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'A systemic issue': The path toward equitable policing in Duluth

Nearly a year after the Duluth NAACP demanded racially proportionate policing in Duluth, the News Tribune asked activists and authorities about what has changed and what is still to be accomplished.

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Law Enforcement Accountability Network team member Jamey Sharp speaks during a meeting Feb. 2 at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Kathryn A. Martin Library. LEAN was started a year ago to serve as a data-driven resource for other community advocacy organizations.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The protests were immediate, intense and international after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.

Activists marched in the streets of the Northland and around the world, hoping to channel their anger over the shocking video into fundamental changes in a system of policing that they long viewed as racially biased and unaccountable to the public.

But progress is slow, organizers have found, and it takes long-term commitment to the cause. That’s why a small group of volunteers in Duluth decided to get together in fall 2020 and figure out how they could turn a summer of demonstrations into permanent action.

People at a meeting table with laptops and face masks
Law Enforcement Accountability Network team member Claire Bransky, of Duluth, speaks during a meeting. The group is a collective of other organizations, including the NAACP, grassroots advocacy groups, religious and veterans organizations that are all working to eliminate racial disparities in local policing.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

A series of conversations with roughly two dozen community groups and leaders led to a new approach: a collective known as the Law Enforcement Accountability Network, which formally launched in January 2021.

“People were really clear that another organization doing advocacy work isn't necessary in Duluth,” team member Claire Bransky said. “There's amazing groups doing incredible work from the NAACP to the Duluth Community Safety Initiative to the Democratic Socialists of America and many, many more.

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“But there was a need for more of a repository of all the data and all of the experiences that Black and brown people have been sharing for decades. That’s the niche we want to serve.”

LEAN is unique in that it doesn’t advocate for particular reforms or policy decisions. Instead, it strives to be a data-focused clearing house for other organizations, collecting and disseminating stories and statistics on racial disparities in local policing.

The group has requested, reviewed and published data on arrests, traffic stops and use-of-force incidents, finding higher rates among people of color in a predominantly white city. Within months of the group’s formation, the Duluth NAACP used the data to issue a public demand for the Duluth Police Department to achieve racially proportionate numbers by December 2022.

“We can't start to talk about change until we're honest about where we’re at,” said Jamey Sharp, a LEAN team member and co-chair of the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Committee. “Police misconduct and racism within our legal system is not something that just exists in quote-unquote urban areas, like the Twin Cities and Chicago. It’s a systemic issue that is very clearly happening here in Duluth.”

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Law Enforcement Accountability Network team member Jamey Sharp, of Duluth, displays data the group has gathered. LEAN has taken a analytics-driven approach, requesting and releasing data on use-of-force incidents, arrests and traffic stops.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Advocates have been successful in receiving commitments from both the Duluth Police Department and City Attorney’s Office to conduct racial bias audits and review a variety of practices that could be contributing to racial disparities in the local criminal justice system.

Leaders of both agencies reaffirmed to the News Tribune they are committed to working with advocates and striving for transparency and equity.

“I have said for years that the community is our strength,” Police Chief Mike Tusken said. “We know that we can only be as good of a police department as we have support from our community. It’s important for us to engage our community in meaningful ways, where they have input and can ask questions of us about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

“What should scare citizens is if you have a police chief who says, ‘Well, we’ve arrived. We’re there. We’re done.’ I look at this as we’re on an arc of continuous improvement and we will learn from the things we do well and learn from the things that we need to be better at. We’re focused continuously on how we can improve for next time. This is a journey where there’s not an end destination.”

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Common ground through statistics

The LEAN team members are only “amateur statisticians,” Sharp admitted, so they have kept their data analysis fairly simple, juxtaposing policing statistics with racial demographics in the city.

For example, they found that African Americans made up 16% of arrests in Duluth between January 2017 and October 2020, despite accounting for only 3.3% of the overall population. Likewise, 12.8% of arrests were among Native Americans, who comprise just 2.3% of the population.

Meanwhile, the statistics showed that only half of all use-of-force incidents involved white residents, who make up 90% of Duluth’s population. And a sampling of traffic stop data showed that 18% involved people of color, who comprise 10% of the population.

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Law Enforcement Accountability Network team member Jamey Sharp explains the data that the group is collecting.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I don’t think any of us necessarily see LEAN as this super powerful agent of change, but more as a resource,” Sharp said. “We’re going to have the facts front and present.”

Bransky said there are some “real ideological differences” among the many advocacy groups involved in LEAN, but they are united around a common cause. Providing the raw data, along with maintaining an email list and producing a monthly newsletter allows roughly 300 people to coordinate and pursue their own initiatives.

“Hardcore abolitionists who don't want to work with the police at all can share their information and maybe somebody who doesn't agree with them 100% can still see the 10% that they do agree with and collaborate with them,” Bransky said. “I think part of why organizers fighting for police accountability have had so many huge, historic wins in the last year, including here locally, is because there has been collaboration across ideologies.”

Racial bias audit coming soon

Tusken acknowledged the concerns of LEAN and its member organizations about the overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal justice system. But he said he doesn’t view simple demographic comparisons as the best indicator of policing in the community.

The chief said the analysis needs to take into consideration other factors: Was the incident called in by a citizen or self-initiated by an officer? What has the victim reported about the suspect? Does the officer have any discretion or is an arrest mandatory under law?

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

People experiencing poverty also have a lack of access to housing, employment, education and health care, he noted.

“Those are all factors that can influence crime rates,” Tusken said. “It’s not just as simple as population benchmarking. There is a lot of analysis that needs to be done to understand and peel back the layers to get to the root or the drivers of the issue, and that narrative can’t only include, ‘There are a higher number of these, therefore the police are biased.’”

Tusken asserted that the department has a progressive track record, banning chokeholds in 2000, deploying body cameras to all officers in 2014 and launching innovative mental health and substance use response teams by 2018.

In wake of the NAACP’s demands in March 2021, Tusken said the department began meeting with city commissions and boards and putting together a racial bias audit team. A request for proposal is expected to go out in the near future so the department can hire an experienced consultant to review its practices.

The department last year also hired Police Strategies LLC, of Seattle, to conduct a “demographic disparity analysis” of the department’s call data. Tusken said the report, which will help the agency “see where there are areas of concern and where we can improve,” is expected to be publicly rolled out through the Citizen Review Board within the next month.

As opioid overdoses continue to spike regionally and nationally, a team based within the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Task Force is paving its own path to get people into recovery.

Prosecutors also reviewing data

City Attorney Rebecca St. George said her office will be able to fulfill a promise to collect and analyze racial data for the cases it handles once a new records system launches in late March.

That data has never before been collected on suspects referred to or charged by the office, which prosecutes offenses ranging from gross misdemeanors to city ordinance violations.

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Rebecca St. George

“What I want to see is if and how we are treating people differently once those cases show up in our office,” St. George said. “And, if so, what underlies that? I have an assumption that anywhere in the criminal justice system we’re going to find racial disparities because I think the system is set up in a way that that happens — not necessarily because the practitioners are racist but because there’s some systemic things in place — and I’m trying to figure out where we fit into that.”

St. George recently had the office’s victim-witness coordinator go through paperwork to manually gather racial statistics on a small sampling of cases.

A higher proportion of people of color do get referred to the office. For example, the makeup of fifth-degree assault suspects was 45% white, 25% Native American, 24% African American and 5% unknown.

Prosecutors have no control over the cases that get referred, St. George noted. But they do have an ability to decide whether charges are appropriate and what kind of outcome may be offered in a plea agreement.

“What I'm seeing is the outcomes are pretty consistent regardless of race,” she said. “But the numbers are so small, I don't know if that's right.”

Technology to provide better analysis

Police officials also have met with the NAACP regarding pretextual traffic stops — the practice of stopping vehicles for minor violations that can then allow police to investigate unrelated criminal offenses.

The tactic drew particular criticism following the shooting death of Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center police officer in April 2021.

Tusken maintained that such traffic stops have value in catching prowlers and others engaged in serious crimes, while noting that the department offers vouchers that give motorists the opportunity to get lights repaired for free. While opposed to a blanket ban, the chief said the department this year will continue to develop a new traffic stop policy.

“We’re in the process of researching policies from other agencies,” Tusken said, “and we also want to make this policy be unique to Duluth and to our citizens’ needs and wants.”

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Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken speaks at a news conference Sept. 3, 2020.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

A new records management system launched by the department in October 2020 does offer far more comprehensive racial data. Now, whenever officers make a stop, they are prompted to enter information on the perceived race of the driver. That is left up to the officer’s best judgment, Tusken said, because race is not actually included on driver's licenses and asking for that information would likely be seen as “indignation.”

“The reality is that we may not always be correct, but I think that it does matter what our perceptions are,” he said.

St. George said the new records system coming to the city attorney’s office likewise will provide far greater analysis of demographic information and case outcomes.

“We’ll be able to get a huge data dump with the push of a button,” St. George said. “There are so many different categories that come into play that we’ll be able to break down. The intersections of race and gender and poverty and age are all super important.”

The Last Place on Earth head shop helped pick up the tab for the new $1.6 million records management system, which will give officers and analysts near-instantaneous access to incident reports and crime trends.

While not major felony offenses that would result in a prison sentence, St. George noted that convictions for crimes like impaired driving or domestic violence can have significant impacts on defendants. She said her team of four prosecutors tries to analyze each case, but that can be difficult when they are juggling 1,300 open files.

“If somebody’s going to be deported or lose their housing, that’s a bigger deal than the guy next to him who’s going to get a fine,” St. George said. “The prosecutors will take that into account. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to prosecute, but it’s something to take into consideration.”

Advocates vow to continue pushing

While finding some success with the auditing commitments and other measures, LEAN team members said they won’t back down until they see statistics that are indicative of proportionate policing.

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Law Enforcement Accountability Network team member Shana Aue listens during a meeting Feb. 2 at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

LEAN more recently rolled out an initiative known as “ReWrite” — allowing community members to anonymously submit their own firsthand accounts of alleged police mistreatment, with the stories collected on the group’s website, leanduluth.org.

Team members said the project is meant to add a qualitative element to the quantitative data — showing how police interactions impact real people. They said it gives community members a more comfortable space to share their stories, as it can be an intimidating process to file a complaint with the police department.

People at a meeting table with laptops and face masks
Law Enforcement Accountability Network team member Jamey Sharp, of Duluth, talks during a meeting at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I do feel really proud of this project because, as far as we know, a public record of people's experiences with the police like this didn't exist before and now it does,” team member Pentti Hanlon said. “I really do feel honored that people are willing to share their stories with us, because that does take a lot of trust.”

Sharp said the team also wants to continue to collect and share updated data on arrests, traffic stops and force. He defended the use of demographic comparisons, noting certain studies that have shown people of color to be less likely to use drugs and more likely to be victims of crimes as compared to white people.

“You look at this data and it’s not going to fix racism,” Sharp said. “That’s not necessarily what we’re trying to do. As a law enforcement accountability group, we’re trying to just hold institutions accountable. And until those numbers are proportionate, our work isn’t going to be done.”

People at a meeting table with laptops and face masks
Law Enforcement Accountability Network team members Pentti Hanlon, left, and Claire Bransky talk together during a recent meeting.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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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