Budget constraints could force the elimination of a new Minneapolis police unit that provides community policing and terrorism prevention.
Officers with the Community Engagement Team are tasked with building ties with ethnic communities, and build trust so people will approach police when they see something out of the ordinary.
But within months of the unit's creation, the city may have to shut it down.
BUILDING TRUST, RELATIONSHIPS
Officer Kou Vang visits the New Millenium Academy in north Minneapolis to introduce himself to the mostly southeast Asian staff and students. Vang hands a thick stack of business cards to the dean of students.
"I'm here to build relationship between southeast Asians and officers. Let your staff know. Give me a call whenever you have any issues," Vang told New Millenium's Dean of Students Mike Vang, who is not related to the police officer.
Occasionally, Officer Vang said he has to teach people the basics of contacting police.
"I can talk to them and teach them little bit about how to call 911," Vang said. "Lot of them are new immigrants anyway."
The visit fits the philosophy of the Community Engagement Team.
"There's a growing understanding and awareness about a new tactic to try to reach out and build positive relationships with the community in the hopes that if they feel like they're part of the community, they're less likely to want to commit crimes," said Police Lt. Donald Harris, commander of the two-month-old unit.
Many of the unit's officers are of the same ethnicity as the community they're in charge of contacting. Officer Vang is there for the southeast Asians; there's a black officer to work with the African-American community, and so forth. The unit is headquartered at a former high school in north Minneapolis. Harris said it costs the police department less than half a million dollars.
He calls their mission terrorism prevention in all ethnic communities, but Harris said the unit's officers aren't trying to identify terrorists.
"They're not meeting with people because they think those people are terrorists, they're meeting with people to educate people about terrorism and how it works," Harris said. "They're meeting with people to build relationships so when people in the community see something out of the ordinary, they now have a resource that they can use to try to stop them."
The Minneapolis PD may still have some work ahead to gain the trust of some ethnic communities. In 2009, the city paid a Hmong family more than $600,000 after police officers mistakenly raided their home.
REDUCED BUDGET, REDUCED GROWTH
But the officers in the Community Engagement Team may not have time to build trust with communities. At a city council meeting Oct. 5, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan presented council members with Mayor R. T. Rybak's police budget for next year. Dolan said the mayor intends reduced growth in the department by $4.4 million next year in part through attrition and reassignment of 17 officers.
"We're at numbers at precincts now that I don't feel comfortable going any lower with those numbers," Dolan said.
Dolan told Minneapolis city council members that precinct officers lost through attrition would be replaced by officers in the Community Engagement Team.
Four days later, Hmong kids met in Farview Park on Minneapolis' north side to organize a postcard campaign in support of the Community Engagement unit — but in particular of Officer Vang.
The Hmong community had been advocating for two years for a daytime Hmong officer assigned to north Minneapolis. They finally got one as part of the Community Engagement unit. Pao Xiong, 13, said he felt betrayed when he learned the unit may be eliminated.
"We have been campaigning for two years to get a Hmong officer and we got it, but now they're going to take him away. It's like we done the job for nothing," Xiong said.
Hmong organizers said they've also approached city council members. The pressure seems to have had an effect. Harris said since Dolan's budget presentation, police department officials have promised him they've changed their minds, and the unit will be allowed to continue its work.
The Minneapolis city budget will be finalized in December.