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Local View: Perception, reality plague police-race issues in Duluth, elsewhere

From the column: "A starting point is recognizing that racism does exist in law enforcement — not surprisingly, since it is embedded in many institutions in Duluth and elsewhere."

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2019 News Tribune file photo
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The rift that has been roiling the waters of the police department in Duluth is problematic but hardly unique. In fact, it’s almost to be expected in these times.

The issue concerns a report unveiled at a public forum this spring by a Seattle-based consulting organization, Police Strategies LLC, concerning racial disparities in arrests and uses of force by the Duluth Police (“Duluth police release disparity data: Consultant finds gaps in race statistics but not 'systemic problem',” April 1). The analysis was attacked as too lenient by the Law Enforcement Accountability Network, or LEAN, a self-described “grassroots data analysis group … working for police accountability;” its focus is on police-brutality issues.

The contretemps apparently centers around the methodology used by the consultant to assess use of force. A key question is whether the baseline should be the number of arrests or the population as a whole. The former is more skewed racially while the latter tends to be less alarming since Black suspects are arrested far more often than white suspects on a per-capita basis but represent a relatively smaller portion of the overall population.

It’s a pressing problem that undoubtedly will be near the top of the agenda during the search process for a new police chief to replace retiring Mike Tusken.

Regardless of the data dispute hovering over the outside consultant’s work and other features of the report, the underlying issue of racism in law enforcement cannot be evaded. Nor can it be fully explained.

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The Police Strategies report didn’t try to do so, reporting disparities in use of force but not attempting to dissect why they exist.

But data-driven issues are only one genre of racial concern regarding law enforcement activities here and elsewhere in Minnesota. In Minneapolis, where I work, the state Department of Human Rights, prompted by the George Floyd murder two years ago, found that the police department of the state’s largest city has “a pattern or practice of racial discrimination.”

In neighboring Golden Valley, Minnesota, where I live, a firestorm erupted late this winter and spilled over into the spring in connection with a search for a new police chief. The city’s mayor charged that a “toxic culture” imbued with “racism” existed in the department, an accusation that he apologized for a short while later, as the city proceeded to fill the vacancy by appointing a Black, male, veteran law-enforcement official from Oklahoma.

These issues reflect that law-enforcement agencies around the state, particularly in communities with growing minority populations, need to be diligent in identifying these problems and in trying to rein them in or, better yet, eradicate them.

Solutions to the problems are varied, as are the underlying sources of them. But a starting point is recognizing that racism does exist in law enforcement — not surprisingly, since it is embedded in many institutions in Duluth and elsewhere.

While watchdog groups like LEAN are salutary in calling attention to these concerns, they have a responsibility to act cautiously in making accusations, a line that LEAN may have breached in some of its rhetoric, including challenging on its website the “ethics” of the drafter of the Police Strategies consulting report before deleting it.

While issues of racism in law enforcement are real, others are matters of perception. But as that old saying goes, perception often is reality.

Marshall H. Tanick is a constitutional law attorney in Minneapolis. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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Marshall H. Tanick

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