Younger generation gets a voice on police reform in Minneapolis

LaZaya Smith, 13, was not yet born in 2003 when a group of Minneapolis community members began meeting regularly with Police Department officials to implement a federally mediated agreement.

Mediation was supposed to address long-brewing tensions that had bubbled to a head following several fatal shootings by police at the time, including that of Black teenager Abdullah Simmons and of Barbara Schneider, a white woman who was experiencing a mental health crisis.

However, Smith said that for people her age, those tensions haven’t been consigned to the past.

“My generation doesn’t really like the police because it only seems they’re around when they’re not needed,” she said. “And it seems that they are always judging everyone by how they look. And they’re assuming the worst about anybody on the street.”

Now, Smith is a co-chair of a task force made up of people under 30. Their charge is to work with the Police Community Relations Council (PCRC) to update the original agreement.

The PCRC is made up of members of a Unity Community Mediation Team and members of the Police Department, including police union officials.

Some of the group’s early meetings were tense. And members of the community team also had internal squabbles over the leadership of their group.

But they agreed to work on more than 100 action items, which included changes to police use-of-force policy, improvements in workforce diversity and cultural awareness training for officers to name a few.

PCRC co-chair Mark Anderson said that at the time the agreement was terminated in 2008, more than 60 action items were completed. However, Anderson, who is the executive director of the Barbara Schneider Foundation, said they don’t know how many of those items are still in compliance after the PCRC disbanded.

Anderson said that the day after George Floyd was killed, members of the Unity Community Team reached out to the Department of Justice and asked to restart the process.

Anderson said the DOJ “responded favorably” to their request. So they reached out to police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who agreed to restart the process and update the original agreement.

The participation of young people like LaZaya Smith and her task force will be critical to the agreement’s success this time around, said the Rev. Ian Bethel, one of the chairs of the PCRC.

“This agreement, when it is amended, can be generational,” he said. “So that we don’t have to keep coming back to the table over and over again.”

Bethel said the youth group has as much authority in the negotiations as members of the community team.

Smith said her peers want to see changes to how officers interact with community members. And she got involved with the task force because she wanted to represent their views.

“Most of my generation, they do have concerns and they want to say something, but they’re very shy,” she said. “And then they wonder if anyone will listen to them. So I wanted to be that person who will speak out for them.”

For the last six months, the youth task force has been holding online forums every Saturday. The meetings are open to anyone under the age of 30.

“Most people that we have spoken to and sat down with are for reform,” said co-chair Nicholas Martens, 26, adding that many of those young people live in neighborhoods that have seen spikes in certain violent crimes. “We do believe there should be reform and we do believe that we need police officers in our neighborhood.”

The changes they’d like to see include training to help officers avoid using lethal force, mental health counseling for officers to help them handle the trauma they are exposed to and other training.

“I would say first and foremost, the main thing that we’ve got to have when we talk about reform, is consequences for officers and accountability,” said co-chair AJ Flowers, 28.

The task force also proposed changing the name from the Minneapolis Police Department to the Minneapolis Peace Department.

“We don’t believe that we need to be policed,” said Flowers. “We need to bring peace to our communities at this point in time. We’ve been through so much trauma.”

The Minneapolis Police Federation has pushed back against the name change, said co-chair Miles Wilson, 26. And he said the union isn’t offering any alternative proposals.

“When you say no, just because we haven’t done it in the past, tells me that they’re not that open to change,” said Wilson.

Members of the Federation were not made available to comment.

The PCRC is not formally involved in the recently announced federal “patterns or practices” investigation of the Police Department, but Bethel said the council welcomes the probe and will cooperate with the DOJ if asked.

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