Public Safety Is More Than Emergency Response

This content is underwritten by Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, a woman-owned business supporting women and families across the region.

Editor’s Message

The conversations I have had recently with people for our “Re-imagining Public Safety” series reveal deep philosophical differences in Minnesota. On one end, some see safety as putting struggling individuals into a separated space — often gathered up by police officers to leave them “apart” from an “us.” Others see safety as gathering struggling individuals into a collective space — often with therapists, peers, and healing practitioners, to connect them with community for restoration,  rehabilitation, and recovery.

I see the same thing in conversations about “Ecolution,” our word for the communal ways people are investing and injecting vitality into economies of people and ecosystems of planet to create a healthier Minnesota. Access to education, housing, secure family lives, and generational wealth are not widespread. We are sharing more stories about how the cost of leaving people behind leads to crime, trauma, and economic gaps that impact the entire state.

The goal of Changemakers Alliance coverage and our new Badass membership is to expand the power of storytelling and conversations to connect engaged feminists statewide who care about solutions and action. That includes digging into stories about the cost of systems. For example, $7.2K will be spent per student per year for public education starting in 2025, an increased amount compared to past years. The cost of incarcerating an individual in the state is $41K per year.

It also includes increasing public awareness that all cities and towns are impacted by issues of mental health and trauma, gender-based violence, and limited affordable housing, which requires collaborative solutions.

The 2023 Re-Imagining Justice conference, November 16 and 17, was focused on “Centering Humanity Over Fear,” hosted by the Minnesota Justice Research Center. At the closing in-person session, people including Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Saint Paul mayor Melvin Carter articulated a vision of public safety.

Mayor Melvin Carter on Public Safety


This is an edited transcript, and video, of Mayor Melvin Carter’s comments.

A couple of years ago, the eyes of the nation, the eyes of the world, and the eyes of every media reporter was suddenly focused on the Twin Cities metro area around this exact topic that we’re talking about now. When I was asked about the takeaways from the murder of George Floyd, I remember telling people just how fundamentally unsurprising it was. I’m a part of a community of people who have watched this play out for a number of years.

We inherited a model of city building that I think is backwards. When [we are elected to office we are told by many constituents that] “your biggest job is public safety and economic development.” Where public safety is concerned, all they really mean is our job is to find all the bad guys in community and lock them up and get them out of the way so that us good guys can go about our lives.

Where economic development is concerned, “all we need is to get all these local residents and local businesses out of the way and see if we can find some business in Memphis or Miami (or Minneapolis) and get them into our community.”

The models of city building that we’ve inherited together are models that value place over people. The model of public safety that we’ve inherited says we’re going to draw a circle. We’re going to put people on the edge of that circle. Their job is to protect the people we think should be inside that circle from the people we think should be outside of the circle, at all costs.

I’m Black. I have been all of my life. Which means I was once a 17-year-old driver behind the wheel of a two-tone gray 1984 Monte Carlo, which every police officer on the planet will tell you is the most stolen car in America (before Kia and Hyundai). I could tell you about my stories of being pulled over and knowing I wasn’t speeding at the time.

Many of you know my father is a retired St. Paul Police officer. So when we look at that circle, I grew up literally on both sides of that line. I grew up knowing what it feels like to be inside that circle. And I grew up knowing what it feels like to be outside that circle.

If you ask people what they don’t like most about their mayor, the two most common answers you get is “[the mayor has] hired too many police officers” and “[the mayor] hasn’t hired enough police.” Which sounds funny. But it demonstrates the gap that exists — that line based on whether we perceive ourself as in front of or behind those officers.

A couple of years ago, post-COVID, we saw a big spike in violent crime across the country and in Saint Paul. We experienced a record number of homicides in our community. A reporter said to me, “You spend all this time talking about human health and safety. Given that Saint Paul has just experienced a record number of homicides, do you still feel like public safety should be reimagined? And I said yes. Because we just experienced a record number of homicides.”

It is a psychosis. We’re surrounded by people who will tell you the loudest that “we are dissatisfied with our public safety infrastructure” — and those are the exact same people who block us from changing our public safety. In Saint Paul, we are advancing our Community First public safety framework. It starts way before somebody calls 911.

I think part of our problem with public safety in America is: we’ve mistaken public safety for emergency response.

In my house, I have a three-year-old. If you were to tell me that the plan to keep her safe was simply to make sure that somebody goes to jail if they do something bad to her, we would have to talk some more. Public safety is about those little plastic plugs that I put in outlets [to protect her from putting her finger inside an electrical socket]. It’s about that foam on the corner of the table. It’s about us figuring out all of the things that could be [safer] for this little child.

If you show me a neighborhood where we are concerned about public safety, I’ll show you a neighborhood that has invested in  safeguarding. Our goal is to right-size all responses. We know there are problems that just can’t be solved with handcuffs and badges. We want to be sure that we do have handcuffs and badges when there are problems that required it, because our community members deserve to be protected. So our goal is to make sure that we do have those available when we need them, and when they show up, they are someone who is helping us up and not

With Thanksgiving next week, many of us will celebrate with family. There is that brother, that cousin, that needs help [understanding that] a city is more than a stack of buildings and streets. That’s what this is all about. Instead of a system that says “if we think you’re on the margins, we’re going to be pushing you further away,” we’re building a system that says “we think you’re on the margins and are going to support you to be part of our community.”

Thoughts From Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan

When we talk about public safety, we have to challenge what we mean. It’s not simply law enforcement. It means “will someone look for me if I am missing?”

“Will I feel safe when I’m walking in my neighborhood as a Latina woman in Rochester?,” which is a conversation I had yesterday.

Do our children have what they need to thrive? Are we investing in the first 1,000 days of their lives?

If you’re talking about the need for public safety, then that means families have resources to put food on the table and to be stably housed. A child tax credit that will lower child poverty by a third is public safety. That work is through policy, that network is through community, that work is through building relationships and trust with each other.

Panel Discussion

MPR radio host Angela Davis led a discussion with Lt. Gov. Flanagan, Representative Cedric Frazier, and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi to close out the conference. Here are edited excerpts from part of the conversation.

Why Is Public Safety a Priority for You?

Lt. Gov. Flanagan (PF): In Minnesota, we have had a commitment to the status quo, and to not having conversations that are challenging around issues of justice. Sometimes it’s hard for us to even talk about equity.

There are so many folks who do not trust the system, for good reason. We are changing the folks who are making decisions. As our leadership more accurately reflects the [population], we’re getting different results. We have to be willing to have these conversations that challenge that status quo, especially when we are in moments of crisis — to be able to pause and do what is needed, and not react from a place of fear.

Rep. Frazier (CD): I grew up on the south side of Chicago. In that community, they doubled down on the justice system. I saw more police officers but did not feel safer. The crime rates didn’t change. What we really needed were jobs. We needed more affordable housing. We needed more invested in our schools. Those are the things that were needed to ensure that we would have safer communities.

The system created a perpetual cycle of incarceration and recidivism that had collateral impacts — that made it hard to get a job, that meant your education was disrupted. Statistically, I’m not supposed to be sitting here in this role because the policies are framed to ensure that someone who looked like me did not make it out with an education, able to have a good job, even to move to Minnesota. I have a master’s degree [and was encouraged to] run for office.

When I think about being a part of the system to reform justice, I’m focused on how we create things. How do we create the opportunity so that it is the norm to see people like me [succeed]. Passing these issues are Minnesota issues, all across the state. There are extreme disparities in the lives of folks across the state.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi (JC): I want to underscore that the criminal justice system is not broken — it’s doing exactly what it is designed to do. That means that a lot of the things that are happening within the justice system [need to be understood] from various perspectives. I became a much better county attorney [when I recognized that] we are not necessarily winning public safety for everybody in our community. We have a massive disparity in the criminal justice system. There are assumptions and lies built into the system that are never actually explored.

By watching TV, we believe that most [legal] cases are resolved in a jury trial. That’s not true. It’s only 2 percent of those cases. In fact, it is a plea-bargaining system that tries to get some form of accountability. We are not changing trajectories; we’re just processing people. If appropriate, we’re putting them in boxes or in cages. Then they will be released. Nobody goes to prison for a very long time unless you’ve killed somebody. So you see the [same issues] with people over and over again.

Community most impacted by crime and the legal system [need to be at the table] to help reconstruct something new and better — not just more off ramps to the current system.

Our initiative to Reimagine Justice for Youth was started in 2018. … What we found was that if you go back 10 years, we are no that effective in terms of how we did juvenile justice. We’ve developed a new process, with public defenders in the room, to help us decide how to address the underlying needs of a young person [in the legal system] and the victim. How can you make that victim feel whole? We’re actually getting better results, and addressing racial disparities, because of successful diversions that are alternatives [to juvenile imprisonment]. That is because we are relying and working with the community to be a part of the process, including [investing in conversations with] those kids and their families.

We’re going to document the next 10 years. And my goal is to produce a better version of justice and safety.

What Is the Impact of Fear?

PF: Fear can be at the heart of policymaking. It is a way to have things be very black and white. It makes it easier to get people to vote along with you. The opposite of fear is hope. Somehow we think keeping people disconnected from their community when they’re incarcerated is a good thing — and it couldn’t be further from the truth.

[Some of the powerful things we got] done this session:

  • Parole does not have to be a unanimous decision. A review commission will also expand the number of people who can apply for pardons. [That brings hope and incentivizes people in prison.]
  • The Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act gives people a real opportunity to get back into the community and make sure they have the things they need to succeed: housing, training, and support. There is a pathway for true reentry. We’re working on that right now. it’s historic and not happening anywhere else.
  • Restore the Vote, which Rep. Frazier led, with people leading on this issue for years and years, with people who testified and were willing to share their stories to finally get us over the line.
  • Clare Verbeten Oumou led on the revised policy to offer free phone calls for people who are incarcerated to stay connected with their families.

There have been 7.4 million minutes logged in conversations every month since August 1 between people who are incarcerated and their families and community. That connection really matters.

Coming up at womenspress.com

This public safety series will explore other conversations from the “Centering Humanity Over Fear” conference including:

  • Continuation of the interview of Flanagan, Frazier, and Choi, by Davis
  • Research about public health in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police
  • Restorative justice practice for victims of gender-based violence
  • Community responders to mental health issues
  • The measurable value of re-entry services for formerly incarcerated Minnesotans
  • Adjustments to policing in Ramsey County for enhanced community safety

Other conversations coming up in the “Re-Imagining Public Safety” series:

  • Attorney General Keith Ellison talked about how to reduce violence, in the community and among police officers
  • Global Rights for Women discussion about guns and domestic violence
  • Discussion by policy makers, and a parent and teenager, about youth mental health related to the opening of East Bethel facility
  • NAMI panel discussion about better integrating mental health services


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