University of St. Thomas hosts round table discussion on racial justice

- It was an impressive goal for a divisive topic: finding common ground on racial justice and policing issues. On Wednesday evening, the University of St. Thomas School of Law brought together a panel that included Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County Attorney, and Nekima Levy-Pounds, the president of the NAACP Minneapolis.

In the past, Freeman and Levy-Pounds have sparred over the county attorney’s decision not to prosecute the officer shot Jamar Clark in Minneapolis. On Wednesday, the pair shared their views on the topic, “finding common ground between public safety and racial justice — all for the common good.”

“What we need is more dialogue, not less, we need it peacefully, we need it with our voices lowered, we need from both sides, and then we can make, build common ground,” Freeman told the panel.

Levy-Pounds said the debate around officer-involved shootings too often only focuses on the specific facts of the case, and not broader societal or historical issues.

“I believe that, in addition to identifying the specific issues and facts in each case, we have to dissect and unpack the systematic issues that have led to a crisis in policing in the United States and the state of Minnesota,” said Levy-Pounds.

Levy-Pounds added that she understands “there are good cops out there. Part of the problem is that any time we talk about misconduct among officers or systemic problems of policing, people automatically get defensive and they don’t want to focus on the nuances of how the system functions.”

Freeman pointed to progress. His office no longer sends police-shooting cases to secretive grand juries; instead, Freeman makes the decision whether to prosecute. He’s also had his attorneys cut back on charging people with felonies for low-level drug offenses involving illegal painkillers. And Freeman complimented Levy-Pounds for her work in getting spitting and lurking laws — seen as a pretext for searching young black men — removed from Minneapolis.

R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis, was also on the panel, telling panelists the biggest regret of his administration was not doing more to advance race discussions. Rybak also said the militarization of police is a problem that began when the city received an influx of cash following 9-11.

“Those of us who are white need to recognize that it’s not dangerous to say ‘black lives matter’ because there really hasn’t been that big of a threat that white lives don’t,” Rybak said.

Another panelist, Mike Goldstein, the chief of police in Pkymouth, said officers need to remember to focus on dialogue over force.

“Use of force should be the last resort. 95 percent of what we do is done with our mouth. It’s all about talking,” Goldstein said.

Cedric Alexander, director of public safety for Dekalb County Georgia, and Nkechia Taifa, advocacy director for Criminal Justice for the Open Society Foundations, were also panelists.

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