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House panel hears about public safety concerns in Greater Minnesota

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is truth.

And facts, well, those can be slippery things, too.

Both of those concepts were evident Friday when the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee heard from the public on community-centered public safety in Greater Minnesota.

Activists testified that people of color in Greater Minnesota have the same difficulties as those in the metro area with heavy-handed policing, racial profiling, and much higher rates of arrest and incarceration than whites.

Some committee members with law enforcement backgrounds pushed back against those characterizations, with one saying that a testifier’s remarks were “slanderous.”

And in the middle was Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), committee chair, who said people can have different truths, depending on their life experiences, including because of their skin color and ethnicity, and those different truths need to be heard in a respectful setting.

“It is very much the intention of this chair to make sure that the various truths that are out there are shared with one another,” he said.

Winona LaDuke, an activist opposing the Enbridge Line 3 project, characterized her experience growing up and living in northern Minnesota as being in the “Deep North,” with levels of racism and biased policing comparable to those in southern states.

“Racial profiling is quite clear,” she said, noting law enforcement is heavily monitoring activists and making many arrests, all while ignoring numerous permit violations by Line 3 contractors. She said she overheard police officers describing Hispanic activists as “the Mexican Mafia.”

Rep. Matt Grossell (R-Clearbrook) said he took “great exception” to LaDuke’s testimony, adding that Enbridge has worked alongside tribal leaders to move the project forward in a culturally and mutually respectful manner.

A student testifier from Moorhead focused on the “large amount of distrust” between the city police department and a racially diverse student population at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Jamaal Abegaz, a Black Lives Matter activist, said his diverse neighborhood in a student area is the scene of traffic stops at much higher rates than other city neighborhoods.

“The number of police interactions I see are far and above what seems reasonable, rational, and necessary,” he said.

That racial profiling needs to stop, he said, if police-student relations are to improve.

Rep. Paul Novotny (R-Elk River) appreciates how that type of police activity can be seen as heavy handed by those experiencing it, but he added traffic stops can be a very important part of preventing more serious crimes.

In closing, Mariani reminded committee members that in the next two weeks they will have more of these “difficult conversations” when the committee seeks additional public input on several bills designed to address disparities in the criminal justice system and to implement additional police reforms.

“Sometimes the things that we hear in this committee are tough to hear,” he said, adding that testimony will come both from communities that have lost confidence in the police and the justice system, and also from those who still have faith in them.

“I believe our law-making role is not to deny the lived reality of Minnesotans, but to make sure that our public institutions are in fact responsive and hearing them.”

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