MINNEAPOLIS - Keeping the lines of communication open, treating people with mutual respect and understanding others' perspectives are key to bridging the gaps between law enforcement and communities of color.
Those were among the takeaways from a forum Wednesday at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, an event that featured local and national experts on law enforcement and racial justice.
"This is not just something that’s impacting people in other parts of the country," Minneapolis NAACP president Nekima Levy-Pounds asserted, making reference to the officer-involved shooting deaths of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights.
"It’s happening right here in our own backyard, so what are we going to do about it?"
Plymouth Police Chief Michael Goldstein said there shouldn't be such a huge divide between police officers and those they serve.
"Police officers are part of the community and should not be apart from the community," Goldstein told the crowd. "We need to have that understanding. Police need to recognize this, community members need to recognize this."
He said officers are being asked to handle an increasingly complex set of problems and taking on many more social agency roles under the auspices of keeping the peace. But he said officers need to remain mentally healthy to be effective.
"We were meeting with faith leaders in north Minneapolis, who are from north Minneapolis, and they stated that they wanted policing, but that they cannot have broken police officers policing their streets."
Nkechi Taifa of the Open Society Foundations said that much of the tension between communities of color and law enforcement is rooted in historic roles police played during the slavery era of containing and restraining African Americans who tried to assert their rights or step out of prescribed roles.
Cedric Alexander, a CNN law enforcement analyst, said at a time that the U.S. in under external threats it shouldn't be vulnerable to domestic turmoil at the same time.
"And there's no more important time in America’s history, it’s as important for police and community to be together, because as a country, as a nation, we’re only as strong as our partnerships in our communities."
Alexander, who is the deputy chief operating officer of the DeKalb County Office Public Safety in Georgia and serves on the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing, said in some ways dynamic has changed due to the emergence of cell phone videos that document lopsided encounters between police and citizens.
"I think we also have to accept the fact that merely because you did not see a 10-year-old kid slammed up against a police car does not mean it does not happen," Alexander said. "It just means you didn’t see it."
Levy-Pounds said it's impossible to separate income disparities from the disproportionate numbers of black men who are tripped up by violations of low-level ordinances.
"We are kicking the poor while they are down," Levy-Pounds said.
"And rather than opening the door to economic opportunity and correcting the wrongs of the past, we allow police forces to patrol those neighborhoods and to criminalize people who are often engaged in nonviolent, low level offenses."
Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said during his adult life he's seen the Minneapolis Police Dept. make great strides in its relations with LGBTQ community, but still lag behind when it comes to African American communities.
"That does tell us something else, and I believe deeply part of what that tells us is that race matters in this discussion. This is not about fair policing alone," Rybak remarked.
"We need to recognize there are deep endemic issues of race, and police departments can’t solve them, but they are at the front end of that, and you’ve got to put race on the table."
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman spent much of his time explaining how attitudes have change, and that 19 percent of the lawyers working in his office are now persons of color, versus just three percent when he first took office in the early 1990's during his first stint in the job.
Freeman took criticism from the NAACP and Black Lives Matter for his decision not to prosecute the officers involved in the death of Jamar Clark, citing state laws that make it virtually impossible to convict an officer who is acting out of fear for his own life.
He said he took the decision upon himself because the grand jury process used for all previous cases was too secretive.
"Because of the lack of transparency and accountability, we decided to never use a grand jury for any officer-involved cases moving forward," Freeman said.
Rybak said it's important for those who don't have family members in law enforcement to understand they're privileged.
"The privilege that my family does not have to worry about me walking out on the street, because someone else’s family member is sending their loved one into harm’s way every night," Rybak explained.
"And as someone who put police officers in harm’s way every single night, we have to get real about what we’re asking police to do."
For more information, log on to the St. Thomas website.