Monday, June 07, 2010

Police, interest groups move closer to creating a citizens review board


By Doug Bowen-Bailey

Here in Duluth, we are very familiar with bridges. Geographically, you have to cross over 20 streams going from end to end of town. The Blatnik and Bong bridges span the St. Louis River to Superior and the Aerial Lift Bridge delivers travelers across the Duluth entry and onto Park Point. But physical divides are not the only things needing bridges in our community. The reality is that we also face division among people and that to close those gaps, we need to have structures in place that build trust and respect.

One of those divides deals with relations between the Duluth Police Department and various aspects of the community. The Duluth Police Department works very hard to cultivate positive relations with all parts of the community. Past surveys have shown that a significant portion of Duluth citizens give the police a high approval rating. At times, however, incidents do occur which cause some members of the Duluth community to question how much they can trust the police. This lack of trust then causes impediments for the police to be able to effectively carry out their work.

A group of community members and representatives from the Duluth Police Department has been working for several years to figure out how to strengthen accountability between the police and the communities they serve and protect. After some time, this more informal group became the Duluth Task Force for Improved Community Police Accountability with a set membership that allowed us to discuss the issues before us and make decisions about how to proceed.
The Task Force has been focusing on developing a Civilian Review Board and an improved complaint handling process with the overall goal of increasing trust and respect to bring the community together. Too often, people in the community may have an experience with the police that they are not satisfied with, but don’t know how to complain - or don’t trust that the complaint would be investigated adequately.

To assess this, the Task Force contracted with Prof. Eileen Luna-Firebaugh, who has experience with developing recommendations for cities about how to strength complaint processes and implement civilian review of complaints. She has been assessing the community -- through surveys of police and community, public forums, and focus groups -- to get an accurate picture of what the nature of the divide is so that the recommendations she makes will really fit Duluth. She also has assessed the complaint process from the Duluth Police Department - looking through the records of the police to see what actually has taken place and how that corresponds with the perceptions in the community.

From this, Ms. Luna-Firebaugh will make a recommendation by August to the Task Force for what type of Civilian Review Board will be most effective in meeting the goal of building trust and respect - to better protect all of Duluth’s citizens and most effectively allow police to do their work. Then, the Task Force will bring those recommendations to the broader community, Police Department, and city government.

In many respects, this work is frustratingly slow. However, much like building a physical bridge, it is important to lay a strong foundation. The Task Force determined that a community assessment by someone with experience and knowledge of these issues was an important step in that. In the past, civilian oversight processes have been tried but didn’t have the authority and integrity that led community members to have an increased sense of trust. We want this to attempt to be one that lasts and truly brings the community together. The foundation is being laid. We look forward to what is built upon it.

--Doug Bowen-Bailey is a member of the Duluth Task Force for Improved Community Police Accountability. The Task Force includes representation from the African-American Men’s Group, the Duluth Police Department, the People’s Institute North, the Peace UCC Dismantling Racism Team, Lake Superior College Multicultural Services, the Duluth American Indian Commission, Community Action Duluth, the Duluth Human Rights Office, the Duluth YWCA, and community members. Our work carries on in memory of Anthony LaDeaux, an original Task Force member.