It has to be heartening to our local law enforcement. With calls around the country to defund the police and even abolish the police — and with expletives and worse being hurled at officers — here, there has been a noticeable groundswell of support for officers, our neighbors who put their lives on the line to keep us safe.
Consider how the City Council has been inundated with emails of support in recent weeks for the Duluth Police Department — even though no “defund” resolution has been introduced by any councilor and no such action is being contemplated.
“I think it’s insane to even consider the possibility (of defunding) the police,” read one of the many messages. “Crime will take over the city.”
“These officers are already underpaid (and) doing a job most of us couldn’t handle for a day. It’s dangerous, unpredictable, and their lives are on the line constantly,” read another. “We have one of the best forces around, and to defund them? What sort of message would that send to them? Why would they want to work for a city that doesn’t support them?”
“We need our police to have appropriate funding to do their jobs! They are needed, welcome, and appreciated in (Minnesota),,” wrote another resident. “Please stop this nonsense! We support our blue line!”
Consider, too, the comments of a few of our councilors.
“I just want to make it very clear that I support our police department. I stand with (them). … I don’t have any interest in defunding them,” Councilor Derek Medved said in a phone interview this week with the News Tribune Opinion page. “We have a great police department. We have a great force that is filled with men and women who are hard-working, dedicated, understanding, and they run toward danger. We want them — I want them — to be there when we need them. Can we look at things? Of course we can. Can we have better conversations with them? Of course we can.”
And we will very soon, vows Councilor Renee Van Nett, who chairs the City Council’s public safety committee.
“There’s always been that, ‘How can we do better?’ And the police department has always been in that process of, ‘Well, how can we do better? What can we do better?’” Van Nett told the Opinion page, also by telephone. “It’s highlighted even more because of George Floyd, and it should be. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. … The community needs to be at the table. … They should be.”
Community involvement with and active oversight of the police department are not new concepts to Duluth, even if they seem foreign elsewhere. At least three times in just the past five years, the department has engaged with the community in months-long deep dives: into how officers approach people who are homeless, how they handle immigration status, and when they put on and use recently purchased protective gear like helmets and shields.
In addition, a Citizens Review Board was created in Duluth in 2012 "to strengthen trust and communication between the police department and citizens," as the News Tribune reported then. The board of Duluthians regularly reviews officers' actions, and it works with the department to address allegations of inappropriate behavior.
One of the first things Chief Mike Tusken did when he was promoted to the post in 2016 was review and update the department's use-of-force policy. Other policies — including on sexual-assault, body cameras, internal investigations, crowd control, and more — also all have been reworked and modernized, each time with public meetings, community input, and citizen feedback.
As the News Tribune opined last month, Duluth has been having meaningful and effective conversations for years about policing and police-community relations. We've been working well together effectively and proactively. It seems only natural for that to continue.
“We are not Minneapolis,” Van Nett said.
In other words, the woes there are not necessarily our woes here. And their “solutions” aren’t always applicable to Duluth.
Tusken addressed that disconnect last week in a 1,040-word social-media post: “The calls for defunding are broad and we know that not all police departments are created equal. Some are more innovative than others. Some enjoy greater community support than others. While others engage in community policing efforts where there is a co-production of policing — where engaged citizens are invaluable partners with police in keeping neighborhoods safe. This is true in Duluth. We pride ourselves in being a model for the state and nation by embracing the social contract theory and a co-production of policing.”
A day after Tusken’s post, Duluth Police Local 807 joined the chorus of support for local law enforcement: “Recruiting and retention of trained, qualified officers has never been more important to police departments nationwide. \u0009Reducing our budget will inevitably affect the wages and benefits that are offered to any police recruit,” read the statement sent to the media, including to the Opinion page. “Proper and high-quality training costs money, and with the calls for (the) increased training of police officers, it would be irresponsible and\u0009hypocritical to demand officers have\u0009more training but then not provide them with the resources to accomplish that.”
Rather than defunding police, perhaps more funding is needed, especially to accomplish goals being discussed around the country, including more social workers accompanying uniformed officers. It’s something already being deployed in Duluth but certainly could be expanded.
Consider also the Duluth school district’s recent nods of support for Duluth Police. New Superintendent John Magas urged the School Board to pass a resolution of support for school resource officers, or SROs, who have been stationed inside Duluth public schools since 1994. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, a student petition here echoed the calls in other communities to remove officers from schools.
On Tuesday, the School Board granted Magas’ request, voting unanimously in support of SROs in Duluth’s two middle schools and two high schools. The resolution also directed administration to “launch dialogue sessions with high school student groups to discuss issues of equity, race, and power.” More such conversations can produce even stronger relationships between police, our schools, and the community.
Duluth School Board President Jill Lofald, retired after a career as a Duluth public-schools teacher, said in an interview with the Opinion page in late June that student resource officers here employ a positive “community-policing focus” and have been “more mentors.” She praised the officers’ “strong community-building” and the “connection to our community” that they provide.
“There’s more counseling going on. … It’s been a good relationship,” she said. “They’re not being disciplinarians. They’re not being enforcers. They are the mentors and the educational piece to what the police department is about in our community.”
The groundswell of support for Duluth Police isn’t only heartening; it helps fortify a foundation of trust and respect for conversations still to come — the always-present, “How can we do better?”
City Councilor Arik Forsman, in a statement to the Opinion page, put it very well: “We need the Duluth Police Department. Rather than defunding them, I support the idea that we can build up a better team around them by investing across governmental layers to make progress in housing, mental health, substance abuse, and other critical social services. By approaching this discussion collaboratively, we can again be known as a community on the leading edge that forms community partnerships in order to keep all of our citizens safe.”