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Count Sheriff Jason Kamerud speaking to a local Chamber of Commerce. Crucial Conversations are still being worked out, but more open forums like this are the goal. (Archived photo)

With protests still taking place across the country demanding police reform, it’s important to remember that perspective is everything. The experiencing groups and individuals have compared to others often leads to debate. For this reason, and even before that, the Carver County Sheriff’s Office has been hard at work bringing these opinions together in the hopes of creating understanding. These Crucial Conversations will be starting soon, and there’s more than just community understanding that the sheriffs hope to accomplish.

“I assembled a group of people who I know have an interest and aptitude to discuss these topics,” said County Sheriff, Jason Kamerud. “The idea is to eliminate racism, and these folks have an interest and a passion for that.”

These Crucial Conversations have been in the works since Kamerud came into office. The idea stemmed from knowing community demographics, specifically groups that have had negative experiences with police. As Kamerud and other sheriffs interacted with some in these communities, they realized that more often than not emergency responders weren’t called due to their experiences.

The idea is fairly straightforward. Carver County residents part of the Crucial Conversations as well as local sheriffs and residents with negative experiences would discuss their perceptions. The goal is to facilitate understanding between the groups twofold. Residents who have had more positive experiences with police will hopefully understand why those with the opposite distrust or fear them. Those with negative experiences would be able to communicate with the sheriffs as well, hopefully creating a bridge between the two groups.

“I think we can shape policy and training for the deputies to ensure we’re delivering a service in a manner consistent with our residents’ needs,” said Kamerud. “It’s not lost on me that people who immigrate here might not understand how our government works, so it’s an opportunity for me and my team to say, ‘If you call law enforcement, this is what to expect’.”

The timing with the death of George Floyd and subsequent national response is somewhat a blessing for these conversations, though coincidental. Kamerud has been hard at work putting this idea together since his was initially hired. Now with people examining police actions more and more, the timing for getting the Crucial Conversations off the ground couldn’t be better for county sheriffs.

“Equality under the law is an obligation that we have to provide,” said Kamerud.

This is especially important now, with concerns over police actions at an all-time high. Even out in Carver County, there have been calls to municipal and county sheriffs asking about procedures and asking for reform. In Carver County, there are programs that are already fitting into the reform demands, such as more social workers and de-escalations being preferred to a more hostile response. The dispatch center even works with law enforcement to bring them real-time updates to any scene, from a mental health call to a domestic response.

While for the most part, the sheriffs and the community have had positive experiences, according to Kamerud, the “broad brush” is a concern. Once an individual or group has a negative experience or consistent ones, it’s hard to reverse that experience.

County sheriffs aren’t the only ones working on this kind of program, either. According to Kamerud, Chaska Police Department is also at work creating a similar program for conversing with their community. On a county level, the plan is first to understand the demographics of the cities and towns in Carver County.

“I’m eager to get the census data, but I have noticed some changes,” said Kamerud. “And I’m eager to make the changes we need to meet their needs.”

With COVID-19, there are obviously a few procedures to work out before these conversations begin taking place. The original idea was to meet in a large room and have discussions, but restrictions being what they are, this would prove a challenge. There have been a few proposed options, such as Zoom meetings or residents mailing in their experiences.

However, if possible, the preference would be in person. The big question is how many people will come.

“Some of this work has been done by other jurisdictions,” said Kamerud. “I want to look at what they’ve done and see where we can improve.”

Until things are a bit more worked out, Crucial Conversations will be on hold. The hope is to start in September, but this is very tentative. The hope is to ultimately have events similar to Marnita’s Table events, with small groups talking and swapping tables throughout the night to mingle with others. However, with COVID-19, this type of meeting would be difficult with restrictions.

Until they start, Kamerud and the sheriff’s staff are looking at data and working to find more people to discuss these complex, and often sensitive, topics. Until there’s “actionable information”, the group is thinking possibly late September, though more likely starting later. Once they’re ready, the will have a more solid outline and plan going forward.

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