Amid a debate in Minneapolis about the future of the police, council members in St. Louis Park are considering changes to their own city’s police department.
Mayor Jake Spano, using traffic enforcement officers as an example, asked during a July 27 council work session, “Is there a place for unarmed law enforcement, unarmed public safety folks, in our community?”
Councilmember Margaret Rog said she would like the council to “reimagine public safety.”
For instance, she said of domestic assault, “Is that a policing issue or is that an issue we need to take on with community resources in a different way?”
With much of the city’s general fund budget tied up in policing, Rog asked if the city could use some of the money in another way to achieve the same outcomes.
Councilmember Anne Mavity argued that policing has not changed in 150 years “except at the margins.” She said, “I think that we’re just nibbling at the edges when we should be diving in.”
While Councilmember Tim Brausen said he is willing to discuss whether the city can provide policing in a less authoritarian manner than “with people showing up with armored vests on and guns,” he also urged caution.
“I mean, I get it. We’ve all got a visceral response to the George Floyd killing, and I certainly have that and I’m appalled by that,” Brausen said. “I just don’t want to sit here as one of seven people in a room going, ‘Events in Minneapolis were horrific, and we’ve got to change everything’ when the data I’m seeing so far isn’t identifying a giant problem in St. Louis Park.”
St. Louis Park began working to collect data on use-of-force statistics after Mike Harcey became the St. Louis Park police chief. In 2018, the first year the department compiled such statistics, the department had 42,967 calls for service. The department reported using any type of force 112 times in that period, or 0.26% of the time. In 2019, the department used any type of force 128, or 0.27% of the time. No citizen complaints involving use of force were filed against the department in the last three years.
Harcey said, “I think that reflects that we’re doing a pretty good job in this area, and in will continue to do that.”
Mavity pointed out that while a low percentage, the statistics show a regular use of force.
“On one side it looks good but on the other side I’m like, oh my god, we are at risk every three days of going too far,” Mavity said.
Brausen said he considered the use-of-force number low compared to the thousands of calls, although he later pointed out he would like to know the direct impact on each of the people subject to the use of force and how many had been arrested and convicted of felonies.
He and Councilmember Larry Kraft expressed disappointment at the lack of data on the use of force by other departments and more specific data related to its use in St. Louis Park.
“It’s hard to celebrate it if you don’t know if it’s disproportionately impacting some communities and not others,” Brausen said.
“We need more data, and we need more data tracked in a way that is useful to make decisions,” Mavity said.
She also recommended that the council engage different experts than police representatives in discussions about how armed officers should be used.
During the discussion, Deputy Police Chief Bryan Kruelle noted that funding for the department is already uncertain amid city budget constraints. He asked council members to keep officers in mind while making decisions.
“I think everybody should be aware that officers are worn down,” Kruelle said after mentioning COVID-19 and the unrest after Floyd’s death. “They’re tired, and a lot of them are going to question whether this is something that they’re going to want to continue to do so. You know, that’s something I worry about is making sure folks inside (the department) are taken care of as we navigate all of this, but whatever path we end up chartering I know we’re up for it.”
Police did not mention that one of the 2019 incidents involved the shooting death of Matthew Neil Tuhkanen. Earlier this year, Hennepin County Mike Freeman announced that the St. Louis Park officer who shot Tuhkanen, Samuel Heffernan, would not be charged in the case. According to a report from Freeman’s office, Tuhkanen had put a lighter on a dresser when officers ordered him to drop the object in his hand during a January 2019 incident. He later lit a cigarette while disputing the right of police to be in the apartment at 2760 Louisiana Court in St. Louis Park. Tuhkanen refused commands to stop discarding cigarette ashes in his hand and to show his hands, according to the county attorney office’s report.
“Officer Heffernan told Mr. Tuhkanen that if he did not comply, he would be shot,” the report says.
Tuhkanen turned inward toward the dresser with a hand on his waistband, the report says.
“Suddenly, he made a jerking movement with his left hand, crouched down, and leaned into a blind spot the officers could not see,” it continues.
One of the responding officers said he “tensed up” on his Taser and took a step forward. However, “Officer Heffernan fired several shots,” the report says.
Tuhkanen died at the scene after four shots struck him. Police found no weapons in the space where he had been. The report said that officers had reason to believe he may have been reaching for a concealed weapon.
The report concluded, “Officer Heffernan had an objectively reasonable belief that Mr. Tuhkanen posed an apparent threat of great bodily harm or death to multiple people.”
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