Community and police leaders gathered Wednesday at Barbershop and Social Services for a conversation about policing in Rochester following the killing of Daunte Wright, an unarmed 20-year-old Black man shot by Brooklyn Center police during a traffic stop.
Rochester residents shared emotional accounts of how they feared for the safety of their loved ones, and officers presented their goals to improve the department and address these concerns.
Tawonda Burks and Nicole Andrews discussed the conversations they have with their children around law enforcement. Burks said her 7-year-old daughter has a growing fear of police. Nicole Andrews, who has a 14-year-old son, echoed the sentiment.
“I’m here in anger, and in fury and rage, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m not,” Andrews said. “It could have easily been my son. It could have easily been my brother. It could have easily been my cousin.”
Jim Franklin, chief of Rochester police, and Jeff Stilwell, captain of police, nodded to the progress the department has made, but emphasized that more still needs to be done.
Franklin referenced the department’s increasingly rigorous review process for use-of-force cases, as well as the importance of body cameras. He said the team is committed to scrutinizing the decisions they make and identifying areas of improvement.
“As law enforcement, historically, we have been resistant to criticism,” but that won't be the case in Rochester, Franklin said.
He likened it to a football team reviewing the reels of their game footage. It shouldn’t be a question of ego, but a constant pursuit of doing better in the community.
One of the recent changes the department has introduced is the community liaison position, which Bud Whitehorn — an ordained deacon, business leader and activist — filled in February. His role is to facilitate discussions and navigate the relationship between members of the Black community and local law enforcement.
Attendees remarked on how much Whitehorn taking on the challenge signaled growth for the police force.
“The reason I’m still here wearing this uniform that I’ve worn for over 30 years now, is Bud convinced me that a man like him and a man like me could actually be the change we talk too much about but don’t do,” Stilwell said.
Serving and representing
Community members and law enforcement representatives highlighted a shared concern: The police force does not mirror the demographic makeup of the community. The resulting lack of "cultural competency," as one officer said, can be dangerous.
“It sort of boils down to culture competency in this profession,” said Leondo Henry, deputy sheriff for the Dakota County Sheriff's Office. Henry, a Black man, said he felt Wright’s death deeply and painfully, but he also understands the stresses law enforcement officers are under.
“We need to sit in some discomfort and understand this isn’t a personal attack on our profession,” he said. “We need to get together and figure out some creative solutions on how to move forward.”
Andrews reminded them that the onus should be on law enforcement to rebuild that trust, not on members of the Black community to reach out.
“It is on you as the professionals to see me differently and respond to me differently,” she said.
The lack of trust in law enforcement generates a vicious cycle, as Franklin highlights. One of the largest impediments to recruiting members who would make the force more representative is their existing mistrust of the job.
“When you talk about an applicant pool, I’m telling you, it’s an applicant puddle right now,” he said.
The department has committed to hiring more women and people of color. A recent report from the department showed that 88% of officers are white and 4% are Black, whereas Rochester is 74% white and 8% Black.
While participants said these conversations are necessary, many said they’re tired of talking while more and more people die. Burks and Andrews expressed the weight they felt at constantly having discussions with their children and loved ones about fatal police encounters.
“Other moms, white moms, are not having these discussions with white children,” Andrews said.
Franklin and Stilwell acknowledged the community’s pain and reiterated the ways in which they want the department to improve. Andre Crockett, the founder of Barbershop and Social Services, left them with one question: Why should we trust you?
“This badge has got to be a symbol of public trust,” Franklin said. “If you don’t trust us, give me a chance. Let’s connect. Let’s build these relationships. It’s a two-way street.”