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Cops, students attend UWS forum aimed at improving relationships

Yoel Yohannes says he has a sense of uneasiness when he sees a police officer on the street -- an underlying fear that he wants to erase. A senior at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Yohannes grew up on the west side of St. Paul, where "you ...

UWS forum
About 75 people attended an “open dialogue” event in the Great Room of the Yellowjacket Union at the University of Wisconsin-Superior on Monday. The dialogue was between Twin Ports police officers and multicultural and diverse students. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Yoel Yohannes says he has a sense of uneasiness when he sees a police officer on the street - an underlying fear that he wants to erase.
A senior at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Yohannes grew up on the west side of St. Paul, where “you were either a minority or you were a cop,” he said.
“I wish I could greet a police officer the same as any civilian,” Yohannes said. “I would be lying if I said that I do. I have those feelings of fear, of insecurity, a sense of self-preservation.”
Yohannes was among students and community members who joined local law enforcement officers for a discussion about race, use of force and community-police relations Monday on the UWS campus.
The forum, which drew about 75 people, included representatives of the Duluth and Superior police departments and local student groups.
“When you look at the history of people of color and police officers, we know there is a jagged past,” said moderator Carl Crawford, the coordinator of Intercultural Student Services at Lake Superior College. “It is not pretty, but we are working toward changing the story.”
The 90-minute discussion took on a civil tone but saw lively debate between students and officers on issues such as traffic stops, arrest rates and use of force in the wake of national events that have placed increased scrutiny on race relations and community policing.
The officers said, overwhelmingly, that they choose the career to serve the public and were supportive of efforts to work with community members.
“I wanted to help people,” Superior Deputy Chief Matthew Markon said of his decision to become a police officer. “I’ve kept that in mind every day for the past 24 years.”
Many black students in attendance, though, said they still feel discomfort in working with officers - feelings largely shaped at a young age.
Terra Brister, president of the Black Student Union at UWS and an organizer of the forum, said she grew up in a household where she was taught to avoid police officers.
“The way I was raised, you don’t interact with cops unless you’ve got an issue,” she said. “You don’t call the cops. You don’t do any of that. You keep it simple and we handle it in-house.”
Crawford grew up in south-central Los Angeles, where he said kids in his neighborhood learned to run from the police.
“If the police came, it meant someone you knew was being taken away,” he said.
For their part, the officers said they understand the nerves that most people have when they see a uniformed police officer or a squad car. Officers work in dangerous conditions, they said, and are trained to deal with situations that can turn bad in a hurry.
Rob Hurst, a Duluth community policing officer, said he feels on edge when he’s driving his personal car and sees a police car in the rear view mirror.
“It might be a guy I had coffee with 20 minutes earlier,” he said. “It’s a natural, human thing to feel nervous.”
Kym Young of Superior said she sometimes feels uncomfortable and fears for the safety of her children and grandchildren. She said young people of color could benefit from additional school programs and community outreach to improve relations.
“You are part of this community,” Young told the officers. “You are part of us, and we need to see you as part of us. And you need to see us as a part of you.”
Brister said one forum surely won’t solve all of the problems, but she hoped it would serve as a starting point to additional conversations.
Crawford said both police officers and community members need to work together if they are going to change the course of their somewhat shaky relationship.
“One of the ways we get there is to blow up the mindset that we are competing against each other,” he said. “Really, we should be working together.”

Related Topics: POLICESUPERIOR
Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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