A Native American man wants police reform in Duluth. His son wants to be a cop

Two people stand in a downtown setting.
Blair Powless and his son Key Powless in downtown Duluth on Nov. 16.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Earlier this year, in a plaza in downtown Duluth, Blair Powless stood alongside dozens of other community members still hurting over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and demanded reform from Duluth’s Police Department.

“Generations of suffering and sacrifice have brought us to this moment,” Powless told the crowd, speaking on behalf of a group called the Duluth Community Safety Initiative. “It is our intention that the relationships between community and public safety come to be based in a sincere mutual respect.”

The group asked city leaders for a racial audit of the Police Department, and to reallocate some traditional police funding toward the creation of an alternative crisis response team.

Powless was there on behalf of his community — his late father was instrumental in founding the Duluth Citizen Review Board, a citizen’s advisory body to the Police Department.

But he also has a personal stake in the matter. Over his lifetime, he said, he’d had several “negative, condescending, humiliating interactions” with police officers, experiences he said that, even if they don’t end in violence, can nonetheless be traumatic.

And secondly, he said, at the same time he was working to reform policing, his son was well on his way to becoming a police officer. “And I'm very concerned that the environment, the culture, that he goes into, is a healthy one.”

Demeaning experiences

Several years ago Blair Powless took his two young sons on a bus trip from Duluth to Indiana, where they planned to meet his parents and continue to Florida for a vacation.

Along the way, the bus stopped near Eau Claire, Wis. Powless and his sons hopped out to grab something to eat.

“Somebody must have called the police on us,” Powless recalled. “And so we were walking back to the bus, and a sheriff's deputy pulled up in their car and said he wanted to talk to us. And I was like, ‘what do you want to talk to us about?’ ”

The deputy told Powless his kids should be in school. Powless replied that they were on a family trip. But the officer persisted and asked for his ID.

“And I, of course, was extremely upset at this point. I wasn't yelling at him. But, I told him, ‘I don't have to show you anything. I'm minding my own business.’ And this guy was so cocky. [He] had just this, I can’t say, ‘something’-eating grin on his face the whole time and just this awful attitude.”

The deputy separated Powless and his kids, one of whom was only 3 or 4 at the time, to ask them questions. He eventually let them get back on the bus. But for Powless, the day, if not the entire trip, was ruined.

“It's just those types of instances that I've encountered more than once where somebody seems to not only overstep their boundaries and abuse their authority, but to be almost a cruel or sadistic person,” he said.

For Powless, who's 51 now, that wasn’t an isolated incident. He said he’s had several other demeaning, humiliating encounters with police over the years.

His son Key remembers many of them. A couple years after the incident in Wisconsin, they were returning to Minnesota from Canada when a Border Patrol agent again split him up from his father, and asked him repeatedly whether Powless was his real dad.

"And I just remembered, who are you to ask me that?” said Key Powless, who was 12 at the time.

And now, whenever he crosses the border, “I'm a little eerie about what their true intent actually is. When in all actuality it could be good, but that one experience kind of tainted it for me,” he said.

Blair and Key Powless are Native American, members of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin. But Key Powless, as he says, “looks white.” He said he’s never had a negative encounter with a police officer alone; they’ve only occurred when he’s been with his father.

The elder Powless suspects his appearance has played a role in how police have treated him. “I can't say for certain, but it seems like I've had far more negative interactions than most people I know, for doing nothing.”

Those experiences have motivated Blair Powless in his current work. But those same troubling encounters with police have also fueled Key Powless' desire to become a police officer.

"That makes me want to be a cop even more,” Key Powless said. “If I can try to be the one cop, that's not going to do that to somebody, that's one less person that's going to get traumatized like that. And it makes me want to try to be the person that that cop wasn't."

‘A meaningful impact’

Key Powless has wanted to be a cop since he was in high school when he joined the Duluth Police Explorers program with his best friend. He says it began with a boy's dream of catching the bad guys and putting them in handcuffs.

But now at 22, he said he’s motivated more by community service and a desire to help people, something he said was instilled in him by his grandfather, a longtime college professor and community advocate in Duluth.

“This is something that can have a meaningful impact on my life, and that I can have a meaningful impact on someone else's life,” he explained.

Blair Powless said his son has always been compassionate. At powwows, he was the little kid running around, talking to the EMTs, asking how he could help. He’s proud of that, proud his son wants to serve.

But he said he's also scared of what he sees as a toxic police culture that his son is about to enter, a culture infused with racism and some officers who abuse their power.

“And I'm afraid of what those people might do to him, or how they might treat him, if he stands up for himself,” Blair Powless said.

He doesn't think policing will fundamentally change who his son is, “But I just wonder if, if he isn't changed by it, will he end up selling out his own values just to survive in a profession that he wants to be in.”

Key Powless is working as a security guard for Essentia Health in Duluth while he finishes his undergraduate degree.

He said he works closely with some great police officers and sees how committed they are to the community. But he also agrees with his dad about the need to acknowledge the negative police culture that's developed in many areas.

He cites the example of a friend who’s looking to leave a sheriff's office in rural Minnesota where he currently works, "for the simple fact of, these people put on a face when they go out and deal with with the public. And behind closed doors, it's a very large, almost a racist boys club that he doesn't feel comfortable being around."

Key Powless knows it's not realistic to think he can come into a department and change how people view people of color, or how they treat people they encounter during a traffic stop. Still, he believes he can make a difference.

"I know I probably can't change it, but I can be a part of a better part of the system."

Uncomfortable conversations

For Blair Powless, he knows that police departments need more people of color like his son, who treat people with respect, and who understand Native American culture.

But at the same time, he said “it’s folly” to think that one or two Native Americans entering a police department are going to be able to singlehandedly change its culture.

"It's a lot more complicated than just throwing a couple of people of color into an otherwise white group and expecting that to make a difference,” Blair Powless said.

He said larger, structural changes are needed to really change police culture. That’s why he's working on efforts like a racial bias audit of the Duluth Police Department, something the city has agreed to.

Meanwhile, Key Powless has applied for a job as an officer with the Oneida Nation. His dream, he said, is to eventually work as an officer in the Duluth area.

"So that's kind of the next step for me, I think, is just to take the leap and go become a cop and really see what it's like to be out there doing that kind of work."

In the meantime, this father and son continue to have long, sometimes difficult conversations about policing, something they fear is increasingly rare in what has become a polarized debate, often framed as Black Lives Matter on one side, and “blue lives matter” on the other.

"If we can sit down and really try to listen to each other, and try to have these hard, uncomfortable conversations and walk away, sometimes unsatisfied, at least we're learning something,” said Blair Powless. “And we're keeping in touch with the humanity of other people.”

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