Dakota County police seek to educate, and be educated

As police-citizen relations hover under a national microscope, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie wants to focus on the same issue, but on a local level, asking residents: ‘How are we doing?’

In a four-stop tour of county YMCAs, Leslie has been visiting area cities and teaming up with police chiefs to meet with residents to discuss community expectations for the quality of local law enforcement.

These meetings are part of a statewide initiative of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association and the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, to spark conversations and to map out a vision for the future of law enforcement in the state.

“There seems to be a disconnect between the expectations of the community and what law enforcement can provide,” Leslie said in a phone interview. “But if we are a tool of society and we’re not doing what [residents] want us to do, they should let us know what we can do better, and we’ll do our best.”

‘Style issues’

Leslie said that when looking at police activity and reports, the county’s police departments “do a good job enforcing laws passed by Legislature.” He said that if there is dissatisfaction, that “maybe it’s a ‘style issue.’”

So the County Sheriff’s Office is seeking community input, using a list of questions to spark discussion.

Some of these questions include: What are the key strengths of police in the community? What would add value to police presence in the community? What are the weaknesses of the police and where are there areas for improvement? What does the future of law enforcement look like?

Leslie said he’s also putting it in the residents’ hand, asking: “What actions are residents willing to take to support police in promoting these recommended changes?”

When life’s at stake

Leslie said that overall the meetings have been beneficial, but he said not all points of the conversation have been realistic.

“I’ll be honest, some of it has been, let’s just say, TV-like,” Leslie said. “We’ve received questions like, ‘How come you guys can’t just shoot [an armed suspect] in the arm or the leg.’”

Leslie explained that his answer to that is simple.

“None of us in law enforcement took the job to be killed in the line of duty. If the situation presents itself where someone is going to kills us, we’ve got to kill them first.”

He added, “That sounds very crude, but I’m not going to apologize for it.”

According to Leslie, police and residents have some misconceptions. It’s something he hopes can be bridged through these public meetings, which are meant to be educational for all involved -- police and private citizens, he said.

“There are some dangerous people in the world and we’re the ones who have to deal with them, and society needs to know that too -- that it’s not all just misdemeanor traffic violations,” he said. “We can deal with desperate people who are willing to take our lives.”

Plans for next time

West St. Paul Police Chief Bud Shaver and Leslie co-led one of the public meetings at the West St. Paul YMCA Sept. 15.

According to Shaver, one of the things he took away from the forum was that it’s easy to become defensive and “to build up walls.”

He explained that when someone says something he disagrees with, “it’s easy to try to shut someone down, but that’s not the point of this.”

But he added public meetings like this can be ineffective because the audience he wants to hear from are not likely to attend.

“They probably do not want to have a lot of contact with the police, so they’d never attend a meeting like this,” Shaver said.

According to Shaver, mainly two types of people attended the West St. Paul meeting.

“We had the people who thought we could do no wrong, and those who thought we couldn’t do anything right,” he said. “Not to say the people who did attend weren’t very inquisitive and had some good input.”

Shaver said that he and Leslie had a conversation after the Sept. 15 meeting about what they might do next time.

“If we really want to do this right, we have to rethink this and go to the people we really want to hear from,” Shaver said.

Shaver mentioned a few neighborhoods with lower-income households, higher crime rates and less security.

“What we need to do is go down to those places on a Saturday or something and start cooking something outside, and meet them on their own turf, as the saying goes,” Shaver said. “And for next time, I want to be prepared for critical criticism, and see it as an opportunity to foster better understanding.”

Upcoming meeting

The next public meeting will take place at the YMCA, 1430 W. 16th Street, Hastings, Tuesday, Oct. 13 from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

“Some people feel more comfortable at the podium talking about it,” Leslie said. “Other people feel more comfortable with a survey online, so we offer that opportunity as well.”

For residents who can’t make it to the final meeting, the sheriff is encouraging them to go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/LEVisionDCSO and take the online survey, the results of which will be studied and compiled at the beginning of next year.

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815. Follow him at twitter.com/JPooleNews.


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