ROCHESTER, Minn. — “2020 has been a year like no other for the country, but specifically for law enforcement,” Rochester Police Chief Jim Franklin said.
It’s not the first time someone has said those words in describing their industry, but they likely ring true for many in law enforcement. This year has presented a number of challenges for officers, as well as a massive call for change in light of protests.
Police, state troopers and deputies have tried to keep communities safe while keeping their distance from people during a coronavirus pandemic. On top of that, the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police has sparked protests calling for police reform in how officers interact with minorities.
Some have gone as far as saying law enforcement agencies should be disbanded, while others believe reallocating funds toward preventive services, assistance from other agencies and more officer training is the solution.
There has been reform in some areas of the country, like Chicago and Minneapolis, Dakota Coalition-North Dakota NAACP President Clarissa Van Eps said. Overall, sweeping change for departments hasn’t happened, she said.
“I don’t think those have trickled down to the more rural areas like North Dakota,” Van Eps said. “I don’t think it is an issue to people in the Midwestern states.”
Police leaders said safety and protecting the public is their priority. It’s an infinite job; departments and officers shouldn’t stop improving because they think they have done enough, Franklin said.
“We are going to continue to look for ways to improve and get better so we can provide ... the highest level of public safety for this community,” he said.
At the moment, the pandemic is the Bismarck Police Department’s biggest challenge, Chief Dave Draovitch said. It is focused on keeping residents and officers safe from the virus while conducting their duties, he said.
“What I want to do is make sure our people get out of this OK,” he said.
Police there haven’t changed a lot of policy, Draovitch said, but they are following guidelines.
Several officers were quarantined, but it hasn’t caused the department to be so short-staff that the agency couldn’t handle work, he said. One officer almost died after contracting COVID-19, Draovitch said.
“I hope that’s the one and only case,” he said.
The pandemic has forced governing agencies to make changes, many times with short notice.
“We’re still learning as we go,” Rochester Chief Franklin said.
A large component of policing in Fargo includes interacting with residents, police Chief David Zibolski said. Dubbed community policing, the strategy pushes officers to patrol select areas consistently so they can become familiar with residents in their neighborhoods.
The local events and large gatherings that typically are a part of that effort have been limited by the pandemic.
“Everyone is worried about getting too close. People are staying away,” Zibolski said. “We’ve done some virtual things, but it’s not the same.”
Zibolski, who was hired several months ago, said his ability to get out to meet locals has been inhibited.
Franklin also said community engagement was a priority for his agency before the pandemic. The department has tried to find alternatives for events like Shop with Cops, where children and officers shop together for toys. Instead, they put together baskets with gift cards so children could still shop.
Unfortunately, Franklin said, police missed out on personal interactions due to the pandemic. That engagement is used to build trust, he said.
“The fact that we have been able to do virtually nothing this year has been very, very difficult,” he said.
The pandemic makes looking toward the future hard, but planning should not stop, Zibolski said. Law enforcement has a 24/7 mission to keep communities safe, he noted.
“The work that we do is too important to go on hold,” he said. “We are by no means sitting on our hands waiting for the pandemic to subside because we just can’t. … We have to keep moving forward in spite of it.”
Protests and unrest
2020 has been more disruptive than previous years when it comes to protests and riots, Zibolski said, but legitimate grievances are at the heart of demonstrations.
The Twin Cities saw several days of destructive riots following Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police. Several officers were charged in his death.
The marches spread throughout the country and the world, with demonstrators shouting “no justice, no peace.”
The call for change possibly got more media attention because people saw Floyd die on camera, Van Eps said. The outrage has been in the Black community for decades, she explained.
“People who don’t think there is a systematic racism problem in the country literally were the life drained out of this man,” she said when asked why Floyd’s death sparked worldwide protests.
Thousands marched through the Fargo area, making it the largest protest there in history.
The march didn’t turn violent until a protester was hit and injured by a vehicle in West Fargo. Protesters later gathered in downtown Fargo and started throwing objects at officers. Police ordered the crowd to disperse before firing tear gas into the group. Then rioters destroyed property and injured several officers.
Bismarck did not have major issues with protests this year, Draovitch said. That may be because the department gained experience from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016, he noted.
The department tries to reach out to groups when they plan to demonstrate in Bismarck and establish communication, the chief said. That way they can offer escorts or other services to protesters.
“We spend a lot of time explaining that the role of the police is to keep people safe,” he said. “We don’t take sides, even if they are complaining about us.”
Peaceful protesters are not the problem, Zibolski said. It’s violent individuals who use protests for cover so they can destroy property or harm others.
Changes in policy
Zibolski feels Fargo made efforts to interact with minority groups, even before the protests.
Faith Dixon, a Fargo Black Lives Matter organizer and vice president of the NAACP Dakota Chapter, said there hasn’t been enough change in Fargo, but there is hope.
“As far as change, we haven’t seen it on paper or day-to-day,” she said. “We’re very hopeful we can get that change in there.”
In Fargo, policy has changed to ban chokeholds unless an officer’s life is in danger.
After Floyd’s death, Franklin said his department started making similar changes to its policy, including banning lateral vascular neck restraints with the exception of officer’s fearing for their lives, before Minnesota leaders called for police reform. The agency also updated its use of force policy.
There is a need to diversify the Fargo department, Zibolski said. He also said he planned to meet with BLM about traffic stops, possibly to clear up misunderstandings by the public and to address how officers can de-escalate certain situations.
“We’re going to continue to expand on those opportunities,” he said.
Dixon said her organization is working closely with the city for change. She said she believes change hasn’t happened because people in North Dakota don’t think there is systematic racism in the state, that instead everyone is together in unity.
“In reality, we’re not,” she said. “I think they are a little bit behind in times as far as where our police force should be.”
‘Defund the police’
Another flash point of the protests has been the slogan “defund the police.” The phrase has taken on various meanings, depending on who’s being asked.
Van Eps said the slogan was a poor choice of words, as some people believe it means abolish the police. Dixon said reform is a better term, which would include reallocating funds to other agencies that can assist police.
Van Eps noted larger cities have social workers that go with officers to certain situations, a move Zibolski called beneficial.
Police departments have been asking for assistance in handling mental health situations, Zibolski said.
“I don’t think it should come in anyway at the expense of law enforcement staffing or funding,” he said.
Cutting back on funding for law enforcement would put public safety at risk, Franklin said.
“Cops prevent a great deal of crime,” he said. “Police officers deployed effectively and strategically do make the difference.”
A loss in funding typically means training suffers, since that is the first element on the chopping block, he said.
“We want a professional, well-train police department,” Franklin said, adding departments can’t get that without budgeting enough money for training.
Law enforcement agencies are progressive in innovation and problem-solving, Zibolski said. Technology may change how policing develops, but the necessity of officers won’t change.
Effective communication, transparency and trust are key to closing those gaps, he said.
That’s what activists are calling for, Dixon said.
“As a people, we need transparency,” she said. “We need accountability.”
The chiefs said they feel they have a lot of support from residents, despite protests. There have been demonstrations supporting law enforcement in North Dakota and Minnesota.
Zibolski asked people to remember officers are human but have chosen the law enforcement profession because they “have a strong interest in serving the public.”
Most officers have good intentions, but those with malicious intent must be held accountable, Zibolski said.
“We don’t want one bad apple tarnishing all of the work and effort we’ve put through to have a good relationship with our community,” Draovitch said. “We want that great relationship. We will do everything we can to earn it.”
Moving forward will take progressive leaders in law enforcement taking a look at how they operate and build relationships with their communities, Franklin said.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re always going to get it right,” he said. “We’re going to make mistakes, but you know what, we are going to own our mistakes. We’re going to own it, learn from it and get better from them.”
This story is part of a 13-day series that looks at all the ways 2020 has changed us. From now until 2021, expect stories on workplace and education, sports, economics, politics and everything in between.