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St. Peter police, city leaders hear from advocates on recommended change
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After months of meetings with community members and leaders in the wake of the death of George Floyd, police reform advocates met with the St. Peter City Council, along with city and police leaders, to present proposals intended to increase police transparency.

Three of the St. Peter/Greater Mankato Policing Coalition advocates — Yurie Hong, Valerie Hines and Destiny Owens — stand in front of the St. Peter Police Department building. The coalition gave recommendations to the city of St. Peter, North Mankato and Mankato police departments, related to transparency and accountability. (Philip Weyhe/southernminn.com)

The St. Peter/Greater Mankato Policing Coalition wrote policy change recommendations to the cities of St. Peter, North Mankato and Mankato after a four-part policing series sponsored by local civil rights and racial justice groups, including Greater Mankato Diversity Council, ACLU Mankato, NAACP Mankato, B.E.A.M., YWCA Mankato, CADA and Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato.

Those recommendations presented to the council on Feb. 16 included five policies for all three cities, plus three specific to Mankato. It’s up those cities’ governing bodies what to do with the recommendations.

Advocates told the council that these changes were needed after speaking with community members in St. Peter, Mankato and North Mankato about their experiences with police. Many of the tri-city community members that spoke were black and shared stories of feeling profiled, suspected of crimes they didn’t commit and having crimes against them brushed off by police. Those who shared negative experiences often said there was little accountability or follow-up when sharing their concerns.

St. Peter Police Chief Matt Peters was in attendance during the council work session but was mostly just listening on the evening; he spoke to the St. Peter Herald in an interview later. Peters said that he thought the conversations went “quite well.” He felt the written report the Policing Coalition put out was more adversarial, whereas the in-person conversation was more inclusive of his department.

Peters

“I thought the presenters did a good job presenting what they’re looking at. I thought their comments were not as critical as maybe their written report looked,” he said. “I thought they seemed more willing to work with people.”

That doesn’t mean the police chief agreed with every recommendation or point of criticism from the reform group, but he feels some of their primary goals are achievable, and in a couple cases, already being worked on. He noted the City Council has already been pushing for years to set up meetings between police and community members. He also noted that a new law enforcement data system going into effect state- and nationwide could help alleviate concerns about transparency.

Immediate proposals

One of the most significant gaps in perception between local police and the advocates is what the latter sees as a lack of accountability in local policing. The group demanded greater civilian oversight over the police and more diverse community involvement in St. Peter’s Civil Service Commission, which is responsible for civilian police oversight.

The group recommended that the Civil Service Commission take a more robust role in the hiring and promotion of officers, reviewing complaints and advising disciplinary action. They also called for the commission to meet regularly at a minimum of four times a year, have secured funding in the city budget as part of the police budget and be involved earlier in the hiring process.

The Policing Coalition further pushed for the city to actively recruit individuals from non-English speaking communities and communities of color to serve on the commission. City Administrator Todd Prafke said that the city already conducts outreach to these groups by placing advertisements in places like the St. Peter Islamic Center, but staff would be willing to take recommendations from the coalition on other places they are not recruiting from.

In addition to outreach, Indivisible founder Yurie Hong said the City Council could further pursue diversity on the commission by changing the way individuals are recruited. Currently, candidates are recommended for council vote by the mayor, but Hong believed any member of the council should be able to recommend candidates.

Prafke said this hiring process is not unique to Civil Service Commission, all public commissions go through the same process. City Councilors have the ability to view the application of any candidate, including those not nominated by the mayor. But in many cases, there’s only one applicant to choose from, said Prafke.

“We struggle to find people to serve on these commissions,” said Prafke in an interview with the Herald. “The discussion that seems to float around is there is a lot of people waiting to serve on these things and there just isn’t. I wish there was, but there isn’t.”

Advocates also pushed the city to create a more transparent website which would display a staff directory of police officers and contact information, archives of Civil Service Commission minutes and agendas, year end annual reports and detailed instructions on how to submit a complaint. The Policing Commission held up North Mankato’s website as an example of what the St. Peter Police website could look like.

“I think you would build a lot of trust and also a lot of opportunities for education and engagement from the police side, too, if that website had more information on there,” said Hong.

In his interview with the Herald, Peters said that what goes on the website is largely outside his purview and noted that “part of the frustration for government is we often hear ‘there needs to be more transparency.’ But honestly, a lot of that is regulated by the Data Practices Act.” Peters said, though, that if the council gives direction to change the website, the department “should be able to meet what they’re looking for.”

One of the Policing Coalition’s recommendations is already in the pipeline, a plan to hold community conversations with the city and the St. Peter Police Department on equity. The city’s planned topics of conversation are much broader than just policing. Prafke said the city is looking to hear from community members on equity issues in housing, utilities, business opportunities, and land use as well as law enforcement.

The Policing Coalition called for the findings from conversations on law enforcement to be reported to city leadership and be incorporated into a three-year plan.

The Policing Coalition also encouraged the city to publish a strategic plan on police training and collaborate with Mankato and North Mankato to discuss best practices and training while actively recruiting community members of color.

Collecting race data

One of the major challenges in ensuring racial equity in policing locally is a lack of quantitative data, said Julio Zelaya, a member of ACLU Mankato. Many cities across Minnesota, including St. Peter, do not collect race data during police encounters. The Policing Coalition proposed the city change that by collecting data on the perceived race of people pulled over during traffic stops.

Mankato and St. Peter area community members shared their police-related experiences with members of Indivisible, the NAACP, ACLU, B.E.A.M. and Greater Mankato Diversity Council as part of a series on policing. (Zoom screenshot)

Zelaya said this data could help the city identify potential racial disparities and profiling. He pointed to a 2003 legislative report from the city of Worthington, which used perceived race data to find that black drivers were stopped 48% more often than expected, while Latinos were stopped at twice the expected rate.

“There’s no way to collect race data right in the moment when they’re being arrested or stopped” said Hong. “It’s not reasonable to then expect a police officer to ask that question. It’s not on the driver’s license or anything … Regardless of how any individual might identify, what matters in terms of possible disparities of whether a stop turns into an arrest is the perception of the officer.”

Prafke said the city would need to research the topic before implementing this proposal. He also believed this data gathering should be implemented in scenarios outside of traffic stops as well if the St. Peter Council moved forward on the recommendation.

“It’s not only for folks that are stopped, but for other types of crime, as well, and certainly victims as well,” said Prafke. “I think that would be important for victim follow-up for the county attorney’s office as well. I think that’s worthwhile, and we could certainly do more research into that”

Speaking to the Herald, Chief Peters said a new mandatory policing system might help solve the reporting problem. St. Peter is already entering summary information into NIBRS, National Incident Based Reporting System. This system was developed by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, in an effort to align departments nationwide in how they report suspects, victims, witnesses and more.

The system, which is supposed to be in place across Minnesota departments by the end of the year, will have more specific data, including demographics, and it will be available to the public.

“St. Peter reports into that system, but only summary data so far, because not everyone is on board yet,” Peters said. “When that system is complete, people will be able to log in to NIBRS, and they can pull all this crime data, if you will.”

He added, “So we’re kind of in a difficult position, as a small department, to reinvent the wheel, but, within a year or so, you’ll be able to go and look up the data. It will break it down for victims/suspects/witnesses. I do think we need to recognize some of these things take time and aren’t as easy as they may seem in theory.”

In addition to perceived race data, the Policing Coalition asked the city to conduct an annual citywide racial climate survey and impact report. This survey would make race data collected by the city public information in an annual report and would be presented to the public at yearly events.

School Resource Officers

One of the most significant changes proposed by the Policing Coalition was to remove school resource officers from local schools. Hong claimed that resource officers create a student-prison pipeline, due to their power to arrest, detain, interrogate, and issue criminal citations to students on campus.

She recommended that the city work with local school boards to find alternative security measures for local districts, such as mental health and social workers. While SROs are still in their contracts, Hong said that they should not be allowed to carry guns on campus and should be in plain clothes.

The Policing Coalition put forward a number of other school reforms as well. The organization requested that the city gather quantitative data on adverse childhood experiences, such as violence, abuse and neglect and hold listening sessions with students, staff, SROs and community members about school safety.

The coalition also called for hiring teachers of diverse backgrounds, conducting de-escalation training for teachers and staff, and training security guards to discipline students without requiring law enforcement.

What’s next

While many recommendations were made, it’s up to the St. Peter Council whether they wish to pursue these goals or not. The Policing Coalition addressed the council at a workshop meeting, meaning that none of the proposals were put to a vote. The meeting was instead a chance for the council to listen to anecdotal data from their community and “experts in their perspective,” said Prafke.

Councilor Keri Johnson, who participated in the Policing Coalition’s policing series, pushed for the council to seriously consider some of their recommendations after conducting community engagement meetings.

“One negative experience can impact someone’s entire life and create trauma, and we heard that in the series and from people’s perspectives, so I absolutely believe that it’s important to be talking about this,” said Johnson. “Our community members want us to be talking about this, and I hope that we don’t react with defensiveness or defending the status quo … I think, following our community engagement series, it is worth coming back to this report and looking at these recommendations and considering what’s feasible for our city.”

City Attorney Jim Brand questioned the Police Coalition’s approach, saying that negative attitudes toward police officers was also a problem that needed to be resolved and that it was discouraging black applicants from pursuing careers in policing.

“A problem for me is when I see black officers being called very poor names,” said Brand. “That’s a problem. That’s an issue. What is the correction there?”

Chief Peters said “I think, from our standpoint, the council understands that police reform and good police work cannot be mutually exclusive.”

Hong responded to Brand’s comment, saying that respect needed to go both ways and that police departments needed to be more transparent to create trust.

“I think this is a long-term effort,” said Hong. “If there is a spirit of ‘Tell us what you want us to do. How do we fix this? Here are things we’re going to be accountable for,’ it becomes a place that people trust and want to be a part of … I think what this comes down to is, everywhere in our community, from police officers to our young people, if there’s a problem, we all need to come together and fix it. We can’t fix it if we don’t have these conversations.”


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Southern Minnesota agencies work together to protect the vulnerable

Parents have a lot on their plate. Is their child happy? Fed? Warm? Kind? Upset? The list of questions is never ending and cycles through their heads day in and day out.

But one question may be the most terrifying: Where is my child?

While it is fortunate that this is not a common question for many families, when it comes to children with cognitive or developmental disorders — such as autism or Down syndrome — their sometimes compulsory nature to wander off and the panic that follows is known all too well by their caregivers.

But there is a tool to help with this anxiety, and it lays in the toolboxes of area law enforcement. For a number of years, sheriff’s offices in Nicollet, Waseca, Steele, Rice and many other southern Minnesota counties have been proud members of Project Lifesaver, a program that helps family members or authorities to locate their loved ones if they wander off.

“A lot of agencies commit to the program — why wouldn’t you?” said Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele. “It just makes sense. A lot of people who are known to wander are vulnerable, and when it comes to your loved ones and making sure they are OK, you’re going to do whatever it takes.”

Thiele, along with leadership from his investigators Mary Ulrich and Kari Woltman, implemented Project Lifesaver in 2016 in an effort to provide an additional sense of security not only for families with children who have cognitive and developmental disorders, but those who care for elderly individuals who may have other cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s. The program connects the client with a bracelet that emits a unique radio frequency that law enforcement can then use to locate the individual if they wander away from their home or caregiver.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Kari Woltman (left) and Mary Ulrich, investigators with the Steele County Sheriff’s Office, have been leading the Project Lifesaver program in Steele County for a number of years. Using the hand-held device Ulrich is holding, law enforcement are able to help locate vulnerable individuals who are prone to wander off due to cognitive and developmental disorders. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

“We have had clients ranging from age 4 to in their 80s and for a really wide range of reasons such as high functioning ADHD or dementia,” Ulrich said. “Fortunately we have never had to actually use the equipment to locate someone who is lost, but I know it brings a peace of mind to caregivers.”

In Nicollet County, where Project Lifesaver has been around for a number of years, Sheriff Dave Lange said they too have never had to use the equipment to locate anyone enrolled in the program — which is a good thing.

“Our caregivers are still putting all their usual precautions in place that they normally would do, but for them to know that if their family member slips through the cracks, that they have this secondary means to locate them, then that’s very reassuring,” Lange said. “We’ve made the investment, we’ve got the equipment, we are going to continue to provide this service and offer it to anyone interested.”

Lange, who has taken part in searches for lost individuals not enrolled in the program, said Project Lifesaver is also a huge benefit to law enforcement and other agencies when it comes to locating a lost person.

“Search parties can be very labor intensive depending on the situation,” Lange said, recalling a time a young child was lost in a cornfield and several law enforcement agencies and fire departments had to come together to locate them. “A program like this allows us to pinpoint a general location of a person a lot sooner.”

And time is of the essence when it comes to someone who is lost. Dan Berndtson, an investigator with the Rice County Sheriff’s Office, said the quicker a lost person can be located the more likely the results will be favorable.

Rice County Deputy Sheriff Dan Berndtson holds equipment used to locate people enrolled in the Project Lifesaver program who go missing. Those with the devices are found through a radio frequency. (File photo/southernminn.com)

“You can get a search group together and you can use drones, but any tools on the table that will help a search go faster and give as an idea of which direction to go is crucial,” Berndtson said. “Time is off the essence in an emergency situation, so the more resources we can bring to those efforts is always better.”

Rice County is one of the few counties in the area that has had to use the equipment to locate an individual since first implementing the program in 2010, and Emergency Management Director Jennifer Hauer-Schmitz said the response time was always quick and efficient.

“Part of it does rely on the family, too, because the sooner they call us and we can have our team of searchers dispatched to the last place the person was seen, the sooner we can find them,” Hauer-Schmitz said.

The equipment used by law enforcement, which is a hand-held antenna device, can pick up the unique radio frequency for the individual’s bracelet in about a one-mile radius. There are also antennas that can be placed on top of squad cars that broaden the range a bit further. Hauer-Schmitz said the frequency will play a sound, which should sound like a chirp, that will get louder as the searchers hone in on the lost individual.

“I can’t imagine how stressful and the horrible feeling it must have for the family when someone who is attracted to wander off is lost,” Hauer-Schmitz said. “We definitely fear a bad outcome, but these tools help us prevent that.”

Hauer-Schmitz said one of the most important parts of the project is building the rapport with the clients and their families. In one specific case, the agency was able to learn quickly that the individual who kept wandering off was drawn to a specific pool in town. By the third and fourth time they were dispatched to search for the client, they instinctively learned to head towards the pool to locate them even quicker.

Woltman said building a relationship with the clients, which they are able to do through the regular maintenance visits every couple of months, also helps build an important level of trust in the chance that the individual does go missing.

“The hope is that if they see one of us and they already know us that they will be comfortable,” Woltman said, adding that it has been important over the years to get the individuals accustomed to the site of a man or woman in uniform.

OPPastewart / By ASHLEY STEWART astewart@owatonna.com 

Marquis Murrell sitting with Steele County Investigator Mary Ulrich and his brother DaSean with Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele were the first to receive bracelets through the county’s Project Lifesaver program that rolled out in 2016. Ulrich said building rapport with the clients, especially kids like the Murrell boys, is an important part of the program if they were to go missing. (File photo/southernminn.com)

“The uniforms are the ones looking for them,” Hauer-Schmitz said, adding that someone who wanders off is already vulnerable and now in a stressful situation, so anything to help bring a sense of calm to the scenario helps.

One of the biggest benefits the program brings is the ability to share information across agencies. In Steele and Rice counties, one individual enrolled in Project Lifesaver resided in Steele County while attending school in Faribault. The two agencies were able to exchange information – specifically the client’s frequency number – to add another extra layer of security.

“In the past we have had people come down for the Steele County Free Fair who were enrolled in the program in another county,” Thiele said. “The family is able to call us up, give us the information we need just as an extra precaution. Just in case. That works really nicely.”

Hauer-Schmitz said the program even allows for easy transfer of information out of state, stating she has helped several families prepare for vacations to Florida by providing the client information to the law enforcement agencies in the cities they were traveling to.

“This lets whatever agency be able to go in and take over right away with no problem,” Hauer-Schmitz said. “It’s set up really well that way.”

As far as funding goes, all the area agencies were happy that the program is highly affordable. While there is usually a one-time fee to get the bracelet, Lange said by calling the local agency they usually can help set a family up with a more affordable options if there is a financial concern. Those already receiving help from social services can also qualify for a waiver from the state.

“It runs relatively cheap and provides a solid, concrete way to locate someone,” Ulrich said. “It’s a service we are happy to provide, even if we never have to turn on the equipment.”


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Local legislators hit the gas on online driver's ed

When the pandemic hit Minnesota last spring, it changed the way business is conducted in previously unimaginable and rapid ways. In many communities, that included the advent of online driver’s education classes.

Sens. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, and Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, who covers Le Sueur County in his district, are co-sponsoring a bill that would enable students under the age of 18 to continue online driver’s ed classes even after the pandemic. Jasinski said the change would provide needed flexibility for families.

Jasinski’s advocacy for the bill is shaped in part by personal experience. When his kids were going through driver’s education, he said it was always a challenge to fit in the in-person classes around other commitments. By contrast, Jasinski has been able to utilize online education classes as he goes through the process of securing his pilot’s license. He said that if online education is good enough to teach a pilot, it should be good enough to teach a driver.

Given significant improvements in technology, Jasinksi said the bill makes more sense than it might have a few years ago. It tries to utilize that technology by requiring “accountability” features designed to prevent cheating and ensure students are actually learning.

The law would only apply to the classroom portion of drivers ed, with students still required to take the behind the wheel portion in person. It wouldn’t require online classes, so students and families who prefer traditional in-person classes would still be able to take those.

Reactions to the bill from local road safety advocates and drivers ed teachers have ranged from skeptical to critical. Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn said that law enforcement also much prefers the in-person classes, seeing them as offering a much more complete learning experience.

Owatonna driver’s ed teacher Kent Buryska doesn’t believe the current bill’s proposed rules have gone far enough. He’d like to see legislators go with a system that is “virtual,” allowing online participation but only at a set time.

“I don’t like a system where students can log on and do their work at 2 a.m.,” he said. “They should have a live instructor.

Kristen Giessler, of Northfield Area Driving School in Dundas, believes that courses taught under it would not be required to meet “best practices” standards. If students get through the course without learning crucial information, she said the consequences could be dire.

“Teaching driver’s ed is a much bigger deal than teaching geometry,” she said. “They won’t die if they learn geometry poorly, but they could if they learn driver’s ed poorly.”

Giessler also worries that the new legislation would lead to consolidation of the industry, putting her and other “mom and pop” driver’s ed schools out of business.

“This feels like it’s being pressured by big business,” she said.

Jasinski said there are ongoing negotiations with stakeholders with an eye toward improving the bill. Given the current bill’s text, Jasinski said he understands why small business owners like Giessler are concerned it could cost them their jobs.

Jasinski said that legislators are committed to addressing those concerns before the bill passes. One idea is to add a provision that would require online driver’s ed providers to also have a brick and mortar storefront in Minnesota.

Draheim doesn’t believe the change will have as large of an impact as some may fear, given that online driver’s ed is already legal for students age 18 and over. In addition to those with busy schedules, he said the option could be particularly beneficial for rural students.

“We have parents who are driving all over the state to get their kids to class,” he said.


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