Fatal shootings force policing to top of Mpls. mayoral race agenda

Published 7:40 am Monday, July 31, 2017

By Brandt Williams

MPR News/90.1 FM

Some campaign observers say the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk by a Minneapolis police officer nearly two weeks ago has pushed the issue of police community relations and restoring trust to the forefront of the mayor’s race.

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It’s not uncommon for mayoral candidates to run on promises of increasing the number of police officers on the force as a way to ensure public safety. At a time when confidence and trust in police are floundering, the topic of public safety has taken on new significance.

Anthony Newby, executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, or NOC, said that’s because public distrust in police has spread to areas which often don’t feel sharp police/community tensions.

“The shooting of Justine allows for a whole new group of people who maybe couldn’t locate themselves in the story of Jamar Clark or Philando Castile — they just couldn’t see how that relates to their daily lives — now you’re seeing a whole new tier of people that really get it. They understand the consequences of police misconduct, police violence,” Newby said.

Ruszczyk, who was white, lived in a quiet south Minneapolis neighborhood. She called police to report a possible sexual assault. Clark and Castile, who died in a suburb of St. Paul, were both African American men. A few days after Ruszczyk’s death, one her neighbors, Drew Rosielle, said the incident should serve as a wake-up call.

“Black people are disproportionately the victims of this police violence,” Rosielle said. “And I think too many of us white people have accepted that and say it’s never going to happen to us. It’s happening to those people.”

It’s not that police reform is never a topic for discussion in a campaign, says University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs.

“Usually a topic would be property taxes, which are up. And there’s virtually no conversation about it.”

Jacobs says the shooting death of the Australian native has raised the profile of police use of force among a prominent voting bloc. As more candidates talk about police reforms and policies they’re also going to have to weigh in on Mayor Betsy Hodges’ choice for chief, Medaria Arradondo, who has a lot of support among African Americans.

“The African American community is very important in this race. I think we can expect some of the mayoral candidates and perhaps Mayor Hodges coming forward with some kind of commitment to keep him on.”

Newby has noticed people from different communities are not only calling for changes in police policies but are pushing for alternatives, such as restorative justice, which focuses on mediation and reconciliation instead of harsh punitive measures.

As several mayoral candidates compete for the public’s attention, they differ on how changes should be made in the police department.

“I don’t believe that every cop needs to carry a gun in every situation,” said Ray Dehn, who represents part of north Minneapolis in the state House of Representatives. “I think there are times when officers don’t need to be carrying guns and part of that is when they’re interacting with community members in a way that’s really not about responding to dangerous situations but it’s about interacting in general.”

Candidate and current council member Jacob Frey said it makes more sense to establish and enforce a policy that establishes that lethal force can only be used as a last resort.