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Police yield to NAACP on 'use of force' event

The Duluth Police Department canceled a Friday community forum which would have taken place at the Public Safety Building. Police said they plan to work with community partners and reschedule the forum for the near-future. (file / News Tribune)

The Duluth Police Department canceled a community forum scheduled for Friday centered on the use of force by law enforcement agencies. The cancelation came Thursday in response to an early morning call from the Duluth branch of the NAACP to postpone the event.

"This forum was intended to be the continuation of the tough conversations we as a community have been having about topics that impact people's sense of safety and well-being," said a Duluth police news release. "We acknowledge police don't have all the answers, which is why community engagement is essential to this process."

The Duluth police, in partnership with the FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office, state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, St. Louis County Sheriff's Office and Superior Police Department, had planned to host the "Use of Force in Minnesota" forum — subtitled, "a dialogue between law enforcement and communities of inclusion" — and said it invited more than 100 community members, including members of the NAACP. The police say they expanded invitations to the event from similar engagements around the state, up from the established 30 invitees.

"Even in doubling this invite we knew there would be more interest than space," the police said. "Friday was not intended to be the end of the conversation, but rather a continuation."

The president of the local NAACP, Stephan Witherspoon, seemed to appreciate the decision. He released a statement, saying, "We commend the DPD for postponing the meeting for transparency sake. The NAACP will continue to work with the DPD in addressing and taking action on the policing issues that heavily impact the African American community and the community at large. We will work together to get the results we desire."

In calling for the postponement of the forum, versions of which had previously been held in St. Cloud and Rochester, the Duluth NAACP concluded the event was flawed for not bringing in outside groups during the planning process.

"We feel that any law enforcement policies, trainings, or meetings that directly impact our safety, particularly policies and practices regarding use of force, should have ample community input, which this meeting lacks," an NAACP news release said.

The NAACP acknowledged "recent efforts (by law enforcement) to increase community outreach." But the NAACP also drew on the roiling national conversation about use of force by law enforcement. The tense national conversation has best been illustrated by players kneeling in the NFL during the pregame playing of the national anthem. The protesting players say they're objecting to the disproportionate targeting of black people by police.

"People of color have been surveilled, profiled, controlled, threatened and killed by the police since the days of slavery," the NAACP said.

The event had been scheduled to be held at the Public Safety Building on Arlington Road — headquarters of the Duluth Police Department.

"We chose the Public Safety Building only after finding numerous neutral site venues booked," the Duluth police said.

The Duluth police will reschedule the event shortly, they said, and "invite members of the NAACP and other communities of inclusions to help us plan the next event."

Witherspoon said the NAACP will participate in the planning of the rescheduled event.

"The NAACP will be at the table when planning a symposium for this dialogue," he said.

In objecting to the now canceled event, the NAACP also brought up the Duluth police's intention to purchase protective gear — a measure it put on hold last December after community groups objected to what can also be referred to as "riot gear."

"We believe the Duluth Police Department's request for riot gear will only erode public trust," the NAACP news release said, harkening the 2014 unrest between a predominantly black community and armored police in Ferguson, Mo. "We have seen the devastating impact an overly-militarized police force has on communities of color."

The police did not address the protective gear in canceling the event. At last report, the police were meeting regularly with community groups before moving forward with their request for $125,000 in protective gear.

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