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From Minneapolis to Tampa, what I’ve learned about cops and their training | Column
Cities are on the front lines of every major issue but lack the resourcesto make the most meaningful changes, writes a University of Tampa professor political science.
St. Petersburg police are seen at the entrance to the police headquarters June 3, 2020.
St. Petersburg police are seen at the entrance to the police headquarters June 3, 2020. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 5, 2020

What to say about Minneapolis? I grew up there, and think it’s the greatest city in the country, but one with problems, like all the rest. Racism has deep, institutional roots there.

And yet, in the majority-white, middle-class neighborhood where I grew up, whenever I go back, I see “Black Lives Matter” yard signs all over. My mother recently reported a whole blossoming of “Happy Ramadan” signs in the old neighborhood. After all, this is the heart of the congressional district that elected two black Muslims to Congress in a row, currently served by Rep. Ilhan Omar.

True police reform is a long time coming. One of the most difficult moments I had in the city was as a fresh, young intern at the Minneapolis mayor’s office on this issue. I felt so lucky every day to have that job in the summer of 2000, working for someone I admired deeply, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, the first African-American and woman to be mayor of Minneapolis. She had a diverse, wonderfully experienced, intelligent, compassionate staff. I loved working there.

Liv Coleman
Liv Coleman [ Courtesy of Liv Coleman ]

My job was to respond to constituents when they wrote or phoned the mayor’s office. The office took police conduct issues seriously, but after the mid-1990s when Minneapolis was known as “Murderapolis” amid record-high crime levels, the sentiment was definitely with the police. But I’ll never forget one case from my days as a lowly intern.

A woman named Barbara Schneider was shot to death in her own home by Minneapolis police who were responding to calls from a neighbor about a noise complaint. Schneider was psychotic and raving about how the police were sent from Satan, making florid statements that clearly indicated mental illness.

But the police who arrived at the door didn’t know that, and didn’t even know how to recognize it, as they had never received the right training. Schneider was a diminutive woman about five feet tall, but she held a small knife, she was freaked out by the police presence, and she allegedly charged at them. They shot her dead.

At the mayor’s office, I did my regular constituent duties and told angry constituents there would be an investigation --and the whole rigamarole that usually leads to nothing.

When I got home from the office, my mother ranted and raved and wailed. She was a long-time mental health activist. For years she clipped news articles about police shootings and kept her own count of how many happened, because the news media never did. No one did. She wanted to keep track of police shootings, the sheer number of them, in particular, to see how many victims were mentally ill. The Washington Post started to record these tallies a few years ago, too, and found similar results of high numbers of shootings of people with mental illness.

It was a major strain living at home with a mental health activist with righteous passion about the issue and then going into an office to sort of, kind of defend the situation as an intern. Eventually, the issue passed, and we all got on to other business.

Years later it all came back again in a personal way, when one of my students at the University of Tampa was shot by the police when they were responding to a call from his wife that he was alone in his car, suicidal. I’m so lucky my student, a military veteran, survived, but it was the same kind of problem as years earlier in Minneapolis — the Tampa police hadn’t been getting the proper crisis intervention training to know how to respond.

I was devastated, outraged, you name it. I contacted the Tampa police chief and lodged my complaints. Another investigation, leading seemingly nowhere. It’s deadening to think of the intractability of the issue.

Add deep, institutional racism to the mix, extending far beyond the police, and you have such a toxic stew so poisonous to our communities and corrosive to their growth and well-being.

The police officer who killed George Floyd couldn’t even make the flimsy claim that Floyd wasn’t following orders or was involved in a violent crime.

The current Minneapolis police chief did the right thing by firing the officers involved. The mayor did the right thing by calling for action. And now Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is pursuing cases against the other officers.

But there needs to be so many larger conversations and actions. The way that police use force needs to be rethought. The whole presence and interaction of police in communities needs to be rethought. The whole patterns of de facto segregation that happen need to be rethought.

And these aren’t just Minneapolis things. One thing I remember from my Minneapolis city intern days is how cities are on the front lines of every major issue — but they don’t have the resources themselves or legal authority themselves to make the most meaningful, impactful changes.

For that, we need robust state and federal responses to make sure everyone has a shot at a good quality of life and basic, human dignity. That means access to affordable housing, civil rights protections, health care, good jobs, you name it.

What happens in Minneapolis depends on how people vote in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Maine, California — and vice versa.

People like to separate themselves into better, more perfect communities, ones where they don’t have to interact with people unlike themselves, and Minneapolis is one of those havens for many people.

But the whole country is in it together — and the whole lot of us need big change, specifically political change. A true shift in power to push for real reforms in law and policy — changes you can take to the bank. After this year especially, don’t we all deserve this?

Liv Coleman is an associate professor of political science and international studies at the University of Tampa.

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