A community grassroots organization is seeking to change the city of Duluth's policing model in order to increase accountability and improve relationships between members of the community and public safety officers.

The Duluth Community Safety Initiative is a group of concerned citizens who united in the summer of 2020 to implement the demands of a petition signed by more than 3,000 people, 800 of whom were Duluth residents. The petition, and the organization formed around it, call for five proposals to be implemented in the city of Duluth:

  1. Formation of a community-led commission to oversee the enactment of proposals.
  2. Bi-monthly community-led police open forums.
  3. An independent racial bias audit of the Duluth Police Department.

  4. A budget freeze until part of the police budget can be reallocated to fund an alternative model.

  5. Creation of a new policing model.

"We intend to reform public safety practice to reflect a concern for the dignity and value of every human being," said organizer Blair Powless at a news conference on Monday. "It is our intention that the relationships between the community and public safety come to be based in a sincere, mutual respect. Our goal is to see the police department gain the respect of all members of the community. In order for that to happen, all public safety policies and the attitude and demeanor of public safety employees must project that profound concern."

Blair Powless, an organizer with the Duluth Community Safety Initiative, calls for the adoption of several proposals to improve the relationship between the community and the Duluth Police Department at a press conference on May 17, 2021. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)
Blair Powless, an organizer with the Duluth Community Safety Initiative, calls for the adoption of several proposals to improve the relationship between the community and the Duluth Police Department at a press conference on May 17, 2021. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)

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Powless said the organization has entered into talks with the city and with the police department. So far, they've been well-received, according to Powless.

"Now is the time for profound positive change," Powless said. "Generations of suffering and sacrifice have brought us to this moment. The biggest mistake we can make is to let this opportunity be distorted by political or cultural disagreement."

The organization is also calling on the Duluth police to adopt a new model of policing, citing a model called CAHOOTS: Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. It has been used for the past 30 years in Eugene, Oregon, a city of similar population size to Duluth. The program sends out two-person, unarmed teams composed of a medic and a crisis worker experienced in behavioral health to 911 calls related to mental health, homelessness and drug use.

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"We need to shift to that type of response," said Treasure Jenkins, another organizer of DSCI. "We need to make more of our systems kinder and more compassionate, more considerate of all our people in the community, rather than always sending in a police officer with a gun."

Jenkins also called for the community to get involved with the various initiatives proposed by the group.

"I think it's my responsibility to help, and I want to encourage others to feel welcome if they want to help make this city a more compassionate place for everyone living here," Jenkins said.

Powless said the organization is also working to end pretextual stops.

"Pretextual stops being when someone is detained for a minor infraction while police suspect and seek evidence of a more serious crime," Powless said. "Too many of us have been victimized and humiliated by this arbitrary and often racist practice."

Learn more about the organization's proposals at leanduluth.org.

This story originally mischaracterized the Duluth Community Safety Initiative's relationship with another local organization. It was updated at 8:27 a.m. May 18. The News Tribune regrets the error.