First court-ordered community engagement sessions with Minneapolis Police Department reveal growing pains

People in a room sit and talk-1
Neighbors gather to participate in a community engagement meeting at Plymouth Congregational Church near the Whittier and Loring Park neighborhoods of Minneapolis Wednesday. This was the last of the initial meetings mandated by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights settlement agreement with the City of Minneapolis and Minneapolis Police Department.
Nina Moini | MPR News

There wasn’t much new shared in a packed church basement in Minneapolis on Wednesday night.

It was the last of an initial set of nine community engagement sessions mandated by a court-enforceable settlement agreement between the City of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

Earlier this summer both parties agreed to have the courts monitor police reform efforts for at least the next four years after an MDHR investigation stemming from the murder of George Floyd found a pattern of discriminatory policing from MPD over the past decade.

Under the fluorescent church basement lights of Plymouth Congregational Church, Jae Yates was unimpressed with the final installment of these initial court-mandated community engagement sessions, meant to focus on policies that would encourage non-discriminatory and impartial policing.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

“Without acknowledging the police, and MPD specifically, has harmed our communities for decades, this conversation is a non-starter," said Yates, a longtime activist for racial justice and trans rights.

Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara said it was early in the settlement agreement process for any substantive policy conversations to occur. O’Hara, who has been Minneapolis police chief for less than a year, previously led a similar court-enforceable agreement, or consent decree, in Newark, New Jersey

“To me, this type of engagement is a little bit more meaningful once there has been some work done, already,” O’Hara said on Wednesday evening inside the church. “It’s right for people to have these reactions because it is a lot for people to go through, but this is what was required by the agreement.”

O’Hara said moving forward, he is planning for more culturally specific community engagement sessions across Minneapolis.

“One thing I learned in Newark from decades of problems with the police department there is that people can tell when people are sincere,” O’Hara said. “That is when we keep showing up and people see we are serious about peoples’ voices being heard.”

Commander Yolanda Wilks is the head of MPD's new Implementation Unit, which will carry out changes mandated by state and possible federal court orders. Wilks is a Black woman with 15 years of service in Minneapolis. Wilks, who led these first community engagement meetings, said she wrestled with taking on this role, which chief O’Hara called “unpopular” within the department.

“After a long thought process I believe this is where I am supposed to be,” Wilks said. “I’d rather be on the side of change and I believe this process will give us the change that we need, kind of like a reset or a chance to start and do things over.”

Wilks said while there is a lot of mistrust within the Minneapolis community, the only way to get to healing is to acknowledge “the places we’ve been.”

While the first nine community engagement sessions mandated by the settlement agreement focused on policies related to use of force, stops and searches and non-discriminatory policing, those topics will continue to be fleshed out and revised as the court-monitored process continues for years to come.

“We want to move the dial forward instead of being stationary in one position,” Wilks said.

The next significant step in the court-enforceable settlement agreement between MDHR and the city of Minneapolis will be the appointment of an independent evaluator, who will oversee the implementation of police reforms within MPD from a community-driven perspective.

Still, the role of the chief and Cmdr. Wilks is to balance the needs of all of the stakeholders in Minneapolis public safety, including officers.

It’s why chief O’Hara said he is working on a process outside of the settlement agreement to facilitate conversations between rank and file officers and Minneapolis residents.

“It is that shared sense of trauma that allows people to see each other,” O’Hara said. “It has to be thought out well and it is absolutely necessary if we are serious about trying to heal and bring people together.”