In a 2020 interview with Minnesota Women’s Press, Nicole Archbold, community affairs director for the Department of Public Safety, pointed out that over the last five years 60 percent of officer-involved shootings occur in Greater Minnesota — which might surprise those aware only of high-profile cases in Minneapolis and St. Paul. These cases don’t always lead to death, and sometimes include harm to the officers involved.
The Star Tribune newspaper has tracked how many Minnesotans have been killed by police since 2000, showing that 37 percent died in Greater Minnesota. Many were having a mental health crisis.
Archbold has spent more than two decades in local government, including 15 years with the Minneapolis Police Department. In her current position, Archbold has helped lead a recent Minnesota Working Group on Police- Involved Deadly Force Encounters. The goal of the group is to prevent or reduce deadly encounters with officers across the state.
For Bemidji area resident Salena Beasley, these efforts cannot come fast enough. Beasley is a member of the Red Lake Nation and works with people who are struggling with chemical dependency and addiction. She is also the mother of three children, and says she worries about whether or not they will have traumatic encounters with local law enforcement officers.
Living in fear regarding her children’s potential interactions with the police and the criminal justice system “is an unsettling, unnerving feeling,” she admits. And for Beasley, these concerns are not just hypothetical.
In recent years, one of her children was accused of a crime and stood trial in Bemidji. There were no people of color selected for the jury. Her son was found guilty. The conviction was later overturned in the court of appeals.
When she advocated for him, Beasley says she faced retaliation and ended up losing her job. This dire situation nearly left her family “penniless,” she says, until she was able to land a new position.
Beasley’s interest in reforming how the local police and criminal justice system operate is about more than her own family. When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Beasley and other Bemidji area activists held their own protests as a way to “demand change” and to honor Floyd. In summer 2020, she helped advocate for the creation of a citizen review board for the city’s police department.
A Minnesota Public Radio reporter covered a listening session in Bemidji, where the public was asked to weigh in on whether or not such a review board should exist, and in what form. The reporter noted that many in attendance pushed for a robust citizen review board that would have a role in disciplining officers “using excessive or racially biased force.”
The Bemidji police chief disagreed with that proposition, citing a preference for emphasizing improved relationships over what he said was a problem of “perception.” Those who do not trust the police are the ones asking for a more active role in disciplining officers, he noted, and he wanted to defend the integrity of his department.
For Mankato resident Destiny Owens, improving relationships between police and the community they serve also is of the utmost importance.
Owens is an advocate for racial justice in the Mankato area, as well as the owner of Black Excellence Across Minnesota (BEAM). Through BEAM, Owens works as a consultant in her community, helping area businesses and organizations learn more about racial justice and cultural diversity.
Although her business venture is only a few years old, Owens has been doing this work since she was a middle school student in Mankato. “I am so grateful to be able to create change in the community where I grew up,” she says.
As the mother of two young sons, Owens created the first-ever Black History event at her sons’ elementary school in 2019. Her activism was driven by a troubling incident, when her oldest son came home from school crying and told her that he had been called the N-word by a classmate. Owens herself had also experienced racialized bullying as a student.
Owens has turned painful experiences, including the lack of any Black History Month events in her sons’ school, into opportunities for her community to grow and learn together.
Owens has applied this same energy to conversations around police reform in the Mankato area, before and after Floyd’s death. She believes police are a necessary aspect of the community, but that change and reform regarding the way they go about their work is equally necessary.
This has led her to join activists in Mankato in pushing for a committee for police reform, in hopes of addressing some of the most problematic aspects of police-community interactions.
Owens believes that improving relationships between the police and the public will “lead to more transparency” and a greater sense of safety in the community.
“People underestimate the power in a smile and a wave,” she insists. She says that local officials, including Mankato police chief Amy Vokal and Matt DuRose, Assistant Director of Public Safety for the city, have done a good job of emphasizing community relations. Both have taken the time to “listen to people’s stories, including their traumatic encounters with the Mankato police department,” Owens says, and have been open-minded in their willingness to “learn and know more” about how to embrace needed change.
The overall goal, Owens says, is for police to work alongside the community to address the historic and current trauma that tends to define their interactions.
There is still much work to be done, Owens and Beasley say, in terms of building a network of like-minded people across Minnesota who will remain committed to reworking police and community safety protocols.
One sign of progress for Beasley, however, is the 2020 election victory of Audrey Thayer, who was sworn in as the first Native woman to serve of the Bemidji City Council.
Despite the personal and public challenges Beasley has faced regarding the push for police reform, she insists she is “excited to see what will happen next.”