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Restoring humanity warrants a different response

Restoring humanity warrants a different response

Warrant Forgiveness Day is this Saturday, May 20th, 10am-4pm, info here and here.

On Mother’s Day, Black Lives Matter organizers across the nation bailed out hundreds of mothers who had been held in jail, separated from their children, while awaiting trial on various low-level charges. In addition to benefitting the families directly involved, this action highlighted racial and economic disparities in our judicial system. In Minnesota, activists are also embracing a two-pronged approach of providing immediate practical assistance to people caught in the system, while pushing for structural changes in state and county laws and policies.

A recent ACLU study established that black and Native American people in Minneapolis were 8-9 times more likely to be arrested for alleged low-level offenses than whites. Subsequently, all Minneapolis police officers were required to complete implicit bias training, which is a useful initial step. Hiring more officers who live within the city and who have ties to the communities they serve and protect will also help reduce racial disparities in arrest rates. Groups including the Minneapolis NAACP and the ACLU of Minnesota also tackled the issue by successfully advocating for the repeal of vague and outdated statutes, such as those prohibiting spitting and lurking, which were being disproportionately applied against minorities. Indeed, a key recommendation of the Campaign Zero criminal justice reform organization is to decriminalize or de-prioritize policing enforcement of minor offenses such as marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, bicycling on the sidewalk, and so forth; we would like to see this approach expanded in Minnesota.

Last year, the Star Tribune reported that about half of the bookings into downtown Minneapolis jails were for low-level misdemeanors. Many people were arrested and brought to jail because they had missed a previous court appearance and had a bench warrant issued for them. A quarter of those warrants were issued for failing to appear for minor traffic infractions. If you have a warrant out and you are pulled over for failing to come to a complete stop or failing to signal a lane change, you can be arrested. If you don’t have money to post bail, you could lose your job, and your family would be destabilized. This happens across the country much more often than it should, and it happens in Minnesota too. Simply paying bail is immediately beneficial, as with the coordinated campaign for Mother’s Day by Black Lives Matter or ongoing efforts by local non-profits (including the new MN Freedom Fund). Systemic change is also needed. Hennepin County is now processing and releasing more people who would previously have been jailed, and is investigating reforms to the bail system. We would also like to see judges empowered to waive fines and fees for low-income people, and a state-wide ban on the issuance of arrest warrants for failure to appear for a traffic infraction.

This Saturday is Warrant Forgiveness Day in Hennepin County. The Minneapolis NAACP, the ACLU of Minnesota, and other organizations have been working with Hennepin County through a grant provided by the United Way with the goal of clearing up hundreds of misdemeanor warrants. There are over 11,000 active misdemeanor warrants and we want to help people who have feared arrest at any moment because of missed court dates or inability to pay fines to finally break the chains. We understand that some community members have questioned the validity of this initiative but it’s legit. We have many community members who simply can’t afford to miss a day of work to address their legal matter. We don’t have night courts, which causes many citizens to choose between clearing up a warrant or earning a paycheck. This Saturday, we look forward to assisting those negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. If you know someone who can benefit from this service, have them show up on May 20th from 10am-4pm at the Sabathani Community Center, 310 E. 38th St, Minneapolis to remove their warrants. The goal is to get people back to work and civically engaged.

This is an incredible effort that will tremendously benefit the community and it would not have been possible without the collaboration of several agencies. We at the Minneapolis NAACP are glad to participate and support. Our concern is that without structural change, this is bound to be a beneficial but temporary bandaid. Next year there will be more, and more, and more. We will continuously seek innovative solutions to help those negatively impacted by the criminal justice system.

Joint Hennepin/Ramsey juvenile facility—Our youth deserve better

Joint Hennepin/Ramsey juvenile facility—Our youth deserve better

by Jason Sole and Rachel Wannarka, Minneapolis NAACP

As we are demanding accountability of law enforcement officials, it is just as critical to demand accountability of the professionals who are tasked with helping youth transition into adulthood. Community members are meeting tonight for a “community engagement session” at the Minneapolis Urban League to discuss just that. Ramsey and Hennepin counties contend that it is in the best interest of youth to spend millions of dollars to build a new secure juvenile facility, but many community members believe that it will be just another prison. It is extremely difficult to believe that with all of the negative publicity Minnesota facilities have received, that another secure placement center is in the best interests of the counties. What happened to the juveniles that went to Mesabi Academy for treatment but were sexually abused? What happened to the youth sexually assaulted by a Boys Totem Town therapist in February? Will these youth return to our communities better or bitter?

The recidivism rate of juveniles in Minnesota is 45%. This is unacceptable. Nearly half of the juveniles released from an out-of-home placement will return to the system. Why would we trust the decision-makers to have the answers at this stage? “Juveniles who are processed into the juvenile justice system, rather than diverted, experience increased recidivism” (Seave, 2011). Our youth need to have opportunities, not imprisonment. We should be utilizing restorative justice practices so that harms can be repaired, rather than sending youth away to experience further trauma. Research shows that the majority of people serving an adult sentence experienced the juvenile justice system during adolescence.

According to the Council on Crime and Justice (2009) report: “Thousands of Minnesota youth are adversely impacted by juvenile delinquency records, and a disproportionate number are youth of color due to the racial disparities in our juvenile justice system. Minnesota’s greatest asset is at risk: we depend upon our youth for a thriving and diverse citizenry and leadership; juvenile delinquency records diminish that potential.” We shouldn’t be investing in facilities based on risk factors and a deficit approach that ignores the skill sets possessed by many of our youth. We should be investing in opportunities based on resiliency factors and a strength approach. Resiliency factors have more predictive power than risk factors. Most of these youth need love, support, and caring relationships with adults.

While our key decision-makers seek to relegate youth to facilities, we’d like to offer a few suggestions:

  1. Provide adequate housing for youth contending with homelessness: The National Council of State Legislatures (2011) reported that between 44 and 46 percent of youth released from confinement were released into unstable housing situations. The Wilder Research Center (2011) found that 46 percent of juveniles between ages 10 and 17 who are currently homeless have previously been in a correctional facility.
  2. Seal juvenile records: The Council on Crime and Justice (2014) reported that juvenile records in Minnesota can be accessed by employers, making it more difficult for youth who have been adjudicated delinquent to find employment.
  3. Invest in prevention strategies: “Youth of color and their communities are often pathologized in a way that creates a narrative about their past, current status, and likelihood of success.” (Lacey, 2013, p. 4). Invest more funds in youth learning their true history! When you know who you are, you can better determine where you are going!!
  4. Invest in people who love children to serve children: “The strengths perspective integrates concepts related to resilience, empowerment, hope, healing, and meaning construction. Rather than focusing on deficits, disease, labels, and problems, social workers acting from the strengths perspective are concerned with resources, connections, skills, and gifts” (Gleason, 2007, p. 52).
  5. End the school-to-prison pipeline: “For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system. This phenomenon is a consequence of a culture of zero tolerance that is widespread in our schools and is depriving many children of their fundamental right to an education” (Elias, 2013).

    The community will continue to offer solutions while demanding this project be stopped. Our children will not have a future if we allow them to be warehoused in facilities. “When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters—first and foremost—how they behave” (Malcolm Gladwell, David & Goliath). The people spearheading this project are using a crime control model on children who they consider expendable. Come to the Minneapolis Urban League (2100 Plymouth Ave N) tonight from 6-8pm to contribute to the conversation.

No Grand Jury, Redux

No Grand Jury, Redux

It has now been nearly two months since Philando Castile was killed near the State Fair grounds by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds livestreamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting and described how Castile had just told Yanez he had a legally registered gun and how Castile was reaching for his ID, as ordered, when Yanez shot him. This Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit demanding the public release of squad car dashcam video covering the Castile traffic stop, which the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is withholding while it continues to investigate. As record numbers of Minnesotans enjoy the State Fair mere blocks from where Castile died, this week his family is bringing his body back to St. Louis, where he was born. His mother says she “brought him here to Minnesota to better his life… but unfortunately he was murdered by St. Anthony Police and this is the last part of the ordeal.”

Police in Minnesota have killed at least 150 people since 2000 with zero criminal indictments (let alone convictions), even as many millions of dollars have been paid out in civil settlements. While people of color are 16 percent of the state population, they comprise 45 percent of police-involved deaths. St. Anthony police records show that they disproportionately stop and arrest black citizens. Castile experienced years of harassment and racial profiling, including on the night of his death when police scanner audio reveals he was pulled over for supposedly looking similar to a robbery suspect “because of the wide-set nose.” Across the country, we know that black people of all genders may be treated as more threatening due to bias: for example, in 2015 unarmed black men were twice as likely as unarmed white men to be shot and killed by police, after accounting for all other relevant factors. To echo Governor Dayton, would Castile have been shot if he had been white?

Grand juries return indictments in nearly all cases they are presented by prosecutors, but almost never indict when police kill the citizens they swore to serve and protect. Across Minnesota, the County Attorneys who are responsible for selecting and presenting the evidence a grand jury considers in police killings also rely extensively on police cooperation and assistance in almost every aspect of prosecuting their other cases, which represents an unavoidable conflict of interest. Now Ramsey County Attorney John Choi must decide whether to use a grand jury in the Castile case. Ramsey County includes St. Paul, and over the last seven years the St. Paul police department has used deadly force more often than any other law enforcement agency in the entire state, disproportionately killing people of color – all without facing any criminal consequences. Last December, Phil Quinn was killed while experiencing an episode of mental illness and holding a screwdriver, and Choi announced this February that a grand jury had (predictably) declined to indict the shooting officer.

After Jamar Clark was shot in Minneapolis last November, activists demanded an end to the practice of grand juries rubber-stamping police killings as justified. Protesters peacefully occupied the Fourth Precinct and marched to city hall, and thousands signed a petition for no grand jury. As Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds put it, “We do not trust the system to produce justice.” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman listened to the voices of activists and announced this March that he would no longer use grand juries in police shootings. Freeman explained his decision: “Others dislike the grand jury process because under law and practice, its proceedings are essentially private and the basis for the grand jury’s decision is confidential… Secrecy, lack of transparency and no direct accountability strikes us as very problematic in a democratic society… I concluded that the accountability and transparency limitations of a grand jury are too high a hurdle to overcome.” The same concerns that caused Freeman to forgo grand juries in police shootings should lead Choi to do likewise.

Declining to use a grand jury in the Castile case would not be enough. Even when County Attorneys take the responsibility for making charging decisions rather than using a grand jury, as Freeman did, there remains an inherent conflict of interest due to their working relationship with police. A state-level independent and unbiased special prosecutor should ideally handle all police shootings, but this common sense reform is not practiced in Minnesota. County Attorney Choi’s addition of Don Lewis as a so-called “special prosecutor” to his team does not actually cede any of his authority, and in addition Lewis has a troubling history of favoring those in power.

If Choi bypasses the grand jury while retaining control over the case, he must fulfill his obligation to thoroughly and impartially consider all the available evidence when deciding whether probable cause exists to charge Yanez. Here Choi must do better than Freeman. In personally declining to charge the officers who shot Jamar Clark, Freeman disregarded the testimony of numerous black witnesses, misrepresented the significance of DNA and other forensic evidence, falsely characterized Clark’s relationship with Rayann Hayes and behavior that night, and uncritically parroted a constructed and dubious police narrative. Choi and Freeman both have an obligation under their office to seek justice for the victims of violence, including violence committed by the police with whom they work so closely. Freeman chose to shield the officers who killed Clark from criminal accountability for their actions, and now we will see whether Choi will deliver justice for Philando.

Hundreds of community members will be meeting Saturday at 11:00 where Philando was killed, on Larpenteur and Fry, to honor him and other victims of police brutality. Philando Castile deserves justice and we who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes.


One Month After Castile Funeral, Officer who Shot Him Returns to Work

One Month After Castile Funeral, Officer who Shot Him Returns to Work

Jason Sole and Rachel Wannarka

Update Aug 24: Officer Yanez returned to administrative leave “out of respect to the sensitive nature of the tragic incident and the concerns from the community.”

On July 6, Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. As Castile lay dying in his seat, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds described live on facebook how he had told Yanez he had a legally registered gun and how he was reaching for his ID, as ordered, when he was shot.

This Wednesday, one month after Philando Castile was buried, Yanez returned to work on desk duty even though the shooting is still under investigation by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. This seems like a troubling indication that Yanez will be cleared of any wrongdoing by Ramsey County Attorney John Choi despite overwhelming evidence including from the video that Castile did not present any threat and should not have been shot.

Minnesota has a shameful history of failing to hold police officers accountable when they kill the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect, but it would be difficult indeed to understand how Yanez could escape any criminal responsibility for his actions that evening. A non-indictment of Officer Yanez would leave innocent blood on a police department, a county attorney’s office, and on state legislators. A good person died tragically and unfairly and the state has a duty to indict the officer who pulled the trigger. A non-indictment would mean the state of Minnesota is truly Jim Crow North!

Inexplicably, Chief Jon Mangseth took the occasion of Yanez returning to work to heap praise on his officer, even as the investigation is ongoing. Mangseth’s statements only add fuel to the fire. Did Mangseth consider Philando’s family when he decided to make this public statement? Mangseth described Yanez as having “a real sound ability when it comes to communicating and relating to people”–qualities notably absent in the video that shows Yanez yelling expletives, telling Reynolds to keep her “hands where they are” while she sat next to her dying boyfriend, and pointing his gun at Castile rather than rendering any sort of aid.

Mangseth also described Yanez as having a sterling reputation within the department. Did he also have a sterling reputation with Black citizens? Having a sterling reputation within a department doesn’t have any validity because a majority of the police departments across America are racist, sexist, xenophobic, and function within a culture of cruelty. It seems clear that Castile was racially profiled–police scanner audio describes him as looking similar to a robbery suspect “because of the wide-set nose” and as MPR documented Castile experienced years of police profiling and harassment. Sadly, Castile’s experiences were consistent with the general grossly disproportionate citations and arrests of Black people by St. Anthony police.

Mangseth also said Yanez was worried about his own future. At least he has a future. Philando Castile doesn’t because Yanez took that. The chief didn’t even make mention of the mourning family, who declined to comment to media. How painful must it have been for them to see the officer who killed their son return to work? There will be a protest starting at 11 o’clock today (August 19) where Castile’s family will speak. We hope that Mangseth and the entire St. Anthony police department will truly listen to the community’s grief and outrage.

In a week, the State Fair opens. As Minnesotans eat Martha’s cookies, drink lemonade, and enjoy roasted corn, we can rest assured that there are some Minnesotans who won’t be going: Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. Their lives were unjustly taken by the bullets of trained law enforcement officers. Two cold-blooded murders by two different departments. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman bypassed using a grand jury in the Jamar Clark case because “the accountability and transparency limitations of a grand jury are too high a hurdle to overcome.” This was a positive step, but then he dropped the ball by not charging the officers despite more than sufficient evidence: no Justice for Jamar.

Ramsey County attorney Choi has not yet said whether he intends to use a grand jury. Will he deliver justice for Philando or will he continue the trend of zero criminal indictments or charges (let alone convictions) when police kill? We saw in the Jamar Clark case that the BCA defers to the police narrative while seeking to undermine Black eyewitnesses; we must also have an independent and complete federal investigation, one which does not simply parrot the BCA or the County Attorney. History tells us that police officers aren’t held accountable in Minnesota; justice demands that we keep fighting until they are!