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'I'm not going to let them run me out': Duluth family seeks end to 15 years of police calls

The Kirks say they are tired of answering to unfounded allegations, calling on police to find a better way to handle a longstanding issue with 911 calls to their residence..

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The Kirks — clockwise from top, Aaron, Amy, Ruby, 6 and Grace, 18 — stand on the front steps of their West Duluth home. They have been the subject of dozens of police calls over the past 15 years. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Police cars are a common sight outside the Kirk residence in West Duluth.

Officers were once summoned to the house after a woman called police and said she smelled a "chemical odor" and "heard an explosion" from what she believed to be a meth lab.

Another time, the same woman told police she heard Grace Kirk, then age 6, "screaming bloody murder" inside the residence. Officers responded and learned she was merely excited about a prize she had just received at dance class.

The father, Aaron Kirk, has been accused of myriad things: attempting to steal the woman's roofing materials, threatening to tear down her garage "little by little," and sending his child to steal the woman’s Meals on Wheels deliveries, among other allegations on a long list.

Responding officers inevitably conclude there is a lack of evidence to make any arrests or issue any citations as a result of the calls. Police reports make frequent use of terms such as "unfounded."

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But the Kirks say they're tired of answering to baseless allegations, estimating that they've had well over 100 police interactions in the past 15 years.

"It's getting to the point where it has to stop," Aaron Kirk said. "You can't continue to use the police as a battering ram."

Private disputes resulting in repeated 911 calls are not uncommon, said Duluth police Lt. Chad Nagorski, but "very rarely do we have something where it's every single day or we're back there for months and months and months."

Officers will attempt to mediate a peaceful resolution or connect people with services to address mental health or chemical dependency issues that may be fueling the calls, he said, but police alone can't always provide a solution.

"Some of these things aren't really police problems," Nagorski said, "but there's really nowhere else for people to turn."

Dozens of calls

Aaron, 49, is Black. His wife, Amy, 46, is white. They live with their two daughters, 18-year-old Grace and 6-year-old Ruby, in a quiet pocket of the Cody neighborhood.

Amy Kirk moved into the corner lot in 2003 and said she did not initially have any issues, but things changed when she started dating Aaron and he moved into her house in 2005. What started as a scuffle between dogs soon led to a series of "little nitpicking things" that have escalated over the years, Amy said.

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Amy Kirk talks about an ongoing issue her family has had, leading to many 911 calls to their West Duluth home. Kirk said she won't be forced out of her residence. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Records provided by Duluth police indicate there have been 73 calls to the area since 2012. Roughly two dozen of those were for medical issues or welfare checks, but most others were reported as neighborhood troubles, disturbances, harassment, unwanted people, trespassing, suspicious activity or other similar classifications, according to police records.

"At what point do the police kind of draw the line?" asked Amy Kirk, a registered nurse. "It's caused so much anxiety for all of us."

Police have sought to intervene over the years. Reports indicate officers have warned the callers against filing unnecessary reports and told both sides to work to appease one another.

At one point, in 2008, officials even summoned both sides to City Hall. Representatives from the police department, City Attorney's Office and Human Rights Office met with the parties in separate rooms in hopes of brokering some form of peace. But talks broke down when they could not come to any agreement short of the Kirks surrendering their miniature Schnauzer dog, according to documents.

When approached by the News Tribune, the other parties declined to comment on their relationship with the Kirks or the police calls.

'Always on edge'

Police in 2017 established a new plan for calls related to the Kirk residence.

Calls would be sent to a supervisor first, unless there was a belief that an active emergency was occurring. It was determined that officers should generally handle situations by calling both parties, refraining from going to the scene unless necessary.

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Officers were advised to "be aware of the historical dynamics between these parties," according to an email provided to the family by police administration.

The Kirks said they've made progress working with some community officers over the years, but they tend to rotate out frequently and officers responding to calls aren't always aware of the background.

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Aaron Kirk discusses the issues he has had with repeated 911 calls to his West Duluth home. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"It's getting on my nerves," said Aaron Kirk, who works as a mental health case manager. "There's nothing going on here. We don't have to keep starting over from square one."

Amy Kirk added that she now feels something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder whenever she is around police — so distracted and paranoid that she has pulled off the road when she sees an officer traveling behind her. She said she worries about her husband's safety.

"It's extra scary because Aaron is a Black man," Amy said. "Sometimes when police come over, it gets heated. Are they going to think that Aaron is a threat? ... It's very scary for me. We're always on edge."

Police response varies

Duluth used to have dedicated community officers assigned to specific neighborhoods. But the department restructured several years ago to have all patrol officers take on the responsibilities of community problem-solving, overseen by three area commanders.

Nagorski, who supervises eastern Duluth, said officers can't always serve as arbiters of private disputes. But he said they can push both sides toward some form of amicable resolution.

"The goal is not for the police department to mediate everybody's problems," Nagorski said. "It's to help them mediate themselves or to get people involved that can help mediate them."

Nagorski declined to specifically address the Kirks' case, but he said "the sky's the limit" when it comes to ways police seek solutions.

Some cases can involve people dealing with mental health or chemical dependency issues, and one of the department's embedded social workers will respond alongside an officer or follow up to try to help connect the person with services. But those things can take time, he said.

"A lot of that is just relationship-building and getting them to trust the embedded social worker and/or mental health officer," said Nagorski, who also supervises the Mental Health Unit.

Nagorski said he understands the "frustration and anger" that people feel when officers are routinely being summoned to their residence, especially for complaints that are unfounded.

He said police try to alleviate the situation by looking for alternatives — making phone calls or simply driving through the area, for instance — but some reports do require an in-person response, particularly if someone may be in danger.

"We still have to go check those out," Nagorski said. "But we need to figure out what that response is going to be, where it doesn't continually bring that (person) into question."

'This is where we live'

Police reports have, at times, portrayed Aaron Kirk as unwilling to engage with officers, sometimes taking a "confrontational attitude" and yelling at officers to leave his property.

"They may be understandably upset and frustrated, but (that) certainly doesn’t excuse the way I was treated," Officer Brian Jones wrote after one such incident in 2014, noting in his report that "apparently there is (a) long history between (the parties) that I was not aware of."

Grace Kirk said her father "sticks up for himself" and is tired of dealing with the issue.

"You can see what 15 years of constant harassment and showing up at the door can do to someone who is tough and prides himself on protecting his family," she said. "That can break someone down."

Grace, who just graduated from Marshall School and plans to play basketball at Ivy League Brown University in Rhode Island, said she has her own fears about living independently as a Black woman.

"People have a preconceived notion of what a Black man or a Black family is supposed to be like, and their perception is distorted, obviously, and it's ugly," said Grace Kirk, who hopes to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney. "We obviously don't meet that definition, and I think that's frustrating for people who want us to fit in that box."

The Kirks said they have opted against seeking a harassment restraining order — though the other party has twice unsuccessfully filed for one against Aaron — as they said they don't want to engage in those battles.

They've also decided against moving, despite many discussions.

"This is my house," Amy Kirk said. "This is where we live. We love our house. ... We like the area. I'm not going to let them run me out of here."

Nagorski acknowledged there isn't always going to be an amicable solution.

"Sometimes there's not a whole lot we can do about it because there's never really a crime committed," he said. "If they don't want to mediate, then you just kind of have to tell them to stay away from each other."

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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