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What to Know About Duluth’s Police Racial Bias Audit

The audit focuses on 11 broad categories to analyze, including the department’s recruiting, hiring and personnel practices, training on interracial relations, BIPOC community relations, immigrant and refugee populations. More will likely be completed in June.

The announcement of a racial bias audit at the Duluth, Minn., Police Department was met with a level of skepticism, both from members of the agency and from the broader community, Blair Powless acknowledged.

At least some rank-and-file officers felt their work was being called into question or that they were unfairly being accused of racism, he said, while members of marginalized communities worried it would be just another report commissioned by administrators to make the department look good.

In reality, the audit is the result of a multi-year partnership between the police department and a wide array of community groups, who together have identified goals and set forth the process by which the department is being analyzed.

"One of the problems that we have in our nation is that we just tend to sit on either side and have our own little news outlets and look at each other through those lenses," said Powless, a community activist and member of the city's Citizen Review Board.

"Let's get both perspectives into this conversation. Hopefully then you get a good perspective on the issue as a result of that, but you also make both groups feel like, 'OK, this is mine, too. I am a part of this.'"

As the audit nears completion, Powless and Duluth police Lt. Steve Ring spoke with the News Tribune to explain the process, clear up misconceptions and preview what is to come over the next several months.

"This is very much a partnership we want to highlight," Ring said, "and show that we are kind of side by side, shoulder to shoulder in the way we are a team on this."

The May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the resulting protests locally and around the world were a significant motivating factor for the audit.

An online petition first called for a top-to-bottom analysis of the Duluth Police Department around the same time, with the Duluth Branch of NAACP and the Duluth Community Safety Initiative among groups that publicly demanded the audit.

The calls were also intensified after data was released by the Law Enforcement Accountability Network which found racial disparities in traffic stops, arrests and use-of-force incidents. And while police expressed some concern about an oversimplification of the data, officials did vow to take a hard look at Duluth's data and practices.

Mayor Emily Larson formally ordered the audit in April 2021, directing the police department to work with community organizers to establish criteria for the process and issue a request for proposals.

A group known as the Racial Bias Audit Team was formed to collaboratively manage the audit. It includes representatives of the police department, NAACP, DCSI, Citizen Review Board, Commission on Disabilities, Human Rights Commission and NQT2SLGBIA Commission.

The team last year selected the Crime and Justice Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit, to conduct the audit at a cost of up to $273,465. CJI is made up of a number of academic researchers and current and former law enforcement officials, and the project manager of Duluth's audit, Katie Zafft, already happened to live in the city.

In its proposal, CJI touted experience working on complex law enforcement projects throughout the nation, including:

* Measuring outcomes in Cleveland and Baltimore, where both departments are under consent decrees.

* Consulting with Milwaukee to gain compliance with a court-ordered settlement on racially disparate policing.

* Working with the Aurora, Colorado, police to revise use-of-force policies and training.

* Launching a neighborhood policing initiative in Philadelphia.

* Reviewing historical data on citations, warnings and arrests to understand demographic disparities in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Duluth's audit is unique in that it's not the result of a civil rights lawsuit or any state or federal government action aimed at overhauling the agency. Rather, leaders said the proactive undertaking provided an opportunity for the audit team to draw up their own parameters.

The team ultimately identified 11 broad categories to analyze:

  1. Recruiting, hiring and personnel practices.
  2. Training on bias and interracial relations.
  3. BIPOC community relations.
  4. Response to suspicious and criminal activity calls.
  5. Data collection and interpretation practices.
  6. Vehicle and pedestrian stops.
  7. Civil disturbances.
  8. Immigrant and refugee populations.
  9. Effectiveness and visibility of the Citizen Review Board.
  10. Dash and body camera interactions.
  11. Use-of-force incidents.

"What's really key is that we've got to look at implementation," Powless said. "What are the things to come out of this? There will be some pros. OK, great, let's focus on those and let the community know about these positive things. And then there will be various (negatives), where there are opportunities for change or adjustment. And how can the community help the police department be part of that?"

CJI's work began in earnest in October, and the auditors have conducted monthly meetings with the police department and community groups,

also publishing monthly updates on the city's website.

The work has involved scrutinizing thousands of policies, training documents and hiring materials; an intensive review of demographic data related to various calls, traffic stops and use-of-force incidents; and assessing how officers interact with the public and whether the agency and Citizen Review Board are effectively communicating with citizens.

The researchers have additionally conducted focus groups with officers and civilian staff at the police department, participated in ride-alongs, hosted public forums geared toward communities of color and distributed web surveys to gather feedback from both inside and outside the department.

"They have been given essentially full access to the police department to gather the information related to the audit objections," Ring said. "All corners of the department are looked at in this audit. They have had a chance to really take a deep dive into the practices that we have here."

The audit was substantially completed this spring, and the CJI team is now in the process of compiling the report.

The police department and community groups expect to receive a draft at some point in June, offering a brief feedback period before the report is publicly released in July.

Importantly, Powless said the CJI team will remain on for at least a month after the report is released to help with the implementation process, which is expected to include community presentations and discussion opportunities.

"(We'll be) making sure that things get followed through on," he said, "rather than throwing the report on a shelf and letting it gather dust."

Regardless of the results, Ring suggested there has already been tremendous benefit in forming a coalition to undertake the exhaustive endeavor, and he expects the department to maintain a stronger bond with the community groups going forward.

"A lot of times these audits are forced because of whatever scenario," he said. "We're simply not having that here. To see a voluntary participation in this audit, I think speaks to our willingness to be very open to the community."

(c)2023 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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