Jim Heffernan column: Crime and punishment in Duluth’s long past
A lot of police activity in during the days of my youth seemed to involve traffic issues.
These are difficult times to be a police officer, we all know — especially the cops themselves. They’ve come under fire throughout the country due to the horrible murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We all know that, too.
The ongoing controversy has caused me to reflect on how policing here in Duluth and around the country has changed over the years.
For one thing, there were no cops in Duluth schools back when I was a student. The faculty and administration could handle problems on their own, thank you very much. Sure, there were problems, but nothing to warrant police stationed in the high school buildings. Occasional fights had to be broken up, but the faculty handled it. Guns in school? Preposterous.
Police here used to be involved in more issues that really weren’t serious crimes. The first time a cop scared the daylights out of me, he jumped out of a squad car and confiscated the slingshot of a nearby friend, about 10 years old. He grabbed it out of my friend’s hand and broke it apart, got back into the squad and disappeared down the block.
Whew. We were relieved not to be arrested. We thought you could get sent to Red Wing for owning a slingshot. Red Wing was a famous reform school in southern Minnesota where some kids we’d heard of actually were sentenced, further preparing them for a life of crime once they got out.
A lot of police activity in those days seemed to involve traffic issues. For one thing, they’d set up radar on main drags and ticket drivers for going over 30. And the newspaper published the names of those offenders, along with how fast they were going, their ages and addresses. Oh, the humiliation.
Cops also pulled over cars with loud mufflers and handed out tickets. That happened to me once as a teenager in my coupe with a sweet sounding, rumbling set of dual exhausts. I’d say my pipes were about half as loud as today’s motorcycles.
I was just sick when I was issued a ticket and ordered to report to police headquarters in a few days to demonstrate that I’d had the mufflers replaced. I took a chance and stuffed the tailpipes with steel wool, which muffled the sound, and passed my review at headquarters, after which I blew the steel wool out and was back to disturbing the peace with the sound of my car. I felt like an outlaw.
And woe betide any driver whose vehicle didn’t have a bumper either in front or back or both. Siren, lights, ticket. Now most cars don’t even come with bumpers.
The cops were also quite active in the city’s lovers’ lanes at night — places were boy teenagers of driving age would park with their girlfriends for harmless necking or whatever. The cops would sneak up on the parked cars on foot and shine flashlights in to make sure nothing illegal was going on. Nobody knew what was legal or not. Move on, the cops would demand, having invaded the privacy of young people in the early stages of fulfilling their biological destiny.
These were some of the crimes that tried cops’ souls in that long-past era, although, of course, there were offenses of the more serious variety, even murder, robbery, burglary and so forth. There just didn’t seem to be as much as we hear about today. Now, in our time, many of the difficulties nationally have been initiated by police themselves, such as in the Floyd case.
Later, when I became a reporter for this newspaper covering the police beat, I came to know quite a few cops, and liked most of them. Some, I felt, didn’t like me, or what I did to interfere with their jobs by writing stories about them. That’s always been a problem between law enforcement and the news media, even back then.
By then things were changing on the street. The drug culture hit, and policing got a lot more challenging.
In some cities — Minneapolis, for one — police are under scrutiny for perceived or actual racism. Those stories are compelling and give rise to proper criticism of law enforcement.
So far, police racial relations in Duluth seem to be pretty positive. Maybe that reflects a tradition in the Duluth Police Department. I hope so.
For most of my life, I have been acquainted with a former Duluth police chief — through family, church as youngsters and cordial relations through our adult years whenever we have crossed paths.
Back when he was chief in the ’90s (he retired in 2002), on one sunny summer Sunday, I was in my yard mowing my lawn when he pulled over in his vehicle to say hello. Our homes were in the same neighborhood. We had a nice chat during which I asked him where he’d been all alone on this beautiful Sunday afternoon. He said he was returning from a meeting of the Duluth Chapter of the NAACP.
That Duluth police chief was Scott Lyons.
I’m not aware of any change in that general attitude toward race relations by Duluth police leadership in the intervening years. Let’s hope not.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.