people were being abused and did not report it. That’s not a good officer in my book.”

During an interview focusing on policing and police-community relations — especially relations with communities of color — Levy-Pounds spoke of how that open letter, and a sequences of events that followed, led directly to her decision to run for mayor of Minneapolis.

Not long after writing the letter, Levy-Pounds visited Ferguson as a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild. She also became an unofficial advisor to the people forming Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and was a spokesperson as they began protests, demonstrations that included the closure of I-35W and an occupation of the Mall of America.

In the case of the Mall of America protest, Levy-Pounds was charged by the City of Bloomington for her role as an “organizer.” “At the time I didn’t think of myself as an organizer,” she said. “But I got to the point in January [of 2015] where I said, ‘Listen, if they’re going to charge me as an organizer, I’m gonna become one and I became much more active.’” (The charges were later dismissed by a Hennepin County judge.)

In the spring of 2015, she was elected president of the Minneapolis NAACP. With the help of her St. Thomas law students, she began a research and advocacy project to repeal some of the city’s low-level offenses that were used predominantly against people of color, especially young black men. “Part of my concern had to do with the stress and the pressure and the frustration I felt was building in the African-American community surrounding police harassment,” Levy-Pounds said.

Young people showed up at Minneapolis City Council meetings to lobby against keeping ordinances against spitting, lurking and having three or more people congregating on public sidewalks.

It was also during this time that Levy-Pounds said that the stress building around economic outcomes in Minneapolis’ communities of color meant the city was one incident away from becoming the next Ferguson. “At the time, Council President Barbara Johnson said it was irresponsible,” Levy-Pounds said. “But I’m thinking, ‘I went to Ferguson and you didn’t. I’ve studied these issues for a long time and you haven’t. But okay.’’

Resolved to do more

Levy-Pounds said she was awoken at 4 a.m. on Sunday, November 15, 2015, by a phone call from then-Deputy Chief Medaria Arradondo telling her there had been a shooting of a young black man by a city police officer. “I will never forget that day,” Levy-Pounds said.

She said she couldn’t return to sleep and began scanning social media for information about the event and learned of complaints from witnesses who said they weren’t being listened to, had been pushed away and even sprayed with mace during the tense aftermath of the shooting of Jamar Clark.

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She and a team of volunteers went door-to-door in search of witnesses and convened a press conference later that Sunday morning to share their stories — and to begin challenging the narrative that was coming from the police department. From there, and after conferring with Black Lives Matter, the occupation of the Fourth Precinct began. “We needed a constructive way to utilize the energy,” she said.

The occupation was ended by city police after Hodges and Harteau decided it was a threat to the health and safety of both protesters and neighbors. But it lasted 18 days and focused the attention of the region on the issues raised by the Clark shooting and the city’s response.

Levy-Pounds said she was changed by the experience. “That incident played a huge role in my decision to run for mayor,” she said. “When I went back to work at St. Thomas, I was not the same in terms of my resolve to do more to help shift the culture of MPD and make sure we are protecting the public from violence and police harassment and over-criminalization.

“Police shootings — thankfully — are relatively rare,” she said. “But racial profiling is not rare. Police harassment is not rare. Use of excessive force is not rare. The criminalization of poor black and brown residents is not rare. And those are the issues of reform that still need to be addressed.”

Optimistic but cautious

Levy-Pounds counts herself as a fan of newly appointed Chief Arradondo, saying he would have been her choice had she been making the appointment. “We have stood shoulder to shoulder in some tense situations such as the Fourth Precinct occupation. He always kept a cool head in the midst of unfolding, very challenging circumstances and I appreciate him for that.”

She said she thinks he is well respected in the community and within the department. “The fact that he’s spent two decades in the department means he’ll be challenged in some areas,” she said, suggesting he visit other cities that have more-developed community policing models.

Levy-Pounds said she is cautiously optimistic about the new training programs instituted in the department. They include training on conflict resolution, dealing with people who have mental health issues, recognizing implicit bias and practicing procedural justice as a means of regaining good relations with those police question or arrest.

“I’m optimistic but I’m cautious because I need to see results of training and how it’s impacted the way officers respond to 911 calls, how they treat people on the streets, who they pull over and for what reason,” she said. She also suggested that a third-party or expert observe training to have a check on what is being taught.

Levy-Pounds has also proposed using enhanced community policing, which employs different models in different neighborhoods. “The model in North Minneapolis might look different from the model in downtown,” she said. “You want to look at specific circumstances and data and talk to people. ‘What are your goals?’ Are you trying to push poor people out of downtown, which seems like one of the motives, or help people feel safer or a both/and?”

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A defining moment

When asked to talk about her feelings about the different responses to the Clark shooting and the Damond shooting, Levy-Pounds mentions the “elephant in the room.”

“When Jamar Clark — a young African-American man — was shot by police, what we saw was a demonization of his character in the media and amongst many residents,” she said. “What we also saw was a devaluation of the views of African-Americans who were witnesses.

“Because it happened in the African-American community, particularly in North Minneapolis, where we have higher concentrations of poverty, it gave people permission to ignore Jamar Clark’s humanity, to ignore the humanity of community members and witnesses who were traumatized by the fact he was killed by police. That’s a sad commentary on our society but also our city in terms of the racial divide that exists, the socio-economic divide that exists.”

When Damond was killed, Levy-Pounds said she was invited to take part in a vigil but said she wasn’t planning to speak. Yet in listening to other speakers — both Damond’s friends and neighbors and those who had been protesting Clark’s killing — she said she sensed a tension that came to a head when a neighbor asked a NAACP speaker not to link the two.

“A lot of neighbors in Southwest hadn’t participated in the demonstrations, probably loathed the demonstrations and didn’t think anything like that could happen in their neighborhood,” Levy-Pounds said.

When she did speak, she acknowledged that Damond’s neighbors were shocked by her death but so too are residents of North Minneapolis when shootings happen there.

“I didn’t want people to have the impression that this is par for the course in our community,” she said. “It’s not. It’s unacceptable. I wept when I spoke — it could have been because I was nine-months pregnant — but I was overcome with emotion because this woman’s life was lost, and if people had just listened to us after Terrance Franklin was killed and after Jamar Clark was killed their activism or action or picking up the phone and calling elected officials might have saved a life, her life.”

The next time Levy-Pounds spoke to a rally in Damond’s neighborhood, however, she sensed a difference. When she called for Harteau to be removed as police chief, they cheered.

“I saw something dynamic happen,” said Levy-Pounds. “Her neighbors, friends and family members became more outspoken about police violence and systemic patterns of abuse and brought up Jamar Clark’s name in connection to Justine Damond’s name. I thought it represented a defining moment in terms of envisioning what is possible in our city as far as people coming together and having each other’s best interests in mind as opposed to operating in silos.”