Deep Dive: Let’s Talk About Public Safety
Robin Wonsley, Minneapolis city council member, from an April 2022 Minnesota Women’s Press event

At a talk given at First Unitarian Society (FUS) in Minneapolis on April 2, city council member Robin Wonsley commented on the recent Minnesota Department of Human Rights (DHR) investigative report about the Minneapolis Police Department. The DHR found that the city’s police institution “is a violator of human rights — as community members have told city leaders for decades now,” Wonsley said. “The state had to mandate the city do something about it, after 10-plus years of allowing the police department to engage in systemic and violent acts of racism and misogyny. It is now legally mandating the city do a long list of 300-plus recommendations. This is not to transform public safety, but to help get the police department to compliance with human rights law.”

In an FUS-hosted conversation about public safety after the talk, which featured visitors from communities outside the Twin Cities, a woman indicated that in her town she asked the police chief how officers who had returned from military action were being trained for community service. The police chief told her that no training was needed because they had been in the military.

A wide gap exists between those who believe military-like force is needed to keep communities safe and those who believe that the criminal legal system needs more progressive and funded approaches to address issues of addiction, mental health, gender-based violence, and homelessness. Changemakers Alliance will begin a series of statewide discussions about solutions that bridge that gap.

Rev. Kelli Clement put it this way at the FUS discussion: “Is it really true that the only way we can deal with [these social issues] is through incarceration? That seems like a failure of imagination. And it doesn’t work. It doesn’t see the whole person.”

Challenges of the Criminal System

A woman from a rural community said at the FUS discussion that a sheriff in her county “picks and chooses what laws he’s going to enforce.” He put out a public message, for example, that he was not going to enforce the mask mandate. Someone who works for her local police department shared that many of the school violence stories are led by crisis actors and not always true. “So I get overwhelmed and think we can’t fix this,” the woman shared.

As the FUS group discussed, the teenager who filmed the murder of George Floyd was an example of community safety in action. Police brutality does not happen only when someone is filming it, nor does it happen in most encounters with police, so it is “useful to have nuance,” Clement said. “But 100 years of police reform has gotten us to today. We’re not safer.”

Other options discussed included serving as a volunteer court observer to help hold authority accountable, especially for people from marginalized communities who have been charged.

A woman indicated that people don’t understand how trapped people get in the criminal system once they are in, “especially if you’re an adolescent.” As a sister and a mother, she said, she saw that “even things that are well meaning — like drug courts, police resource officers, school resource officers — are at one level a good idea, because they know the kids and families, but they are also a pipeline. It is a structure that is set to stigmatize and isolate people we don’t like [to see] in our communities.”

A mobile mental health unit in Washington County, Minnesota, was amazing, she added, until “we cut them out of our budget. I think it is about the stigmatism of families. Lower-income people are disproportionately targeted.”

The FUS conversation circled around the questions Changemakers Alliance will ask in several of its listening sessions around Minnesota this summer:

  • What do people want to see around public safety improvements, especially for people of color, gender-based violence survivors, people suffering with mental illness and addictions, those who have been evicted and are currently without a home?
  • How does local community wrap around what is needed rather than always looking to law enforcement to fix what are social problems?
  • Where will that funding come from?

How Do We Define Safety?

The Twin Cities and Minnesota are not the only places confronting myriad challenges of policing and public safety.

In San Francisco, after the 43-year-old founder of Cash App was murdered in April, residents reignited arguments that the city was not safe, due to massive homelessness, a drug crisis, and retail thefts. Someone known to the victim eventually was arrested, but the reality of the suspect and victim knowing each other did not quell the concerns.

As a story in The Guardian shared, violent crime in San Francisco has been declining since the 1990s. The city has a lower violent crime rate than other major U.S. cities, according to FBI data compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle. There has been more property crime than violence. Yet, “It’s no consolation to say San Francisco had three times as many murders in the 1970s,” said Joel Engardio, who sits on the county board of supervisors. “What matters is how people feel today and they don’t feel safe.”

A city supervisor added in the article that residents are anxious and frustrated, pointing to a recent attack on a former fire commissioner, youth brawls in a shopping mall, and frequent break-ins at cannabis dispensaries.

The Walker Art Museum recently hosted a screening and discussion with the documentary filmmaker who directed “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes.” The film looks at the prevalence of punitive governance around the U.S. from the perspectives of community members who are impacted by incarceration outside prison walls. Someone in an economically depressed city talked about his hopes that a new prison would be built there to bring jobs to the community. A vignette from the revitalized Detroit downtown showed how former residents were being pushed out, and threatened with public nuisance violations, in favor of a more homogenized corporate culture.

The filmmaker, Brett Story, lives in Toronto. As she said after the film, “My entry into thinking politically about the function of policing and prisons was through the lens of: How does money circulate through a city? How does gentrification happen? What does security really protect? Where in the city are the police active? Who are they ticketing? Who are they criminalizing? What behaviors are deemed criminal? How does that dovetail with the areas that the real estate agents have deemed valuable?”

She told the story of a more altruistic version of community justice that did not make it into the film. As she connected with people waiting for an overnight bus that would take them to visit loved ones in Attica prison in New York, “a woman told me that she always brings two extra changes of clothes. One for herself, in case she gets to the visitor’s room and gets told that what she is wearing is inappropriate. She brings an extra one in case that happens to someone else. [That simple act] transforms the energy of that [stressful] time.”

Michael Friedman, former chair of the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority, recently wrote a commentary in Minnesota Reformer that pointed out competing values applied in prosecution and sentencing for crimes. In some cases, legal decisions are made based on how the outcome impacted the victim. In other cases, attention seems to be paid to who the perpetrator is.

Who Decides Who Protects Our Streets?

On April 19, Minnesota Reformer published a story about a police officer from the state of Virginia who was hired by the Minneapolis police department in January. The officer had been charged, and acquitted, for using a stun gun in Fairfax County, near Washington D.C., on an unarmed Black man (a few days after Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd).

According to Deena Winter’s Reformer story, “Body camera footage showed that within seconds of arriving on the scene, Officer Tyler Timberlake repeatedly used his Taser on the man and hit him in the head with the stun gun, then kneeled on his neck and back after the man fell to the ground.”

A Washington Post story indicated the Black man had been walking in circles on a residential street shouting that he needed oxygen. Although others were on the scene attempting to get the man into a waiting ambulance, as soon as Timberlake arrived he used a Taser on the man. Timberlake later testified that he mistook the man for someone wanted for violent crimes.

A day after the incident, the Fairfax County police chief called “Timberlake’s actions horrible, unacceptable, criminal, and a violation of department policies,”  the Washington Post reported. He was arrested and charged with three counts of misdemeanor assault and battery and relieved of duty.

Winters wrote that new Minneapolis police chief Brian O’Hara indicated in a statement after he was made aware of Timberlake’s past that he was “extremely concerned” about the hiring and his staff was conducting an investigation.

What Comes Next?

The entanglement of justice, housing, mental health, and other social issues can make it difficult for advocates and politicians to agree on solutions.

Wonsley said at her FUS talk, “I [am frustrated that my city council colleagues tend to offer] symbolic policy positions that have no teeth to transform conditions. They are not passing policies that can be codified into ordinances and laws. We oversee the city’s $1.5-billion budget, and they would rather invest in rebuilding police precincts than [supporting] East Phillips residents in combatting decades of environmental racism. That is why I’m an organizer.”

Wonsley also added: “The police are not the end-all of our public safety system. We need to be investing in more comprehensive programs, like our mental health programs — such as our behavioral crisis response team. What are we doing about victims who are experiencing domestic violence? What are we doing to engage youth who are not going to school? We need to be thinking of how we’re [developing] comprehensive solutions for vulnerable community members. We need to be demanding of city leadership to not invest more into a broken system.”

If you want to be part of public discussions about safety solutions, sign up here.