The debate about whether the city of Duluth should provide its police department with new protective crowd-control equipment - called riot gear by many - entered a new arena Tuesday night, as Duluth East High School hosted about 100 community members who showed up to share their opinions at an open house.
The gathering was the first of three similar back-to-back discussions slated to take place this week across the city.
Carl Crawford, Duluth's human rights officer, greeted participants, saying: "I'm so happy that you are here this evening to do this important work. As you know, we've been having this conversation in the community for some time, and we now have an opportunity to gather data to help the City Council and to help our community be heard."
Gathering in small groups around tables, community members were asked to indicate whether or not they support purchasing the gear and why. They also were asked to critique a sample policy that could govern when and how the equipment would be used. Participants were invited to use sticky notes to suggest changes to the draft document.
The Duluth Citizens Review Board helped organize the event, and Archie Davis, chairman of that board, said the open houses are designed to reach all segments of the city.
"When I look at the folks here, there is a minimal number of people of color. But it makes me wonder: What is it going to look like in the Hillside, and what is it going to look like in West Duluth? Maybe those turnouts will be different, and maybe the voices will be different. Maybe most of these folks are here supporting the idea, but Hillside is going to have mixed emotions about it," he said.
Davis, who is black, noted that people of color often have different perspectives on police activities, because of prior interactions with law enforcement both in Duluth and elsewhere.
"It's important that we recognize that different people have different experiences with police and policing," said Carl Crawford, who also serves as city staff liaison for the Citizens Review Board. He voiced hopes that the open houses would help build a level of community trust.
Ryan Stauber said he has yet to experience a situation where officers truly needed riot gear in his 10½ years working as a 911 dispatcher.
"But I want them to have it," he said.
"In 2016, we had peaceful protests in St. Paul that grew violent," Stauber said. "We had 21 injured officers ... who were simply doing their jobs at the direction of the governor and the police chief and their mayor. One of them was hit in the head with a 25-pound block of concrete, and he was only saved because he was wearing a helmet."
Stauber said he values the ongoing public discussion about the proposed gear purchase but acknowledged a number of people on the force are growing frustrated after nearly a year of delayed action.
"They want to know that the public has their back. It's your Duluth Police Department. You want to help it. You want to grow it. You should want to protect it," Stauber said.
But Heidi Bakk-Hansen expressed frustration with the ongoing call for riot gear and a continued series of public meetings on the issue that she feels are mostly for show.
"The general tone is that if they talk to us long enough and in enough ways that we'll just agree that riot gear is going to keep our police safe," she said.
"Nobody is arguing that the police should be unsafe, but riot gear doesn't have that result," Bakk-Hansen said. "It escalates situations in a way that hurts everyone. It hurts the police, and it hurts the crowd that's being controlled. It's antithetical to the current science on crowd-control psychology."
Two more open houses to discuss both the proposed equipment purchase and how it might be used will take place in the coming days:
• 5:30-7 p.m. today in the Denfeld High School cafeteria, 401 N. 44th Ave. W.
• 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday at Historic Old Central High School, 215 N. First Ave. E.