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Turning negatives to positives in community-police relations

"Something seems wrong with the police." This comment came from a friend in Vermont as we were splitting wood. Not having seen each other in a while, we were catching up and he shared his concern about the police, in response to finding out that ...

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"Something seems wrong with the police."

This comment came from a friend in Vermont as we were splitting wood. Not having seen each other in a while, we were catching up and he shared his concern about the police, in response to finding out that I am a member of the Duluth Citizen Review Board (DCRB), a body that in part oversees and advises the Duluth Police Department (DPD).

This comment from a white middle-class man speaks volumes about the current national context of policing. He personally has not had any interactions with the police, but his perspective has been shaped by so many high-profile cases of use of force, many of which have been deadly. Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston: these are just some of the cities that have had incidents which influence public perceptions.

I know that this negativity wears on officers. Chief Gordon Ramsay and Deputy Chief Mike Tusken of the DPD wrote a commentary, "Police View: Don't judge all officers by actions of a few" for the Duluth News Tribune on July 4, explaining how difficult the media focus on negative cases is for the morale of officers. They caution us to "... remember the good work that is done every minute of every day by our police officers, and don't judge all by the actions of a relative few."

So how do we get out of a negative frame? The DCRB is supposed to be about "positive relationships, trust, and communication." For me, it comes from being willing to look at difficult issues because of confidence in our department. Yes, some people don't trust the system, thinking that police will just sweep any complaints under the rug.

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That is where civilian oversight has such benefit. DCRB members are not on the city payroll, so citizens who don't trust the system are more likely to trust us. I have worked with a number of people to not only explain the process of filing a complaint and connecting them to the right person in the DPD, but assuring them that the complaint will actually be investigated. Each complaint provides an opportunity for the DPD to review its policies and procedures to look for improvement. It also allows citizens to share how an interaction impacted them and to better understand the rationale for why officers act how they do.

The DCRB's importance is also increased by the growing diversity of our community. At a forum hosted by the DCRB in June, Chief Ramsay stated that while the police gets positive reviews from over 90 percent of the population, evaluations tend to be lowest from people of color and people dealing with poverty. Having a board with members who have credibility in those parts of our community is critical. We have members who are African-American, Native American and white, as well as some with law enforcement background. This diversity allows us to assist the DPD as it strives to raise its positive ratings.

The DCRB also provides a critical eye and gives suggestions for how policies and procedures can be improved. One example came through participation in hiring panels in 2014. Three DCRB members were part of interviewing police candidates. However, we started without any explanation of how the process worked, making it difficult for us to initially function as full members of the team. Afterward, we recommended an orientation to make sure community members were prepared so their insights could be appreciated. The DPD took this suggestion and built on it to improve the hiring process.

Relationship building is also critical for policing. When I hear statements of distrust and suspicion, they often refer to police in general. When people develop relationships with specific officers, trust is built. The DPD does fosters community-police connections in many ways. Community officers, the Duluth Police Athletic League and the mounted patrol are just a few examples. The DCRB is another of those partners that provide opportunities for citizens to strengthen relationships with officers through being able to talk about concerns.

I hope that in reading this, you have come to see that while there are definitely issues with policing, far more positives are happening in Duluth. As well, there is an openness to address complaints. If you are someone who thinks "something seems wrong with the police," I invite you to share your perspectives and experiences so that they can be addressed and we can turn the negative into a positive for the benefit of our community and the police who work here to serve and protect.

Doug Bowen-Bailey is a member of the DCRB and works as a sign language interpreter and educator. If you are interested in more information about the DCRB, contact Bob Grytdahl, human rights officer and secretary of the DCRB, at (218) 730-5630 or bgrytdahl@duluthmn.gov .

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