In the midst of sitting down to coauthor a piece about racial justice and public safety infrastructure in Duluth, news broke about the April 11 shooting death of Daunte Wright. Yet another person of color was lost at the hands of Minnesota law enforcement. For us, ongoing, overwhelming community grief is coupled with the knowledge of continued inaction from our Legislature and community leaders. How can we begin to talk about healing without having taken the steps needed to stop the violence in the first place?
This is not an instance of a lone “bad apple.” Policing is a system grounded in and borne out of white supremacy: The egregiously disproportionate use of force against African Americans and Native Americans in Duluth is proof of its existence. Recent data from the Duluth Police Department indicates that in 2020, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, or BIPOC, individuals were involved in 54% of Duluth Police use-of-force incidents while making up only 10% of the city's population. The data shows jarring racial disparities in arrest rates, traffic stops, and sentencing duration for drug charges in St. Louis County. Given that people of color do not commit more crimes than white people, this data demonstrates institutional white supremacy at work.
The stories and experiences of our community members reflect what the data tell us and cannot be overlooked. Our BIPOC community spoke for years about getting stopped walking home from the store or being pulled over while suspiciously leaving a gas station. License plate tags, broken tail lights, turn-signal violations, and other trivial issues often start interactions with police. From the recent story of Duluth Police officer Tyler Leibfried being charged for shooting through a door and striking an unarmed man inside, Duluth is no stranger to how quickly trivial interactions with police can escalate into violence. It must not take a death to remind us of the hidden and irreparable effects of racial discrimination happening every day in our community.
These disparities will not be fixed with the conviction of one police officer, or even a handful. They demand a complete overhaul of the system of policing and the culture that creates these disparities. We must work on reforms that center around the people who have been oppressed. This means decentralizing the task of public safety away from law enforcement and taking a comprehensive approach to violence prevention with community-based support. We must create a holistic system of public safety that protects everyone.
The Duluth Police Department and St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office must know that we as a community will not tolerate racial discrimination of any kind. The NAACP and other local organizations have already been hard at work reimagining, researching, and pushing for justice in our city. We plan to work toward racial equality and hold law enforcement accountable by ensuring the city performs a comprehensive and independent racial bias audit of the Duluth Police Department. We can create public safety for the entire city by using an alternative crisis-response model that brings mental health and social service professionals — not police — to those in crisis. The community has brought these projects to the table, and now it is up to us as community leaders, local officials, and legislators to make them a reality.
However, it is vital that throughout that process we create and maintain structures that maintain the autonomy of the community members with the highest stake in these issues. In other words, BIPOC community members, organizations, and businesses must be given the power to do what needs to be done to hold our leaders accountable and create change.
Classie Dudley is president of the NAACP Duluth Branch. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, is senator of Minnesota Senate District 7 and a former public defender.