In One Minnesota Town, a Police Overhaul Is Working

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In the year since George Floyd’s murder, the distrust between the residents of Minneapolis and their police department has only deepened. Reform efforts are mired in politics, personal animosity and policy disagreements, while the widely shared goal of addressing the root causes of crime and racial injustice in the city is foundering.

Seventy miles to the northwest, the small city of St. Cloud offers a striking contrast. In 2017, local officials embarked on a small but ambitious policing experiment that seems to be showing real results. In fact, it’s been so successful that supporters in St. Cloud — and in Washington — hope to see it become a national template.

It’s called the COP House (short for Community OutPost), and from the outside it looks like a regular split-level home. Inside, it houses a small police substation and a slew of community-oriented programs, acting as a hub for local public services. When I visited last week, college students were digging a community garden in the front yard and immigrant Somali neighbors had arrived for a vaccine. Since it opened, the facility has helped to build trust between the police and the neighborhood, while driving a significant reduction in crime.

“This is all about community engagement and building and strengthening,” said Blair Anderson, St. Cloud’s police chief since 2012, as he led me inside. “And it sounds corny as hell, but it works. It absolutely works.”

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With a population just shy of 70,000, St. Cloud is the largest city between Fargo and Minneapolis. In a reflection of its German-Catholic heritage, the city has long been mostly white. But its demographics have been shifting in recent years, thanks partly to a large number of refugee-resettlement organizations in the area. Today, about 9% of residents are foreign-born, with a significant population from Somalia.

That shift hasn’t been painless, and St. Cloud has had its share of ethnic and religious tensions (it’s still sometimes referred to pejoratively as “White Cloud”). But it has been far more proactive in addressing them than some of its neighbors. In 2005, the police department spent a year hammering out an agreement with community groups to reform procedures such as traffic stops and search requests. Under Anderson, the deal was renewed and updated.

When I asked him about it, Anderson emphasized that the process itself was what counted most. “The important part was the relationship building, the airing of grievance and the coming to consensus during those meetings.”

In 2014, one of Anderson’s officers, a native of Racine, Wisconsin, told him about a program in his hometown in which the police department had stationed officers in seven houses scattered in troubled neighborhoods. In addition to enforcing the law, they also provided an array of social services that helped create a closer relationship with the community. Over two decades, the city once known as the “murder capital of Wisconsin” had seen crime fall by as much as 70% in some areas. The officer suggested a similar experiment in St. Cloud.

“And before he was halfway through his proposal, I said yes,” Anderson said.

*****

Although St. Cloud has never faced a crime wave on the scale of Racine’s, it’s had its share of problems. The home demolished to make way for the COP House had had 100 police service calls over a five-year period. “Whatever was going on here was a pain in our ass on a regular basis,” Anderson recalled. A park across the street had been a hub for “drug dealing, fights, guns, all kinds of mess.”

Even so, the largely immigrant neighborhood wasn’t entirely keen on having cops move in. “When we were in the planning stages, the rumor got out that the residents were afraid that this was going to be an FBI spy-house,” Anderson said. To allay those fears, he sent officers door to door. “Not only to explain to them what this is going to be. We didn’t tell them what we were going to do, we asked what was needed.”

It turned out that a lot was needed. Taylor McIntyre, an officer assigned to the facility, rattled off a partial list of current programs at the house. “ESL, breast feeding, public health comes through and does WIC,” she said, referring to the federal supplemental-nutrition program. Other efforts are underway “for health care, for kids, jobs, helping these new refugees find their place in this community.” Anderson added: “We’ve done hundreds of mobile dental clinics. We have several sports teams and leagues that we run out of here. We have kids of color on ice skates out here. Fishing club.” The Mayo Clinic uses the house as an ambulance substation and the regional health system keeps an office upstairs.

All day, the house buzzes, but never more so than after school, when neighborhood kids arrive for homework help and the full freezer of ice cream. Such an investment in the lives of young kids, especially immigrants, pays off in myriad ways, McIntyre said. “Moms and dads from the apartment building just west of here, they knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, can we just talk about the issues that are going on in our apartment building?’” That information, in turn, helps the police build relationships and stabilize the neighborhood.

Data suggests it’s working. A 2019 study on the house found a reduction in burglaries, thefts, damage to property and liquor-law violations in the area since its opening. Narcotics arrests increased, a trend largely attributable to “proactive enforcement,” the report found. In an accompanying survey, 90% of respondents felt the COP House had improved the neighborhood.

*****

For all of its success, however, the house hasn’t erased all of the challenges that Anderson faces, including rising anti-police sentiment.

Two weeks after George Floyd’s murder, a local 18-year-old was accused of shooting a police officer in the hand. (The suspect was later acquitted of an assault charge.) Rumors spread online that the police had shot an unarmed Black man. That night, an angry crowd gathered at the police department wielding bricks and bottles. The city appeared to be on the verge of its own riot. By Anderson’s admission, community policing didn’t help so much at 3:00 a.m. “In that instance, I’ll be honest with you. The tear gas helped us more.”

Yet as the crisis played out, the department’s connections with community groups helped tamp down the rumors and quell the anger. At a press conference, the leader of the local NAACP chapter praised the police for their restraint during the incident. Other local leaders said that they had been in touch with the department as tensions rose. At a time when many communities are at an impasse with law enforcement, that kind of communication stands out, especially for a city just over an hour from divided Minneapolis.

*****

Anderson, when pressed on whether there will be another COP House in the city, deflects (in fairness, the decision belongs to the foundation that runs the house, not the police chief). “I’d hope these spring up all over the nation,” he said diplomatically.

He might just get his wish. Representative Tom Emmer, a Republican who represents St. Cloud, has introduced legislation that would offer grants to help communities establish their own COP Houses. So far, it’s not part of the police-reform package being negotiated in Congress. But in a phone call, Emmer told me that “the White House is interested.” From his perspective, a national COP House program hits a political “sweet spot” that should appeal to both sides of the bitter partisan divide over policing.

Here’s hoping that he’s right. Over the past year, activists and officials across Minneapolis have been looking for ways to help police and community voices interact more constructively. The answer may be closer than they think.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."

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