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Race and Policing in the Twin Cities

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St. Paul Police Deputy James S. Griffin sitting at his desk, ca. 1960s. From box 1 of the James S. Griffin papers (P1679), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.

St. Paul Police Deputy James S. Griffin sitting at his desk, ca. 1960s. From box 1 of the James S. Griffin papers (P1679), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.

The history of law enforcement in the Twin Cities, as in the rest of the United States, has been deeply influenced by race. Since the early twentieth century, many Minnesotans of color have responded to racial targeting and police brutality by forming community organizations and citizen patrols; others have served as officers themselves and grappled with racial inequality inside the police force.

The northern US, as well as the South, was a dangerous place to be Black at the turn of the twentieth century. In the Twin Cities, instances of police brutality and racial profiling were reported in the Western Appeal and the Appeal beginning in the 1880s and 1890s. New cases emerged in the 1910s and the 1920s in the Minneapolis Messenger and the Twin City Star. Victims, however, could not always afford to be candid in public, even with Black newspapers like these. John McHie, who told his family that he had been beaten by Minneapolis police in 1918, reported a version of the incident to the Twin City Star that concealed police involvement.

As far as can be documented, the first Black police officer in Minnesota was James H. Burrell, who worked at the Rondo sub-station in St. Paul beginning in 1892. Lewis Liverpool, James Loomis, Charles Grisim, Abraham Yeiser, William Lewis, and Joseph Black followed his example in the next decade. These officers faced ongoing discrimination in the early twentieth century during both recruitment and assignments, which required them to patrol areas with the fewest socio-economic and educational advantages.

As Twin Cities police departments became larger and more sophisticated in the 1920s, there were increasing reports of brutality against those arrested. As Minnesota’s Black population grew, racist hiring practices and more brutality cases led to increased calls for reform. City leaders, however, remained unresponsive.

After January 1921, there were no Black officers appointed to the St. Paul Police Department until 1937. In 1939, a civil service exam was posted for a patrolman position. When the St. Paul Urban League protested that only one Black officer had been appointed over the last eighteen years, the commissioner responded that since 1936, department policy had been that no one would be passed over or shown preference. Furthermore, he stated that he would not overlook anyone just to appoint a Black to the job. With this promise, the Urban League held classes at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center to help Black candidates pass the exam. Community leaders organized a recruitment drive, over thirty Black candidates were included, and 1500 people took the test. It was the largest recruitment turnout in the history of the St. Paul Police Department to date.

An unwritten discriminatory rule used by police departments nationwide in the 1930s and 40s prevented Black officers from working motorcycle or squad car duty with white officers. Black and white officers worked together only on special assignment, in jails, or in the patrol wagons. In response, churches, the Black press, the Urban League, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took the lead during the 1940s and 50s to shape civil rights legislation and build alliances among African American communities, including those in the Twin Cities.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a sharp rise in social movements organized by people of color, including the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, and the National Organization of Brown Berets. Racially motivated police violence spurred community members to establish citizen-led patrols to “serve and protect” people who felt mistreated, unheard, and underserved by law enforcement.

Dan Pothier helped established the Black Patrols to serve the North Minneapolis area. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the Black Patrols became incorporated into the Citizens’ Patrol Corps unit, also known as the Soul Force. The combined patrols served the North and South Minneapolis neighborhoods until 1968.

Also in 1968, the American Indian Movement (AIM) created its own citizen patrol to protect the East Franklin Avenue area and act as a barrier between the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and the surrounding community. The patrol was under the direction of the AIM board, whose members included Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks. Recognized by both neighborhood residents and the MPD for bringing change to the East Franklin area, the patrol continued through 1975 and reformed briefly in 1987.

The momentum of activism in the 1960s and 1970s continued through the 1980s and 1990s, when more steps were taken to improve relations between the police and communities of color—with more governmental action. In 1981, a multicultural task force was created to examine malpractice cases within the St. Paul and Minneapolis Police Departments. They were also tasked with fostering relations between communities of color and police officers and improving police practices. The task force’s chairman, Curman L. Gains, was a former deputy commissioner of human rights and the principal of Como High School in St. Paul. Administrative aid Irene Gomez, a Latina community leader, extensively documented the group’s activity.

The Chicano/Latino Task Force was created in 1993 by Commissioner David Beaulieu as a new branch of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. It was responsible for reporting racial discrimination and recommending solutions. Around the same time, the community-based organization Inter-Race, commissioned by the MPD, created trainings for their officers. Its “Police Training Workshops,” co-hosted by Vivian Jenkins Nelson, brought together Minneapolis citizens and police officers to discuss issues plaguing the community. Instead of adopting these ideas, however, MPD hired an outside consultant from Detroit, without ties to the community, to create the trainings.

The Twin Cities witnessed an influx of Somali immigrants in the mid-1990s as a result of the civil war in Somalia. Since arriving in Minnesota, Somali people have had both positive and negative interactions with Twin Cities police. The Somali community and police have a history of joining together to create healthy and productive relations. In the late 1990s, the police joined Somali leaders to focus on lowering crime in the Somali community. The Minneapolis and St. Paul police held monthly meetings with Somali elders, created crime prevention workshops, and even hired their first Somali police officer.

Policing in the Somali community, however, was not always positive. In 2013, two non-Muslim St. Paul police officers were photographed wearing a hijab. On February 3, a photo surfaced on Twitter of officer Robert Buth dressed as a Somali Target employee in a red hijab. On February 6, a photo appeared of Buth and an unidentified officer dressed in orange hijabs and blackface. These photos clearly mocked hijab-wearing Somali women. On February 5, an article surfaced in the Star Tribune denouncing the photo, and the situation appeared to be isolated from the beliefs of the St. Paul Police Department.

Two instances of police violence that occurred in the Twin Cities metro area in the 2010s led to national discussions of race and policing. On July 6th, 2016, St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile after pulling over his car. Yanez shot Castile after Castile notified him that he had a gun but was not reaching for it. Yanez was acquitted, yet he was one of the first Minnesotan officers in modern history to have charges brought against him so quickly.

Just over a year later, on July 15, 2017, a Somali American Minneapolis police officer named Mohamed Noor shot and killed Justine Damond while responding to a 911 call (Damond had called to report a possible incident of rape near her home in South Minneapolis). A jury convicted him of third-degree murder on April 30, 2019—a decision that the Somali American Police Association claimed stemmed from racial bias.

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“All Things Considered.” Minneapolis Star, August 3,” 1928.

Cohen, Fay G. “The Indian Patrol in Minneapolis: Social Control and Social Change in an Urban Context.” Thesis, University of Minnesota, ca. 1973. Available on microfilm at the Minnesota Historical Society library as Microfilm 761.

"A Correction." Twin City Star, April 20, 1918.

"A Deplorable Condition." Twin City Star, June 13, 1913.

[Description of the arrest of Mrs. J. J. Wiley]. Western Appeal, October 15, 1887.

"From the Court Records." Minneapolis Messenger, May 21, 1921.

James S. Griffin papers, 1920–1998 (bulk 1945–1991)
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Newspaper clippings, articles, general correspondence, and subject files documenting the career of a member of the St. Paul police force, the city's first Black deputy police chief, and St. Paul School Board member.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/P1679.xml

Griffin, James S. Blacks in the St. Paul Police and Fire Departments, 1885–1976. St. Paul: E. & J. Inc., 1978.

INTER-RACE Institute organizational records, 1986–2001
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Administrative files, training/curricula materials, client files, and other records of the International Institute for Interracial Interaction, Inc. (INTER-RACE), an Augsburg College-based think tank, consulting, and diversity training firm founded in 1988.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00852.xml

Irene Gomez-Bethke papers, 1970–2001
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Papers of a Minneapolis-born Mexican American woman who was a leader in the Minneapolis and St. Paul Hispanic communities. The papers document her work with and involvement in several Hispanic cultural, legal, and human service organizations in the Twin Cities, the Hispanic ministries of the local Roman Catholic archdiocese, and her service in state and local government. See especially boxes 7 (308.C.15.6F) and 8 (308.C.15.7B).
http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00039.xml

Hatle, Elizabeth Dorsey. The Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2013.

League of Women Voters of Minneapolis. The Police and the Community: A Second Look. Minneapolis: League of Women Voters, 1976. Available at the Minnesota Historical library as HV8148.M62 L43.

McManus, Michael J. “A Case Study of Launching the Urban Coalition of Minneapolis.” Minneapolis: Urban Coalition, [1969?]. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as HV4046.M5 U725 1969.

"Minneapolis," Appeal, October 28, 1899.

"Minneapolis," Appeal, February 6, 1892.

Minnesota Chicano/Latino Task Force. “Report on Discrimination: Report to the Commissioner of Human Rights.” [St. Paul]: Chicano/Latino Task Force, 1994. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as F615.S75 M56 1994.

"Morons and Bullies Responsible for Dixie Disorders, Says Mencken." Appeal, June 30, 1923.

“Negro Lashed for Attitude on War.” St. Paul Daily News, April 4, 1918.

“Negro Taken From Home And Beaten By Mob.” Twin City Star, April 13, 1918.

OH 110
Interview with Debbie Montgomery
Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Oral history interview with Debbie Gilbreath Montgomery, May 24, 2004. Forms part of the Rondo Oral History Project (OH 110).
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/oh110.xml

OH 132
St. Paul Police Oral History Project
Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Oral history interviews of members of the St. Paul Police Department, 1979-2008. Subjects discussed include police culture; dynamics between officers of varying ranks; drug enforcement; situations involving death and the response to such situations; influence of war experience on police work; training and use of weapons; role of religion and faith; the changing dynamics of the St. Paul Police Department when ethnic integration occurs within; gender and racial discrimination and barriers; civil unrest in the 1960s; upward mobility; citizens' expectations; occupational stress and fear; death of fellow officers; life outside the department; and retirement.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/oh132.xml

“Persons and Things.” Capital Times, April 9, 1918.

“Police Using Third Degree, Olson Admits.” Minnesota Daily Star, January 19, 1922.

“Racial 'Prejudices' Played Major Role In Mohamed Noor's Conviction, Police Association Claims.” ABC News (Australia), May 2, 2019.
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-02/mohamed-noor-justine-damond-ruszczyk-was-race-a-factor/11074104

Records of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, 1947–2010 (bulk 1967–2010)
State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: See especially the transcripts of the police brutality hearings held at the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center on June 24, 1975, and at the Native American Indian Center on June 25, 1975 (127.L.13.3B); records related and to a police workshop held in Arden Hills in 1975 (127.L.13.2F); and police community relations, 1982–1983 (111.J.4.7B).
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00697.xml

Ramírez Cruz, Luz. Interview with Ben McHie (John McHie's grandson), February 11, 2020.

Robinson, Rolland. For A Moment We Had The Way: The Story of The Way, 1966–1970. Andover, MN: Expert Publishing, 2006.

Sarah Brady Siff, Sarah Brady. "Policing the Police: A Civil Rights Story." Origins 9, no. 8 (May 2016).
http://origins.osu.edu/article/policing-police-civil-rights-story

Valdés, Dionicio. Mexicans in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005.

Weckler, Joseph Edwin. The Police and Minority Groups: A Program to Prevent Disorder and to Improve Relations Between Different Racial, Religious, and National Groups. Chicago: International City Managers’ Association, 1944.

Xiong, Chao. “Ex-Minneapolis Officer Mohamed Noor Sentenced to Twelve and a Half Years in Prison.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 7, 2019.

Related Images

St. Paul Police Deputy James S. Griffin sitting at his desk, ca. 1960s. From box 1 of the James S. Griffin papers (P1679), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
St. Paul Police Deputy James S. Griffin sitting at his desk, ca. 1960s. From box 1 of the James S. Griffin papers (P1679), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
James H. Burrell, 1890s.
James H. Burrell, 1890s.
Headline and text of an article (“Crowd of 500 See Cop Get Worst of Struggle for Gun”) published in the Northwestern Bulletin, an African American newspaper based in St. Paul, on June 24, 1922. Public domain.
Headline and text of an article (“Crowd of 500 See Cop Get Worst of Struggle for Gun”) published in the Northwestern Bulletin, an African American newspaper based in St. Paul, on June 24, 1922. Public domain.
University of Minnesota Homecoming display with Ku Klux Klan banner, ca. 1923.
University of Minnesota Homecoming display with Ku Klux Klan banner, ca. 1923.
Tom Aquilar, a member of the Brown Berets, ca. 1972.
Tom Aquilar, a member of the Brown Berets, ca. 1972.
St. Paul police officer Debbie Montgomery in uniform, 1975. Used with the permission of Debbie Montgomery.
St. Paul police officer Debbie Montgomery in uniform, 1975. Used with the permission of Debbie Montgomery.
Irene Gomez of the Police and Community Relations Task Force. Photograph by Erickson Studio, ca. 1983.
Irene Gomez of the Police and Community Relations Task Force. Photograph by Erickson Studio, ca. 1983.
Minneapolis residents discuss policing and community relations at one of Inter-Race’s group forums, 1991. From the organizational records of the INTER-RACE Institute 1986–2001 (box 1991 123.F.10.4F), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Minneapolis residents discuss policing and community relations at one of Inter-Race’s group forums, 1991. From the organizational records of the INTER-RACE Institute 1986–2001 (box 1991 123.F.10.4F), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Minneapolis residents discuss policing and community relations at one of Inter-Race’s group forums, 1991. From the organizational records of the INTER-RACE Institute 1986–2001 (box 123.F.10.4F), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Minneapolis residents discuss policing and community relations at one of Inter-Race’s group forums, 1991. From the organizational records of the INTER-RACE Institute 1986–2001 (box 123.F.10.4F), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Black and white photograph of Ethel Ray Nance, ca. 1945.
Black and white photograph of Ethel Ray Nance, ca. 1945.
Black and white photograph of National Guardsmen patrolling Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis, July 1967.
Black and white photograph of National Guardsmen patrolling Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis, July 1967.
Black and white photograph of AIM Patrol receiving donations, 1968.
Black and white photograph of AIM Patrol receiving donations, 1968.
Black and white photograph of an AIM-organized Forum on Police Brutality, ca. 1968.
Black and white photograph of an AIM-organized Forum on Police Brutality, ca. 1968.

Turning Point

In 1981, a multicultural task force comes together to examine malpractice cases within the St. Paul and Minneapolis Police Departments.

Chronology

1892

James H. Burrell joins the St. Paul Police Department and becomes Minnesota’s first African American police officer.

1909

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) forms in the Twin Cities.

1913-1915

The African American population in the Twin Cities grows due to the increased economic demands of World War I in Europe.

1926

The Twin Cities Urban League forms.

1928-1932

The Minneapolis Police Department forms the first women’s bureau and hires Ethel Ray Nance, making her one of the first African American policewoman in Minnesota.

1956

The United States Termination and Relocation Policy brings large numbers of Native Americans to urban centers between the 1940s and 1960s. This sets the stage for them to confront issues associated with cities, including police brutality.

1966

The Way, a community center active focused on the liberation of people of color, is founded in Minneapolis. Sly Davis was the director of The Way as well as the Soul Force.

1969

The National Organization of Brown Berets, a pro-labor, anti-war, and pro-reform Chicano organization, creates a St. Paul chapter. Its members participate in law-enforcement incidents by breaking up fights and calming down noisy parties.

1975

Debbie Montgomery is the only woman in the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD). Some of her best work as an officer came from “developing young people” by bringing diverse representation into the department’s Juvenile Unit.

1987

AIM Patrols resume in response to the murders of three Native women: Kathy Bullman, Angeline Whitebird-Sweet, and Angela Green.

2001

After the tragic events of 9/11, racial profiling increases due to the rise of blanket racism from police and society against Middle Easterners, South Asians, and Muslims.

2013

Non-Muslim St. Paul police officers dress in hijab to mock Somali Target employees.

2015

Jamar Clark is fatally shot by two Minneapolis police officers, Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze. Both officers were given administrative leave in November 2015 and returned in January 2016; neither had charges brought against him.

2016

St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez shoots and kills Philando Castile after pulling over his car in Falcon Heights on July 6, 2016 (he was later acquitted of manslaughter).

2016-2017

Officers from Hennepin, Anoka, and Washington counties are involved in the police response to water protectors and other Native protestors at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

2018

Thurman Blevins is fatally shot by two Minneapolis police officers, Ryan Kelly and Justin Schmidt. The officers are given paid administrative leave and are not charged.