In his 15 years on the force, Eagan police officer Jeff Thul says he hasn’t seen anything like what he’s witnessing now.
Mistrust. Hostility. In some cases, outright resistance. On five different occasions over the past year, drivers have ignored his attempts to pull them over and fled.
“People are more brazen to just fight with us,” Thul said while on patrol recently. “Certain people are taking advantage of the fact that law enforcement are walking on eggshells.”
Police in Minnesota and across the country say they feel more scrutinized, second-guessed and threatened than ever. High-profile shootings from Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., to Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights — each where the officers involved were either not charged or acquitted — sparked widespread protests and persistent calls for police accountability. The July shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond by Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor after she called 911 to report a possible assault in her alley drew international attention to a state already simmering with discontent over police use of force.
Officers are struggling to keep communities safe at a time when members of the public are more willing than ever to question the methods they use to do so.
“These are challenging times for officers, whose job it is to confront chaos with calm, run toward danger and assist people in the throes of life’s worst moments on a daily basis,” said St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell. “Even though the profession is a calling for most of our officers, the job can wear you down.”
It can also be deadly. Earlier this month, two Kissimmee, Fla., officers died after they were ambushed when responding to a call. In July, a New York City officer was ambushed and killed while sitting in her car. So far this year, 30 officers have died in gun-related incidents compared to a total of 39 in all of 2016, which included five Dallas officers killed by a sniper.
Blowback and support
On a late July night patrolling St. Paul’s East Side, officer Justin Rangel responded to an intoxicated 26-year-old arguing with his father about rent, suspected drug use inside a parked car and loud music being played from a car, among other calls.
“I think you get a lot more blowback in general,” Rangel said of the current climate. “I still love my job. I think it’s harder today than it was when I started.”
That pushback was evident one Saturday night in August, in the parking lot of the Dunning Recreation Center on Marshall Avenue. A gathering of about 200 juveniles to celebrate a birthday soon devolved into vandalism.
Three shots were fired without injury, several fights broke out at multiple street corners and several youth swore at and threatened St. Paul officers as the fracas unspooled across the city over two hours. One young man pushed an officer, a large group tried to interfere with an arrest and a young woman told a female officer, “You [expletive] cops think you’re tough.”
Police officers say they still encounter daily instances of community support: a cup of coffee on the house here, a friendly wave and thank you from a neighbor there. But some beat officers say the public and the media are sometimes quick to judge their actions before hearing the whole story, making it nearly impossible to win when it comes to public perception.
A Gallup poll taken in June found that 57 percent of Americans have “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in police, but that confidence dropped among people under 35, liberals, blacks and Hispanics.
“The post-Ferguson world is only in its second year,” said retired Police Chief Ronal Serpas, a professor of criminology and justice at Loyola University New Orleans. “It’s just too early to ring the bell that the police can’t build more community support.”
This month the New York Police Department’s Sergeants Benevolent Association released a video decrying what they called “Blue Racism,” or the mistreatment of police simply for their uniforms.
“The average person doesn’t see the things that make me human …” the narrator says in the nearly four-minute video, “They tend to see an even broader stereotype from an even more racist lens. When they look at me, they see blue.”
At the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office headquarters, deputy Tony Nelson paused for a moment in front of a picture of his wife and two young daughters in his locker before the start of his 12-hour shift that ends at 6:30 a.m.
“Hi dad I miss you did you cach endey badgise [sic]?” read a handwritten note penned by one of his daughters. “… See you at home bi [sic]!!!”
Later, as he patrolled the north metro suburbs on a warm summer night, Nelson acknowledged that the nation’s current state of flux isn’t lost on him.
“In light of everything that’s been going on nationally and locally, yeah, it’s always on the back of your mind,” Nelson said. “I’m out here to do a job, and that’s to enforce the law. I just take it day by day.”
‘The goal is to go home’
The night was slow when Nelson pulled over a car at 9:26 p.m. for a nonworking headlight. Nelson, who approached the car from the passenger side window as a safety precaution, gave the woman a verbal warning.
“Drive safe, OK?” Nelson said before the woman drove off.
As he pulled his squad back into traffic, he explained why he didn’t cite the driver: “We’re not trying to punish anyone. We’re trying to change behavior.” Another call came over the police radio: An 81-year-old man’s hip went out.
“I just try to take what’s happening in our country right now and learn from it,” Nelson said. “The goal is to go home at the end of the morning.”
A watchful eye
Many local departments are engaged in deep self-reflection over current police-community relations, said Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. Meeting the expectations of residents while keeping communities safe is “an even more challenging balancing act in the current climate,” he said, and the smartphone era has further complicated things.
“In the past, many police encounters never made it into the public realm. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have; they just didn’t,” Skoogman said. “Now these encounters are being posted, sometimes live, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms daily around the world. What complicates matters is how instantaneous the information flow is. The world forms opinions before all the facts are in, before the criminal justice process plays out.”
Diane Binns, president of the St. Paul NAACP, has stopped six times in recent years to observe police interactions with people of color. She says the divide between cops and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve has always been there. It’s only now coming to light, she said, “because of the times and the technology that we have.”
Serpas sees the heightened public scrutiny as an opportunity for police and the community to move forward.
“The police can never function in a free society without that society’s watchful eye,” Serpas said. “If [civilians] catch you doing the right thing, they catch you doing the right thing.
“The fact that [civilians] are paying more attention is an opportunity for both sides.”
While high-profile cases dominate headlines, beat officers tasked with patrolling suburban cul-de-sacs and urban streets spend a great portion of their days responding to less dramatic calls. Many calls never result in arrests or criminal charges: loose cattle on a highway, family disputes, teenagers loitering at a suburban development.
Dakota County Sheriff’s Deputy Phouthaivanh Sourignavong Wilkerson immigrated to the United States when she was 5 after her family fled Laos in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. She knows what it’s like to fear authority.
When she stopped a person of color for speeding after Castile was killed, he surprised her with an unexpected accusation: “Stop picking on us.”
“I divert and apologize,” she said. “I’m not about to get political. I have a different upbringing from my co-workers … I have been out of my comfort zone since I was 5.”
A recent day for Sourignavong Wilkerson included a visit to the country’s largest Cambodian Buddhist temple, Watt Munisotaram, in Hampton, Minn., and a pass through the controversial Fur-Ever Wild farm that has attracted criticism and trespassers because of its captive wolves and exotic animals.
“We are hurting right now, and we just need to take a step back and take a breather and just think about what we can do together,” Sourignavong Wilkerson said of civilians and police. “Yes, [police] have to do better.”
Skoogman said that today’s public scrutiny is more positive for officers than it is negative. But it should come with understanding about the realities of the profession.
“We are asking a lot of a police officer. We ask him or her to have the bravery to go into a home at 3 a.m. knowing there are drugs, guns and violence ahead and then to have the wherewithal, the personality to calm an incredibly dangerous, escalating situation without force when it occurs,” he said. “It takes a very special person to have all of these attributes and make the right decisions every single time.”
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