Working group report forgotten in ‘new normal?'

by Jim Lundstrom

The working group on police-involved deadly force encounters released its recommendations in February 2020, prior to George Floyd's death. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, left, St. Louis County attorney Mark Rubin, and Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, speaking.

Just a year ago, it seemed Minnesota was going to get ahead of the national tragedy of use of deadly force by militarized police departments. Last July it became the first state in the union to convene a group to investigate the problem of civilians – often people of color – being killed by police.

Minnesota might have been a progressive national leader in law enforcement had it not been for George Floyd dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May.

Floyd’s modern-day lynching by police – coming as it did a couple weeks before the 100th anniversary of the mob lynching of three young circus workers in Duluth – and Minnesota is suddenly the Mississippi of the north.

Is all the effort put in by the 18-member working group in vain in this post-George Floyd world?

“A wise person asked me, what law would have saved George Floyd’s life?” said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, who was a member of the working group. “There was already a law that you can’t kill someone. We’ve got to change people’s hearts and minds. If it’s not a legislative change, individual departments, all have this report. They need to look at what they are doing and we can all do better.”

Rubin was invited to serve on the board in July 2019 by Attorney General Keith Ellison, whom he did not know at the time. Rubin was only one of six Caucasians in the group and he his colleagues in the other 86 Minnesota counties voted for him to represent the state’s county attorneys in the examination of police and the use of deadly force on citizens. He was also the only one of the 18 working groups members who had served as a prosecutor dealing with cases between the public and police.

“They [commission chairs Ellison and John Harrington, the state’s commission of public safety] believed by bringing people together from very diverse cultures, professions and geographical factors, there would be some value in these discussions,” Rubin said.

Rubin said he was impressed by the diversity of the members of the group, which included Minneapolis Police chief Medaria Arrandondo; Clarence Castile, uncle of Philando Castile, who was killed by a police officer in a St. Paul suburb in 2016; district court judge Mark Kappelhoff, who had previously worked as a federal prosecutor in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and worked on police violence cases in Ferguson Mo., and Baltimore; and and Elizer Darris, a field organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota who was once sentenced to life in prison.

“It was an extremely diverse group,” Rubin said. “It was a phenomenal group and we had great discussions.”

One of the first things the group came to consensus on was these five pillars of their mandate:

1) Community healing and engagement;
2) Prevention and training;
3) Investigations and accountability;
4) Policy and legal implications;
5) Officer wellness.

Each member naturally brought his or her perspective to the table, but they all apparently shared the same goal of wanting to make the community safer for everyone. They discussed where things are today in community policing and where they need to be if we are ever to become the just nation we pretend to be.

More important than the internal discussions, the group had to engage the public in the process, hear their real-life experiences, and they did so through a series of meetings held around the state and that sometimes were electric with emotion and tension.

“Our job was to listen, just listen and give people a voice who have been through these experiences, and try to hear their advice, what can we do to protect the officer and what we can do to protect citizens in lethal encounters,” Rubin said.

Once the board felt it had amassed enough information from public hearings and listening sessions and contact with the public throughout the seven-month process, a final report was issued with 28 recommendations and 33 action steps aimed at reducing deadly force encounters with law enforcement in Minnesota.

 “We’re the first state to do that,” Rubin said of the report. ““We’ve got a good staring point here. We didn’t have 100 percent agreement, but we had consensus.”

DPS Commissioner John Harrington, Minn. Attorney General Keith Ellison and members of the working group on police-involved deadly force encounters released 28 recommendations and 33 action steps aimed at reducing deadly force encounters with law enforcement in Minnesota. The working group, composed of a wide variety of community, advocacy, academic, foundation, mental-health, law-enforcement and criminal-justice-system stakeholders, came to consensus on the recommendations and action steps.

“These recommendations, if implemented, will make Minnesota communities and the peace officers who serve them safer,” said working group co-chair and Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington upon the report’s release. “The recommendations offer practical guidance and action steps to better prevent and respond to police-involved deadly force encounters. We brought together a knowledgeable group of stakeholders representing diverse backgrounds and professions from around the state to have the tough conversations. We heard testimony from 50 experts, including families who lost loved ones. As a result, we now have a plan of action that will reduce many deadly force encounters with police and provide justice and support when a tragedy occurs.”

Rubin suggested that the report seems to have been unfortunately steamrolled by the recent turn of events.

“We’re not starting from scratch,” he said. “The claims to defund the police –  whatever that means – here’s where you start. I marveled at the end we came down to some very specific and not overwhelming recommendations that I think are a good starting point for racial justice. I think we could do a lot without significant legislative changes but there are those who want to show they are responding to the people. We will see some changes in law. New laws aren’t always the answer. We’ve got to expand cultural training because of the growing diversity in our society.”

He said if some of the ideas n the report were put into action, everyone would be safer.

“It’s not a lofty goal,” Rubin said. “It’s a hopeful goal, that everyone get home safely. These goals are attainable because these steps are practical. Nothing is outlandish or too difficult to do.”

Echoing a comment DPS Com-missioner Harrington made about the report not being the end of the work of the working group, Rubin said, “It was an honor to be on the group. We did it because were willing to serve. It was a challenge, but I’m so proud I was able to meet with these remarkable people. We’re going to continue to meet. We’re not done.”