Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #158. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Sep. 4, 2020; in print Sep. 6

Policing and politics. A volatile mix. Arguments and accusations fly thick and fast.

To get perspective, I interviewed Dave Bentrud, Waite Park’s chief of police and current president of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association (MCPA), which represents approximately 500 police chiefs and command staff at municipal and state law enforcement agencies.

What are your priorities for the MCPA? I asked him.

He named three: recruitment/retention, reform and dialog.

“We are really struggling getting the quantity and quality of applicants we used to get,” Bentrud said. “This has partly to do with how policing has been portrayed. Yes, there are some bad actors, but the majority of officers are in the profession for the right reasons and motives.”

To provide a platform for those who are in it for the right reasons, MCPA has produced a series of videos and podcasts called “Wear the Badge,” where current officers provide a look inside the profession of policing, why they serve, explore how the career is changing and tell first-hand stories that can both intrigue and inspire potential applicants.

Recruitment and retention are dependent on reform.

“The profession is not above looking in the mirror and seeing there are things that can be done better,” Bentrud acknowledges. “Some hires are not amenable to training. It is hard to get rid of an officer who is not suited to this profession.”

A statement by MCPA executive director Andy Skoogman reinforces this point in light of current events:

“Following the brutal death of George Floyd that horrified, saddened and appalled our members, we are committed to working with lawmakers, community groups and stakeholders to reform policing practices. We must make real changes to ensure that officers receive the training necessary to prevent biased policing and inappropriate use of force and are held accountable when they happen.”

MCPA asks the state legislature: “Change laws governing collective bargaining agreements that impede discipline of officers who seriously betray the public trust”; and “Ensure that all law enforcement agencies are trained in cultural competency, implicit bias, de-escalation tactics and skills in order to reduce use-of-force, especially when responding to persons in crisis.”

Chief Bentrud’s most fervent appeal is for continuing dialog to undergird the reforms that will help recruitment; the key is “continuing.”

“The most striking example is the St. Cloud Community Policing Agreement. I was in the St. Cloud Department when the agreement was first hammered out. It took a long time. Waite Park would like to be part of that conversation. I want to encourage other parts of Minnesota to do what has been done in this area,” Bentrud insists. “In my role as MCPA president I am asking our board to consider options to make the best use of people’s time and effort – to consider following the lead of Illinois, where the chiefs of police, in consultation with community groups, including the NAACP, have developed a statewide agreement, a shared principles document.”

The 2020 MCPA legislative agenda includes an item that weighs in on hotly contested policy: “The MCPA supports preventing individuals who are legally able to purchase a gun from doing so without background checks at gun shows, online or in private transactions.”

The organization’s 2019 Legislative Recognition Award went to Rep. Dave Pinto, for his “relentless work and dedication to reducing gun violence [that] resulted in the most significant legislative movement to require criminal background checks on all private gun sales in Minnesota.”

MCPA has a “Bright Ideas in Policing” initiative, which is currently highlighting mental health response. As Bentrud put it, “We enforce the law, but that’s only about 30% of what we do. Seventy percent of our time is spent doing other things. There were some individuals taken to the ER 15 times by Waite Park and St. Cloud police in a three-month period. Going forward, I see more and more law enforcement agencies having embedded social workers to provide follow-up care or victim support services. Waite Park, St. Cloud and Sartell are already partnering with the Central Minnesota Mental Health Center.”

I asked Bentrud his reaction to “defunding” the police.

“When I first heard that term, I was somewhat offended,” he responded. “But when I take a step back, it’s talking about the very things we’re doing in this area right now – co-responder program, a model that MCPA is advocating for, more funding for the 70% we do that’s not directly law enforcement. We police officers are on the front line of the mental health crisis. What many people mean by defund is that there are alternative response strategies. I want there to be community conversations in which we can say, ‘We want to work with you in different ways.’ The point of community conversations is to get to really know people – and that changes everything.”