Beyond KSTP

I’m not even going to bother starting with “by now you’ve probably heard…” and the traditional follow-up summary of the facts to date.  You know about #pointergate.  Everyone does.  And there are plenty of great stories out there about it.  Check out Shaun King’s if you haven’t read it already.

Much of the commentary I’ve seen has focused on KSTP, Jay Kolls, and the media side of this story.  And well it should.  The initial story Kolls reported, which KSTP editors apparently thought was a-ok and anchors Bill Lunn and Leah McLean had no problem teasing, was incredibly racist.  And not only did KSTP not retract the story, not only did they not fire Jay Kolls immediately, but they trotted him back out the next night to double down.

Lots of people have been working hard to hold KSTP and Jay Kolls accountable. SEIU Local 26 President Javier Morillo wrote a compelling piece explaining why he’ll no longer appear on KSTP and providing concrete steps all people can take.  Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) has started a petition—take two minutes and go sign it now.  And there was an organized effort to call out KSTP’s unacceptable behavior to its commercial advertisers.

We should support all these efforts, and more, until KSTP apologizes and fires Jay Kolls.

But we need to make sure that while we’re doing that, we’re also keeping a clear, unwavering focus on the Minneapolis Police Department and the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis.  For me, what #pointergate is confirming about the media is deeply problematic.  But what it’s confirming about the police is downright terrifying.

Some background is in order, because all of this started well before any hashtag was created.  The MPD, like too many police departments across the country, has an incredibly troubling record of disparate and inequitable treatment of people of color.   Despite the fact that studies show that white people and black people use marijuana at roughly equivalent rates, a recent ACLU report (pdf) found that black Minneapolis residents are over 11 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents.  According to the ThinkProgress story about the same report, “blacks are also 8.86 times more likely than whites to be arrested for disorderly conduct, a catch-all offense that can be used to criminalize a broad range of behavior.” 

But people of color who live in Minneapolis likely didn’t need the ACLU to tell them that our policing practices are overtly racist.  People of color, in their daily lives, are reminded again and again and again and again and again of the injustices perpetuated by the very system ostensibly created to uphold justice.

With this reality in mind, both Mayor Betsy Hodges and Police Chief Janeé Harteau have at turns demonstrated a commitment to strengthening relationships between communities and police and holding accountable police officers who violate their charge.

Last year, in an effort to pursue trust and accountability, Harteau proposed having the state review all Minneapolis officer-involved shootings.  John Delmonico, the president of the Police Federation, wrote an op-ed in the StarTribune expressing the federation’s opposition to the proposal.

A few weeks ago, Hodges wrote a long open letter in which she outlined her vision for police-community relations in the city, including ensuring that every citizen, no matter their identity, feels safe engaging with the police, celebrating the majority of police officers who serve their communities honorably, and holding accountable the small minority who don’t.

Once again, John Delmonico wrote an op-ed in the StarTribune in response.  This op-ed was deeply troubling.  Rather than acknowledging the need to build trust with the community, and communities of color in particular, Delmonico called the mayor’s statements in her letter “repeated and personal slaps in the face to every member of the Minneapolis Police Department.”

And then, in a series of paragraphs I couldn’t believe he had written, Delmonico proceeded to blame tensions between police and specific communities in the city on the communities themselves.  I’ll quote Delmonico's response to the mayor at length:

You claim you want the relationship between officers and “the communities” (obviously showing that you do not consider Minneapolis to all be one community) to improve. A relationship is a two-way street. For a good one to remain good and for a bad one to improve, it requires desire, commitment, effort and trust by both parties — not just by one. Your stated formula for improving the relationship between the cops and the communities places 100 percent of the burden on police officers. This implies that police officers are 100 percent to blame for any relationships that may be less than perfect.

John Delmonico knows which relationships may be “less than perfect.”  He’s been a member of the police department for decades, and as such is intimately familiar with the department’s troubled history and consistent tension with communicates of color.  So what exactly does Delmonico think about those communities with whom the department’s “relationships may be less than perfect?”  Helpfully, he tells us himself.  Addressing the mayor, he says:

However, it is fair to say that while we would expect a police officer to treat our loved ones with respect, we would expect our loved ones to treat a police officer with respect, as well. That expectation of mutual trust and respect is precisely what is missing from your “relationship improvement” plan. No mention is made as to whether the community can or should expect those who punch us, spit on us, curse at us, shoot at us or falsely complain about us to improve their behavior.

Think about that. 

Confronted by the mayor’s mere acknowledgment of the reality that people of color have been treated inequitably by the police in the form of wildly disproportionate targeting and use of force, and, as a result, may not entirely trust the department, the president of the Police Federation’s response is to blame the people themselves for the mistrust.

In John Delmonico’s world, the reason “relationships may be less than perfect” with some communities isn’t wholesale racism and forcible oppression, it’s that THOSE PEOPLE PUNCH, SPIT, AND CURSE!  What do you expect us to do with them?

That’s what he thinks about the communities with whom the department’s “relationships may be less than perfect.” 

Keep that mindset in mind and fast-forward to #pointergate.  We know (because KSTP keeps telling us so) that the story was originally given to Jay Kolls by “law enforcement.”  They haven’t said who, specifically, gave it to them, but Chief Harteau should find out. 

Kolls’s chief expert in his “report” was retired MPD officer Michael Quinn.  But appearing on camera in the same story is our friend John Delmonico.  Delmonico admonishes that the mayor should “know better.”

At the most generous level, this is a cynical attempt by Delmonico to discredit his mayor.  But for argument's sake, let’s take him at his word, that the mayor really should have “known better.”  If he truly believes she should have known better, then he is endorsing Kolls’s thesis that what the mayor did was wrong, that she was making a “known gang sign,” and that being photographed with Navell Gordon demonstrated poor judgment.

And here’s the larger point.  All Jay Kolls, Michael Quinn, and John Delmonico think you need to know about Navell Gordon is that he’s a “convicted felon” with a black face.  To them, that’s all he is.  And to them, he’s scary and inherently suspect.  So posing with him is poor judgment.

This is what’s so terrifying.  All three of those men, two of whom are or were Minneapolis cops, seem to take it as a given that we should see Navell Gordon as a bad guy.  And this is the mentality they operate under when policing our city.

Police officers are entrusted to protect and serve the communities with whom they work.  And they are given state-sanctioned authority to use lethal force to uphold their charge.  It’s no stretch to say that the mindsets displayed by too many law enforcement members in #pointergate are the kinds of mindsets that can lead to tragedy.  When people of color are viewed with disdain, when they are seen as something to be controlled, and when they are treated with disproportionate suspicion, things go very badly.  Suddenly a young man walking down the street becomes a lethal threat.

This is how Ferguson happens.  When cops walk around with a gun and the state-sanctioned blessing to use it within their discretion, with the mindset that all you need to know about a black male is that he’s a “convicted felon” and, therefore, a “bad guy,” you get Michael Brown.  And Vonderit Myers.

As Bryan Stevenson astutely observed on Melissa Harris-Perry, some cops view community members as people to partner with, but some cops “see the community as the enemy.”  I am terrified by what #pointergate has showed us about how some members of the MPD view the community they are charged with serving. 

Since the story first aired, condemnations of KSTP and Jay Kolls have poured in from around the country.  But two organizations have been conspicuously silent as to the validity of the criticism of the mayor: the Minneapolis Police Department and the Minneapolis Police Federation.

In education, there’s a saying that anything ignored is implicitly endorsed.  As a white resident of Minneapolis, I cannot remain silent while the police force charged with protecting and serving me and my fellow residents who are people of color perpetuates injustice.  I cannot remain silent when someone in law enforcement attempts to smear a mayor working to curtail that injustice.  I cannot remain silent when a white reporter interviews exclusively white police officials to prove his story is not racist.  I cannot remain silent when the president of the Police Federation abets the efforts to smear the mayor in that story.

As white residents of Minneapolis, we must stand in support of communities of color in their struggle for justice.  We must demand not just apologies, but accountability, from Jay Kolls and KSTP, yes, but also from Chief Harteau and the Minneapolis Police Department and John Delmonico and the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis.  We cannot implicitly endorse the current state of policing in our community through our silence.