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Police-citizen communication key to public safety, panelists say

Human Rights Commission Chair Scott Bender, Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin and Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman answered questions at the Public Safety Forum Thursday night, Sept.1. (photo by Maureen McMullen)

Father Tristan English at Christ Episcopal Church believes a common bond unites all people, regardless of their backgrounds: the desire for our loved ones and ourselves to return home safely every night.

This universal hope served as a springboard for discussions at the church Thursday, Sept. 1, during “Building Healthy Communities,” a public forum organized in partnership with the Red Wing Ministerial Association to facilitate dialogue between local law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin, Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman and Human Rights Commission Chair Scott Bender sat on the panel at the forum to answer submitted questions and address queries from members of the audience.

In the wake of such incidents as the police shooting of Philando Castille in Falcon Heights, Minn., and the five Dallas

police officers who lost their lives to a rogue sniper in July, English considered how the faith community could help quell growing tension between members of law enforcement and the communities .

“The simple answer is prayer, but prayer is not always enough,” he said. “We came to the conclusion that Red Wing is very unique and has a lot of good things happening. Even though we have the anxiety and tension and question whether or not horrific events that have happened across our country can happen here, we do have a great story to tell.”

What’s right?

Panel members emphasized outreach and communication efforts in their responses to a question about areas in which they feel their departments have succeeded.

Pohlman identified Red Wing as one of 13 Minnesota cities to establish a community policing academy. The program, which began in 2014, tasks Red Wing officers in 10 patrol areas with “getting to know the citizens and forming partnerships so that we can be proactive in addressing the needs of our citizens.”

McNurlin said his department relies on public feedback to do jobs well and aspires to “create an environment in which there’s good communication.”

One method of connecting with the community is the citizens academy, courses offered by both the Sheriff’s Office and Red Wing Police Department to learn how and why law enforcement operates the way it does.

“It’s a great tool for us to reach out into the community and get feedback about what we’re doing,” McNurlin said. “Quite often people are reluctant to talk with law enforcement, particularly to give critical feedback to us, because sometimes there’s fear of that position of authority. But the only way we know something is broken is if you tell us.”

Bender recalled noticing harmful attitudes toward race within 30 minutes of moving to Red Wing 20 years ago. He said the Human Rights Commission and similar organizations help bring the issues of marginalized people to light.

“I heard comments at the grocery store and in the library and realized it was an ugly little undercurrent in this community,” he said. “If we’re not willing to actually admit that there is racial tension in our community, we are never going to be able to deal with it.”

‘Optimistic caution’

In the early days of McNurlin’s 33-year career with the Goodhue County Sheriff’s Office, he would have laughed at the thought of preparation to address concepts of terror. He said he thought those things only happened in third-world countries.

As a law enforcement officer in the post-9/11 world, however, his response to a question about what changed with public safety and citizens since the historic attack was, “what hasn’t?”

“(Terrorism) was not an American issue at that time,” he said. “Today, we’ve seen on more than one occasion, that not only is it a world concern, but it is a national security concern that involves your local law enforcement.”

Of particular concern to both city police and the sheriff’s department regarding terrorism is the Prairie Island nuclear plant, which would rely on nearby law enforcement to respond in case of an attack.

“We realized that technology and transportation no longer make the oceans an effective barrier to people who want to harm our way of life,” including in Red Wing, Pohlman said.

The heightened level of training expected of officers and deputies after the 9/11 attacks also requires educating them so that context and relativity, not race, play a key role in police conduct, he said.

Panelists also discussed interactions among people of different races and cultures in response to a question how they serve immigrants.

McNurlin outlined his collaboration with the Hispanic Outreach Center to produce a video resource guide to Spanish-speaking residents new to the Goodhue County area.

“We have the opportunity to ask ourselves what it would be like if we were displaced into a different country and didn’t know the simple things about where you are and you don’t speak the language, you don’t know the culture,” McNurlin said.

Pohlman said about 2,000 people make up Red Wing’s community of Hispanic immigrants, some of whom might not be documented U.S. citizens.

Although law enforcement at city and county levels are not responsible for enforcing immigration policy, the fear of deportation can often prevent people from reporting crimes to the police.

Pohlman said the objective of local law enforcement is to police members of the community equally, regardless of their citizenship.

“It’s a terrible shame for someone to be robbed because they know it won’t be reported because the victim doesn’t want to be sent out of the United States,” he said. “Nobody should live in that kind of fear. They may not speak our language, but that does not mean they’re any less of a person. They are deserving of our respect. They deserve our protection.”

‘We need your input’

In their answers to the question, “What is our role and responsibilities in making sure everyone is treated with dignity and makes it home alive each night?” panelists reinforced good communication and feedback from the public to create a safe, cooperative environment.

“We’re in this together whether we like it or not,” McNurlin said. “The emphasis is on ‘us’ collectively. (Police and deputies) have a job to do — we do not want you to go into a building and search it for us or pull people over because you disagree with their driving. But, we need your feedback, we need your input.”