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Police chief & protestor team up to reshape race relations

Bring lessons to Boston summit

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Police chief & protestor team up to reshape race relations
Jason Sole, chair of the Minneapolis NAACP’s criminal justice reform committee, spoke of his work with Maplewood Minnesota’s police chief to improve relations between police and communities of color.

A white Minnesotan police chief and black former gang-member and prominent protestor may seem an unlikely duo. And they know it. Paul Schnell, police chief of Maplewood, Minnesota and Jason Sole, now a criminal justice professor and chair of the Minneapolis NAACP’s criminal justice reform committee, gave a joint presentation at Northeastern University on what they have learned from working together to improve relations between police and communities of color.

The talk, “Imagining Justice: Racial Equity and a True Justice System,” came as part of a two-day Summit on Race and Equity. The event was convened by the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a national network focused on partnering with government; the Center for Social Inclusion, one of GARE’s parent organizations; the city of Boston and GARE’s newly forming Boston branch and steering committee. The Summit was targeted primarily at government employees and people involved in nonprofit advocacy work, to provide them with strategy examples, common frameworks and networks of resources for approaching policy from a racial equity perspective.

“This is just the beginning of the work we want to do in the city,” Becky Schuster, a member of the Boston Alliance for Racial Justice Steering Committee, told the Banner. “We need a foundation of common language, models and frameworks to inspire our work going forward.”

The Summit on Race and Equity was the first such event held in the Northeast, said Nashira Baril, a consultant for the summit. The city made a notable presence with officials moderating panels with topics such as immigration, employing and contracting, housing and transportation. The “Imagining Justice” panel was moderated by Rahsaan Hall director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’s Racial Justice Program.

Clash of worldviews

Schnell and Sole used their personal backgrounds to highlight the different assumptions and biases that can skew police-community perceptions and relations.

Sole says his view of the police was shaped in part by growing up in Chicago where police by default seemed to regard him as without value, and where he saw officers more as a danger than as a protection from it.

“They looked at me as a subject of inferiority,” he said. “I looked at them with the image of them being the one who might end my life or hurt me.”

Sole said, that for him, police represent a continuation a long history of whites applying the label of “criminal” to blacks to justify killing them. Such practices wind back to the Reconstruction era, where charges of minor incidents, such as stealing 75 cents, were used as excuses to lynch blacks, he said, and to the slave patrols that captured runaway slaves.

“The roots of policing in America started from slave patrols,” Sole said. “When I see law enforcement officials killing blacks, I’m seeing it through a lens that says this is a further extension of the past.”

Meanwhile, Schnell grew up in a 700-person town in Wisconsin, where police race relations were not in the forefront: he said he did not meet a black person until he was 18. As a child, Schnell viewed the police and fire department as his go-to in times of trouble.

Schnell said that he, like many, joined the police to serve the community. But joining the police also often comes with strong pressure to be a part of its insular culture, which, along with high levels of stress on the job, and can lead to an us-versus-them mentality.

“Very quickly this enculturation dynamic takes over,” Schnell said, “and taking care of that [police] culture and being part of that culture is overwhelming.”

“Police culture — it doesn’t work for police either,” noted Abigail Ortiz of Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center and a community partner for the summit. She pointed to the high level of suicides and alcoholism among officers.

Officers who try to change practices or push community outreach are seen as standing out in a bad way, and community relations work is often regarded as not masculine — something undesirable in a predominately male field, Schnell said.

“Often, we divide our department into ‘these are the people that do community relations’ and ‘these are the people who do police work’ and we regard those as separate and distinct and that is a problem,” Schnell said.

Lessons learned

Schnell said that his relationship with Sole as well as community protest have shifted his view of policing and helped motivate the police department to change policies. Inspired by this, he now places an expectation on his officers that they build relationships in the community, too.

Yet, even while he does this, Schnell acknowledged that not all officers are moved by hearing of people of color’s experiences of police.

“The bottom line is that [sharing worldviews approach] hasn’t worked,” Schenll said. “When we talk about the reality of folks of color around policy, that has not had a big influence on policing.”

As such, Sole and Schnell also put focus on changing rules and, through enforcing those rules, creating new norms.

Among the reforms Schnell and Sole recommend for bringing greater equity to policies and for building trust between police and community is involving community members in decision-making discussions, whether or not those individuals’ proposals are ultimately enacted. Officers must clearly explain to all involved the reasoning behind final decisions, what new guidelines will be followed and how people will be held accountable to them, they said. Such engagement does not necessitate compromising to please everyone, but rather greater transparency and opportunity for voices to be heard.

Boston

Larry K. Van Zandt Sr., a retired Boston police sergeant and former president of Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement, said during Q&A that the Boston Police Department needs to have its own conversation like this on race. Another step he recommended: educating officers on the criminal justice process that happens once a case leaves their hands.

“They don’t teach us criminal justice,” Van Zandt said. “They teach us to answer a call and make arrests.”

Officers often have leeway to decide whether an incident warrants an arrest or a lesser measure. If officers were more aware of the impact of an arrest, they might be less inclined to respond with it to minor encounters, such as a youth smoking a joint, Van Zandt told the Banner. He has noticed white officers more often than black ones elect to arrest when handling incidents in black communities, he said.

Rahsaan Hall noted that no BPD officials attended the workshop.