Ground Level: Minnesotans' trust in police is deep but divided
When Jim Brandt was in college, he remembers being pulled over by police four times. One of those times, an officer told him he'd been pulled over for running a yellow light.
"And I said, 'Well, the last time I checked, that's not against the law,'" Brandt said.
"And he said he was giving me a ticket for being a smart-ass."
At the time, Brandt didn't think it was fair of the officer to tag him for running a yellow light. But that experience didn't taint his overall view of police.
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Brandt is white, 58 years old and lives in an area of a Ramsey County suburb where he says the incomes are above average. He is like the majority of respondents to a recent MPR News survey who had the highest levels of trust in law enforcement. In late August and early September, MPR News and the newly formed APM Research Lab surveyed more than 1,600 Minnesotans across the state to learn about the ways they view their lives, their communities, their state and the nation.
The data show that while Minnesotans trust police more than they do any other institution — the health care system, public schools, religious institutions and others — levels of trust differ across racial, economic, geographical and political lines. Whites, higher income earners, non-city dwellers and Republicans expressed the highest levels of trust in police — and African-Americans, members of lower-income households, city residents and Democrats were most likely to indicate distrust in law enforcement.
The MPR News survey shows a slight but significant decline in people's level of trust in police as their household income dips. Eighty-four percent of people who live in households that earn $100,000 a year or more have a high level of trust in police — they said they believe police do the right thing "just about always" or "most of the time." That level of trust in households earning $100,000 or less, according to the data, is 10 to 12 points lower.
And when it comes to just white people, no matter where in the state they live, there is a similar economic trust gap.
About a quarter of white residents whose household income is under $100,000 per year said they trust police to do the right thing "only some of the time" or "never." Just 13 percent of higher-income white residents say the same.
The percentage of people living outside the city limits of St. Paul and Minneapolis who said police do the right thing "just about always" or "most of the time" was 30 points higher than among people who live within the cities.
Brandt said that where he lives in New Brighton, he's more likely to see officers engaged in social interaction than investigating crimes.
"There's an officer who lives in our neighborhood. We know him. He comes to our National Night Out every summer," said Brandt. "We have a good relationship with him, and we've met various other police officers, too."
Brandt said it's possible that, if people had more of those kinds of cordial interactions with officers, they might have more positive views of police. But he said he also thinks that, too often, some people — who may never have had any personal experiences with officers — form negative opinions about police based on the ways they see law enforcement portrayed in the news media or social media sites.
Aaron Rosenthal, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, studies racial differences in the level of trust people have in government, including police. As a part of his research, he has conducted nearly 60 interviews with people from different economic and racial backgrounds living in urban, suburban and rural areas.
"What you may be seeing is a certain level of social proximity to ... negative experiences that people have with the criminal justice system," Rosenthal said, "both in terms of how whites may be more likely to go through negative experiences personally [if they are] living in the central city, as well as the extent to which they hear those stories from people of color that they know."
Take the case of Justine Ruszczyk, who was also known by her fiance's last name, Damond. Earlier this year, she was shot and killed by a police officer in her predominantly white and affluent Minneapolis neighborhood. It sent shock waves throughout the community and across the globe.
Ruszczyk had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault near her home. She was fatally shot by Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, as she ran up to meet him and his partner, as their cruiser pulled into the alley behind her house.
In the days after the shooting, several of Ruszczyk's neighbors told MPR News that their confidence in the Minneapolis Police Department was shaken.
Stephen Dumars, who lives five blocks from where Ruszczyk was shot, recently told members of the state's Peace Officer Standard and Training board — the licensing board for police officers in the state — that officers need to be held accountable when they commit crimes. He urged the board which has the authority to revoke the licenses of officers who break the law to be more aggressive in exercising that role.
Of all the racial and ethnic groups identified in the survey, African-Americans in Minnesota appear to have the highest levels of distrust in law enforcement. The data show 56 percent of black residents trust the police to do the right thing "only some of the time" or "never."
African-Americans have long complained of being unfairly singled out by police on the basis of race. A raft of data compiled by law enforcement agencies shows that black residents are much more likely than whites to be stopped — and to be arrested.
But perhaps nothing diminishes trust in law enforcement more than recent high-profile fatal police shootings of African-American men. Perhaps none of those killings has been more controversial than the death of Philando Castile, fatally shot during a 2016 traffic stop by then-St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez was charged and tried in the case, but a jury's decision to acquit him touched off waves of protest and criticism of police use of force training and tactics.
Castile's mother, Valerie, spoke to more than a dozen law enforcement leaders from around the Twin Cities last week at a police and community forum held at Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale.
"I'm here to support the police," she said. "We need y'all. If it wasn't for you guys, it would be total chaos in this country."
But she also forcefully called on police to police themselves when it comes to rooting out officers' racist behavior. Castile told the officers gathered in the room that she knows that they know which officers are harboring racial bias.
"You come into the community and say, 'If you see something, say something.' You see stuff. But you don't say nothing," said Castile.
Law enforcement leaders say they get it. And say they are constantly working on ways to build trust with the communities they serve.
"Our only true currency with the public is trust," said Ramsey County Sheriff Jack Serier.
If people don't have trust in the system, he said, they withdraw and cut themselves off from services they're entitled to.
There are many ways to build trust, Serier said. The first is to help victims of crime.
"It's that one-on-one interaction between an officer — in our case, a deputy — and a citizen who's a victim or a witness of a crime," Serier said. "No matter how small or large that crime was, that aftercare of the individual is the first step towards building police/community relations."
Building that trust with African-American communities can be particularly challenging, given historical tensions with police. And Serier said sometimes people, regardless of their race, who've never had personal encounters with police have been influenced by family members, friends or neighbors who've had bad experiences with law enforcement.
"It's not just people of color," added Brooklyn Park police Chief Craig Enevoldsen, whose department has participated in several such community forums in the past.
Enevoldsen said one of the major challenges to building trust with the public is that police are called on to solve problems that are beyond their control.
"Mental health would be a perfect example," he said. "We can get you to the hospital. I can't make sure that doctor gets you medicated or gets you treatment."
And when that person is released the next day, the person's family blames the police for not getting the person help.
Rosenthal, the University of Minnesota researcher, notes that national Gallup polls over the past few years indicate that trust in police nationwide has rebounded, after dips in 2014 and 2015.
"But that is only led by the fact that, particularly whites — and even more particularly, conservative and Republican whites — have become much more likely to say they trust the police," said Rosenthal.
But the Gallup polling also shows that, at the same time conservatives' trust in police was increasing, trust among liberals and Democrats — and people of color across political affiliations — declined.
Nearly 90 percent of Minnesotans who identified themselves as Republicans in the MPR News survey expressed the highest levels of trust in police. Sixty-seven percent of Democrats and 73 percent of independents responded similarly.
A small fraction of Democrats or independents — 4 percent — said they never trust police to do the right thing. No Republican respondents said that.
Rosenthal said the experiences and perceptions people have with police and the criminal justice system shape their views about our government. And he said it's crucial to take those opinions seriously.
"Because it becomes the way in which, for many people in America, they ultimately think about whether or not to engage in politics; whether or not to trust government more broadly," said Rosenthal. "And therefore, is really fundamental to how American society functions."
Read the full survey and detailed analysis by the APM Research Lab.
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