Our View: Defund the police? Not in Duluth

Contributed by Shannon Walters, Duluth

At least three times in just the past five years, the Duluth Police 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.

Also, 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.

There are many calls elsewhere to defund and even disband police forces in favor of law enforcement that’s more community-focused and reflective of community values. Such calls are appropriate following the tragic death of George Floyd while he was in the custody of Minneapolis Police officers.

But Duluth isn’t Minneapolis. Calls to defund the police don’t need to be echoed here. As a community, Duluth has been having meaningful and effective conversations for years about policing and police-community relations. We’ve been working well together. Our conversations can continue for the safety and benefit of all Duluthians and in the name of effective, appropriate law enforcement.


“George Floyd’s murder was tragic, and we all watched it. We hope that we (can) condemn the behavior of the individuals and not necessarily the entire profession,” Tusken said at a news conference this week that was held virtually. “Authority to do our work every day is not one that we get because we carry a badge or a gun or we have a (license) or we work for a municipality or the state. … Our community (gives) us the authority on their behalf, to serve them, and that is an honor and a privilege. … Every officer who wears a badge proudly and honorably looks forward to helping the next person on the next call.”

Late last week, Duluth joined a national pledge to follow use-of-force policies aimed at reducing police violence. It shouldn’t pose much of a problem. De-escalation techniques, not using chokeholds, alternatives to shooting, comprehensive officer training, and more are all policies Duluth officers long have been trained to follow.

“I’m in support of this deeply urgent community conversation about policing policy,” City Council President Gary Anderson said at the press conference. “There really is a strong need, even in Duluth with all the progress that we have made.”

Another thing Duluth is doing right with policing: Character is a primary consideration when officers are hired here. “We can train people to be a police officer, to a greater or lesser extent, but we cannot train character, and that is the foundation of what we hire,” Tusken said. Once on the force, officers receive regular training on de-escalation, recognizing bias, white privilege, and more.

Also, a commitment to community policing here has officers building positive relationships with Duluthians through regular contact — an estimated 2,000 police-community contacts in 2018 alone, Tusken said, including at recreation centers, during youth programs, through fishing outings, at community-club meetings, and elsewhere.

And audits of police department policies and practices are done by outside-the-department, outside-City Hall community groups and other experts on a regular basis, Tusken said. “Not every (police department) operates the way we do here in Duluth,” he said. “We aren’t afraid of inviting in people, people who our services are impacted by, to come into our organization, to take a look at what we’re doing, in full transparency, and then ask questions. And those questions often become recommendations and those recommendations often are found in our policies.”

Community confidence in and support for police may be waning in Minneapolis and elsewhere — and for good reason. But that doesn’t have to be the case here. With public conversations and community involvement continuing and ongoing, there seems to be little reason for any call here to defund or disband law enforcement.

“I don’t foresee that,” Duluth Citizen Review Board Chair Archie Davis said at the press conference about the possibility of defunding here. “I think we’re a little bit further advanced (than Minneapolis), even though they’re a larger city. … As a person of color, many times I need (the) police.”


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