City Councilor's View: Gear purchased; policy must follow, and include views of all
Like many Duluthians, I continue to reflect on the City Council meeting of Oct. 22. All those who attended, viewed, or listened to the meeting know of the civil disobedience that took place. People -- many behind masks -- disrupted the council ag...
Like many Duluthians, I continue to reflect on the City Council meeting of Oct. 22. All those who attended, viewed, or listened to the meeting know of the civil disobedience that took place. People - many behind masks - disrupted the council agenda. Their goal was to shut down the meeting to prevent a vote on a resolution to purchase protective equipment (what some call "riot gear") by the Duluth Police Department. Despite the efforts of the protestors, the resolution was approved with a 6-2 vote of the council. In the midst of the protest, no public comments were shared, nor was there any council debate.
In response to the protest, many people are calling for all of us to practice greater civility. Real civility requires that all of us listen deeply to the experiences and concerns of all our citizens, especially those who feel marginalized and unheard. In a recent email, a constituent wrote, "When people don't feel listened to and heard, they are bound to start shouting."
I played a part in bringing the resolution to the council. I had heard frustration from members of the police department who were angry with elected officials for not addressing this issue, which was first brought before the council last January. My intention was to get this resolution passed, acquire the equipment, and deal later with the policy regarding its deployment.
When the resolution was introduced at the Sept. 24 meeting, council chambers were packed with people who wanted to state their misgivings about it. Many present were African American, Native American, LGBTQ, people living without housing or in poverty, and allied others. As I listened to their statements, I learned that most of those speaking were angry not only about the equipment but also about the absence of a written policy regarding its use. I heard the public's concerns regarding the lack of input afforded community members. Citizens demanded more communication, inclusion, and hard data about the proposed equipment and its deployment. I then joined the majority of councilors who voted to table the resolution.
Following the vote to table, city administration planned three public forums. As did other councilors, I spoke with many at the forums and in private meetings. I met with constituents, members of the city administration, the chief of police, business leaders, police officers, and current and former elected officials. I talked with family and friends of active-duty police. Emails and phone calls poured in. It should be noted that while hundreds of comments were collected at the forums, to date there has been no comprehensive analysis of the data.
I heard from a constituent, "The Duluth Police Department should be considered on its own merit, not as part of the national discussion."
One person I spoke with said, "If people don't break the law, they don't need to be afraid of cops."
Another said, "This listening process is flawed and inadequate because it is not inclusive enough."
It was pointed out to me that our police officers must enforce the law while simultaneously being prepared to act as social workers, EMTs, chaplains, addiction counselors, mediators, and crisis-intervention specialists.
The people continued to speak:
"How do we come up with more connected, community-based ways of keeping peace?"
"People of color in Duluth feel profiled and over-policed."
"Our officers risk their lives every day. They need this equipment."
"This equipment won't protect officers from gun violence."
This is a thorny issue. Everyone wants to feel safe. It is the job of police officers to put themselves in harm's way. Some Duluthians fear their neighbors because they are culturally or racially different. Families and friends of police officers fear for their loved ones' safety. I've heard very clearly that many people of color feel threatened when encountering police officers.
How do we have discussion or debate through this veil of fear?
The Duluth City Council passed the resolution to support the purchase of this protective equipment. My own regret is that we did this without first having an associated written policy in place. Mayor Emily Larson, Chief Mike Tusken, representatives of the Citizen Review Board, and members of the public are now taking steps to create this important policy. These steps must include deep, attentive listening to all members of our community, especially those whose voices historically have been oppressed.
Gary Anderson is the elected representative of District 1 on the Duluth City Council. The district covers far-eastern Duluth.