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Reflections on Community Engagement in Shaping a Consent Decree, Story-telling and the Path Forward

Kayla Richards (she/her; Oglala Lakota) is a Research Manager at the Minnesota Justice Research Center. The following is a reflection on her work to support community engagement and the consent decree pursued by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights with the City of Mpls and Minneapolis Police Department.

I come from a long line of Indigenous story-telling—my Unci, Dori “Tiny Girl” Siers spent several years at a boarding school and would later take college English courses and write short-stories, some real, some made-up and lots of the in-between space that most of us find our memory and imagination living. My mother spent her late-adolescence in and out of foster care and in girls-schools in the midwest, struggling with substance use disorder for almost all of my memory and would later fill notebooks with big, cursive, scribbling letters, telling stories. It’s no surprise then that I’ve found myself working to write. To tell stories.

Story-telling has become a way of making meaning of things that happen around me–it’s helped me to hold nuance and it’s also a practice that I’ve had to learn to interrogate.

We all tell stories. Social psychologists, neuroscientists, Indigenous scholars and those who find themselves sitting at a table with elders have differing and overlapping philosophies that help to explain our practice of story-telling and its impact on both our brains and social relationships.

Stories help us to make connections between the things that show up in our bodies, in our skin, in our limbic systems, if you will, and that which is cerebral, or cognitive.

Three years after the murder of George Floyd and the uprisings in the Twin Cities during the Spring and Summer of 2020, the practice of story-telling continues in our city and continues to have widespread consequence. As a practitioner who studies difference and intergroup dynamics, that is, how we all know how to “be” with one another, I know that our preferences and our instincts are widely and deeply cultural. Story-telling here in Minneapolis has shaped large conversations around “public safety,” authority, service, and things like power and the role of policing. My preferences around what safety looks like are likely different from the preferences belonging to someone not in my body, in this particular time, in this particular place and have been shaped by the various pieces of my identity, my socialization experiences, my familial influence, for example.

Story-telling in the context of community policing and how we all make decisions about who and what is “safe” was highlighted in big ways after the murder of George Floyd. An investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department led by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) and findings cemented what Minneapolis residents had been sharing for decades. The Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of race-based discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights, retelling the embodied stories and experiences of community.

Last summer, I began my working relationship with the Minnesota Justice Research Center (MNJRC). Positioned as the Research Manager for the community engagement efforts regarding the Consent Decree pursued by MHDR with the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department, my job was to support an outreach strategy, facilitate sessions for community feedback, and collect and synthesize the feedback. We wanted to capture what a consent decree should look like and what should be included from the perspective of Minneapolis residents for MDHR’s negotiations with the City of Minneapolis and the final consent decree. The community feedback culminated in this report here.

Almost a year after we initiated our outreach, the MNJRC hosted a community event, “Three Year Later: Community Reflections on Shaping the Consent Decree.” The event, a data-walk and community conversation, was held at “The Square” and took place on May 25th, 2023, the third memorial of George Floyd’s murder, at the center of George Floyd Square. Our team was interested in creating connection and healing and learning more about how the community experienced shaping a consent decree. As a team we were also curious about who we, as a community were becoming and what questions were left unanswered in our efforts to create a more just Minneapolis.

The event unfolded over three hours and spanned two large rooms at The Square.

Community members arrived—food, drinks, and circular cocktail tables were spread across the space, making room for connection. Large posters covered the walls with photos and excerpts from the community engagement sessions that the MNJRC facilitated during the summer of 2022, and found in our report. The excerpts were all quotes from community members - feedback about how and what a consent decree should look and be, collected during those summer engagement sessions. The back room was filled with seating and a large projector, space for historical context setting by Dr. Youhuru Williams and Dr. Michael Lansing. Their presentation highlighted the long history of the Minneapolis Police Department and public safety efforts that neither served the entire public nor produced safety across the entire city as some communities have been overpoliced and underprotected.

(Dr. Yohuru Williams presenting at the event)

Community members were then invited to engage in a data walk after our event opening–an opportunity to walk around the front room and actually engage and reflect on some perspectives community members shared with us. Large posters contained photos from the engagement sessions, alongside excerpts from the report and at the bottom of each poster, reflective questions were listed. There were six posters all together, each highlighting feedback from three of the report’s major findings–a) more and better accountability, b) reciprocal relationships and c) shifting away from a culture of violence. Next to each poster, excerpts from the actual consent decree were hung, directly connecting community feedback and the final agreement. Other materials present were colored sticky dots, post-its and writing utensils. Community was invited to engage with the data–read the passages, scan the photos, use the colored dots to name what resonated, and what did not, and respond to reflective questions either individually or in small groups.

(Example poster at event)

Noise filled the inside of The Square as people moved around the room, hugging the familiar and introducing themselves to unknown faces. Small groups formed around posters and even spilled out onto the sidewalk. Scanning the room, post-its, and sticky dots covering the walls, the community was eager to be engaged and engage with each other. After about a half hour, a large parade centering a community drum and dance troop began to make its way through the streets, drawing most of us outside. A moving, tumbling, and drumming contradiction–in space with so much grief and where world-witnessed violence perpetrated against black bodies, black joy erupted.

As the event came to a close and scheduled evening programming at George Floyd Square began, the MNJRC team returned to The Square and collected the materials clinging to the walls. As we reviewed post-its, sticky dots, and reflected on small group conversations, patterns seemed to begin to answer questions like, “what was the experience of shaping a consent decree like?” and “what themes from the report and final consent decree resonate the most with you?” There also seemed to be many questions left related to power and what the dynamic of power creates within relationships.

Center Practice Over Culture

During our Summer 2022 community engagement sessions, we heard over and over again that shifting a culture of violence within MPD would be critical for transformation. In order to shift police practice to de-center violence, community members suggested that a consent decree include aspects related to specific protocols and limits in police practice, prioritizing de-escalation, and more creative and expansive approaches to public safety. The following excerpt was on a poster,

“Thinking about changing culture feels so big and unwieldy but starting with practice feels do-able. They can change the way they do things. Not sure about hearts and minds... but we’ll see.”

During the data walk, community reflected on whether culture change should be prioritized over practice, or rather, does sequence matter? Where might MPD start first? This quote and poster received “green dots” the most consistently–suggesting that community members resonated with this quote—many cited the time that it often takes to move “hearts and minds” and that culture change is gradual, a luxury that we simply couldn’t afford. “If you wait for culture change to precede change in practice, it won’t happen,” and “practice change needs to be emphasized & prioritized–behavior change first and now!” Growing up Lakota, this idea of embodiment was instilled early–regardless of how we might work to name our beliefs, values, and ways of being with others, when our behavior, our speech, and our actions don’t reflect an embodiment of those practices, we aren’t existing in space with others, with ourselves, in a good way. Community members at this event centered changes in practice first, with cultural shifts to come later. How might we support a practice-first approach and is the emphasis on sequence, what we prioritize first necessary?

Reciprocal Relationship

Community members named throughout our engagement during the summer of 2022 that relationship needed to be centered in our efforts to create a more safe Minneapolis and one that creates some opportunity for healing. The importance of reciprocal relationships and a connection between community members and police officers characterized a vast majority of the conversations and insights shared in our engagement sessions. One of the posters had a quote,

“People are always scared of what they don’t know...This fear exists on both sides: community members are afraid of officers as they don’t fully understand their job and know who they are, and community members experience officers being afraid of them when they don’t know and understand the trauma, hardships, joy, cultural practices, and lives of the community members they serve.”

Walking around the room, this poster and excerpt contained the vast majority of green dots in the room—community members resonated with an embodied experience of fear and a visceral disconnect between the work and role of police officers, and the lives of community members that they support. For many there seemed to be curiosity about who carries the responsibility of relationship building – “There is a power dynamic at play in this relationship so more responsibility falls on the police officers” and others wanted to know more about how officers felt about relationship building, “Do the cops really want this, and if not, where does this leave us?” A piece about professional scope was also highlighted—if police officers are paid employees, is it their professional duty to engage and understand the community, rather than an approach that requires the community to also know more about them, “officers are paid employees of the city. It is their job to understand the community they are hired to protect and serve. Not so sure it’s our job to understand who they are.”

(Community members engage in data walk)

As an Indigenous community member, I spend a lot of time thinking about rights and responsibility. What does it mean to live in community and feel deep responsibility to and for others? Who is responsible for creating a culture of curiosity and one where we are all practiced at investigating our instincts surrounding stories? Stories that name who is responsible for relationship building and repair, stories around what acceptable behavior is in the presence of authority, stories about what the role of policing is within the community and whose safety is the priority during these interactions. If our current thinking is that officers hold the burden and it isn’t working, what might that require of us? Dr. Shawn Ginwright writes about social movements and our need to shift our thinking and behavior from simply power building and problem-solving to healing. He writes, “eliminating things that harm us is not the same as creating things that heal us” (Ginwright, 2022). In the context of policing in Minneapolis and healing, I often worry that we aren’t in a place to hold the various patterns and conditions that have supported a culture of race-based policing. Most of us haven’t healed. How might we create a practice of healing?

As I walked around the room, at the end of the event that evening in May, a community member had left a sticky on the wall, removed from others—

“Cops, like a lot of us, need to better understand their own humanity and how trauma shows up for them and others…”

I was moved to remember and drink my own medicine. As a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, I am brought back to an early teaching–tiyóšpaye, or kinship. Part of what has made the last handful of years feel so heavy is my work to carry that people who work and live in my community, my extended family members, have committed lethal acts of violence against other people, other parts of my extended family. How do I hold that? How do we? The tendency to create distance between those that perpetuate violence and those that are victims is one I’m practiced in and one I practice with others, often. I’m curious about how it serves us? In what ways does it keep us safe and in what ways does it support things like accountability and healing?

Community is complicated. It’s nuanced and messy and requires us to hold things that feel as if they live in contradiction, at the same time—accountability and love, justice and forgiveness. Living in Minneapolis continues to feel this way–the pressure to “figure it out” and help one another heal in our pursuit of justice is palpable.

(Community member at the event, naming their love for our beloved, Minneapolis)

Story-telling is part of who we are—it’s a practice that transcends time and space–it’s also a practice that often centers the perspective of the story-teller as the only and singular truth. It’s easy to tell stories, our brains and cultural practices hard-wire us to do so. The consequences of this fall along a spectrum, some small, maybe an assumption made about the slow driver in front of us, “they have nowhere to be” and some big, “this person is dangerous because of what they are wearing and where they live, my safety is being threatened.” The practice of story-telling leaves us vulnerable to filling in the blanks of incomplete stories with our own assumptions. Our own instincts that are culturally shaped. As I walked through the event looking at the red and green sticky dots on the walls, my own story of what community wants was challenged. Relationship. Accountability. Practice Change. Our ability to move forward together, requires us to hold that this history has marked us all. It isn’t going away. How might we create a practice where we work together to interrogate our instincts and seek more complete stories? We owe it to ourselves and those who have come before us, and those who will be here in Minneapolis after us, to create different stories.

On Friday, June 16th, 2023 the Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded a two year investigation into the City of Minneapolis and released their findings. According to the DOJ, the investigation determined four core findings: that the Minneapolis Police Department uses excessive force, including "unjustified deadly force," unlawfully discriminates against People of Color, deprives people of their First Amendment rights, and discriminates against people with behavioral health disabilities when responding to calls for assistance. The DOJ’s announcement makes Minneapolis the first city police department in American history to be subjected to both state and federal consent decrees in response to the actions of its police department.

What does this mean for us?

Our city needs us, and although I have moments where I am tired, and I hold heavy questions like, “who is deserving of my support?” and “how is the responsibility here on me?” I remember my late-Unci, my grandmother, and her approach to what it means to love–she loved almost recklessly, both people and places; she had a deep attachment to those in her life and the places she loved. She would often remind me, “Kayla Marie, you don’t have to wrestle with these questions–it’s not your job.” Love really is capable of healing, even when it’s hard to imagine—most of us in this City are wounded in the places where love should live, Bell Hooks writes that, “rarely does healing happen in isolation–healing can be an act of communion.”

Community is my communion. Let’s connect.

Come out, submit an amicus brief, attend our Annual Conference:

Submit a brief to the court –

Hennepin County District Court Judge Janisch invites individuals, organizations, and any

other interested parties to share their positions on the court enforceable agreement by submitting a "friend of the court” brief (called an amicus brief) to the court.

This is a legal document that tells Judge Janisch whether the interested party supports the court enforceable agreement.

Friday, June 23, 2023, is currently the deadline Judge Janisch set to submit information.

To submit this to the court, you will need to follow the process Judge Janisch laid out in her Order.

Attend our 2023 annual conference --

“Re-imaging Justice: Centering Humanity Over Fear” Thursday, November 16th - Friday, November 17th, 2023. Save the Date!


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