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By Maggie LaMaack
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Last Thursday morning, a mediator from the Department of Justice's Chicago office appeared before a Minneapolis City Council committee in a last-ditch effort to broker an agreement between the city's police department and its minority communities. The "mediation process," as it's been called, is all but dead now after nine months of fitful and erratic attention from the council.
Even after Patricia Campbell Glenn's plea last week, some members of the City Council remained predictably skeptical. The committee voted yet again to postpone any action. Meanwhile MPD Chief Robert Olson did his best to downplay his role in delaying the process since he refused to negotiate last winter without the NAACP at the table. "We've been ready to go since December," the chief insisted.
Then he added that he had something else in the works, anyway: The police department and Campbell Glenn were working with Mayor R.T. Rybak's office to train community activists and city staffers in police/community relations. "If nothing else would happen [with mediation]," said Olson, "we want to make sure we would reach out to the community."
This somewhat-cryptic pronouncement caused a few ears to prick up in council chambers. Sure enough, at that moment, Campbell Glenn was in room 132 of City Hall, leading the first of a two-day training session involving four Minneapolis police officers, members of the city's Civil Rights Commission, two City Council aides, a coordinator from the mayor's office, and a handful of community notables.
The move is a clear departure from Justice Department protocol for mediation, which says that the city and the police shall have no role in choosing who will represent various communities. By the time the training session had ended on Friday afternoon, rumors were spreading that the city and federal authorities were grooming informants for the police department--that there was, in essence, a "snitch patrol" taking shape.
"Certainly it could have that potential," admits Sgt. Medaria Arradondo, one of the Minneapolis cops involved, insisting that the training is not designed to sidestep mediation. "But that's not the case. It was simply training that [Campbell Glenn] provided, that's all it was."
What some are calling a "Community Response Team"--Arradondo says he prefers "relations" to "response" in that label--has yet to come to fruition, but a blueprint was clearly laid out in the training session. Participants will "assess" communities and monitor certain "flashpoints," places or circumstances with the potential for stirring up citizens against the police or vice versa--such as the riots in the north side's Jordan neighborhood last summer, or the looting in Dinkytown that followed the Gophers hockey team's national championship last month. Ideally, members of the community team would be identified by some sort of clothing, such as caps, T-shirts, or jackets, at such occasions. (Some have questioned the logic of putting unarmed citizens into such volatile situations.) Other times, team members would act as liaisons between communities and cops, raising concerns people might have with the police department.
"This is different than what we have done in the past, which was reactionary," Arradondo says, noting similar programs in cities like New York and Cincinnati. "We want these people to be an ear for certain individuals, so that their message and concerns get back to us, undiluted." Other scenarios might include having a team presence at street festivals, like the Juneteenth celebration of black history next month, at sporting events, or in the Warehouse District downtown on weekend nights. It all sounds innocuous enough, doesn't it?
"It's just another ploy, and it's not the way this stuff works," counters longtime civil rights activist Ron Edwards, a key player in the mediation efforts who was not involved in the training session. Civil liberties veterans may point to McCarthyism in the 1950s or COINTELPRO--the FBI program that targeted antiwar and civil rights groups--in the 1960s. But since 9/11, there's been increased information-sharing by law enforcement agencies in the name of combating "domestic terrorism," and in March a Hennepin County sheriff unveiled a list of groups--including a student-led antiwar group and a bookstore in south Minneapolis--the department had identified as potential threats to homeland security.
Edwards adds: "We've always been suspicious of how some school programs involving police are used to extract information."
Questions still persist about who was chosen for the training sessions and why, but the group was put together, at least in part, by Arradondo and Kinshasha Kambui, a community outreach coordinator for the Mayor's office. "I don't know how I got picked, but the mayor's office contacted me," says Zach Metoyer, who was a representative from the community to be involved in mediation initially. Metoyer insists the training was not an effort to avoid mediation, and adds that he's a skeptic toward Minneapolis police motives as well. "I'm not here to snitch on anybody," Metoyer says. "I'd leave in a flash if that were the case. I'm not here to do anybody's dirty work."
"This is an attempt to co-opt people," counters civil rights attorney Jill Clark, who instigated the lawsuit against Olson. "This will ensure there's no top-down change, and that there will be no meaningful mediation. There's a chance for flow of money and tradeoffs to certain groups of people to keep quiet instead of helping the community."
(Arradondo and Metoyer both insist no one from the community will be paid for participating.)
One of the conditions of Council Member Zerby's postponed resolution was that mediation "shall not include any group or individual involved in litigation" against the city or the MPD. Clark says she has already moved to dismiss the suit against Olson, but she's also filed a class-action suit against the police department. "It doesn't matter to me now," Clark says. "They want a mock process here, and it won't be any meaningful change."
While hand-wringing over who, if anyone, will mediate continues on the council, others are concerned that too much time has been wasted already. "Nobody trusts the City Council or the mayor on this stuff," Edwards concludes. "They're going to fool around and get themselves another explosion in the streets."