The 47 officers who make up the Brooklyn Center Police Department have little in common with the nearly 31,000 people they serve.
Most officers are white, while most residents are people of color. Nearly all officers are male, while the city is mostly female. And, according to Mayor Mike Elliott — who in 2019 became the first person of color to lead the city — not one officer lives within city limits.
Brooklyn Center in recent decades has transformed from a mostly white suburb into what is now one of the most diverse cities in Minnesota, while its police force has remained largely unchanged.
Though city officials have repeatedly pledged major police reforms — and created a nationally recognized model for other cities — the killing of an unarmed 20-year-old Black man, Daunte Wright, by a white officer has put the suburban department under a national microscope and attracted new criticism about whether reform is possible when there is such a disconnect between police and the community.
“It’s performative community building, it’s performative justice,” said community organizer Toussaint Morrison. “If you’re going to start reforming, you have to take out the pieces that are already guilty of taking Black lives.”
The skepticism over police reform efforts was already heightened after the death of George Floyd last year, with calls nationwide — including by some elected officials — to defund or eliminate police altogether.
“The types of reforms that take away police power and shrink their budgets are the only kind of thing that’s ever going to result in a reduction in the violence that they perpetrate,” said Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Washington D.C.-based Civil Rights Corps.
Wright is the sixth person killed by Brooklyn Center police since 2012. All but one of them were men of color.
Police Department demographic data, obtained through a public records request, show the department includes 11 officers of color — less than a quarter of the force. Of those officers, three are Black, two are Hispanic, five are Asian and one is “two or more races.”
Police Department officials could not be reached for comment.
Kimberly Potter, the former Brooklyn Center police officer charged with second-degree manslaughter in Wright’s killing, was one of seven female officers in the department, all of whom are white, according to the data.
Potter, a 26-year veteran of the department who most recently lived in Champlin, shot Wright during a traffic stop last Sunday. Police said Potter mistakenly fired her gun instead of a Taser.
Efforts at reform
In 2005, Brooklyn Center and neighboring Brooklyn Park adopted partnerships between police and diverse populations to build trust, and that nationally recognized collaboration spread to five departments throughout the Twin Cities and Hennepin County.
Brooklyn Center police leaned into that community partnership to share information and create a “calming period” at the onset of the investigation following the fatal police shooting in 2019 of 21-year-old Kobe Dimock-Heisler, Police Cmdr. Rick Gabler told the Star Tribune last summer.
“We just didn’t see the response that you saw in Minneapolis with George Floyd,” Gabler said. “Some of it can be attributed to the fact that we have these relationships with the community that already exist.”
Dimock-Heisler’s family waited 11 months to view body camera footage from the shooting, and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman declined to file charges against the two officers involved. One, Cody Turner, still serves in the department, according to city clerk Barb Suciu.
After Wright’s killing, authorities released bodycam footage within a day and charges were filed. Potter and Police Chief Tim Gannon, who took the top job in 2015 after 22 years as an officer with the department, both resigned.
Meanwhile, Elliott and the City Council made rapid policy and staffing changes, including firing the city manager, giving the mayor’s office power over the Police Department and passing a resolution prohibiting officers from using a variety of nonlethal weapons on protesters.
State Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, and her husband, former Mayor Tim Willson, live a half-dozen blocks from the police station where protests have unfolded nightly after Wright’s killing.
Though Eaton said she believes police may have unconscious racial biases, she does not believe they start each day intent on acting on them.
“I’ve always had the greatest respect for and work closely with our Police Department,” she said, adding that she’s been friends with the past three police chiefs. “They are a bunch of dedicated young men and women, and people make mistakes.”
Elliott, who defeated Willson in 2018, has been an outspoken advocate for racial equity and police reform. In response to Dimock-Heisler’s shooting, he took to social media to suggest possible changes to the police department including more de-escalation training, pairing officers with social workers and hiring officers who live in the community.
Whether the mayor will be able to accomplish such changes remains to be seen.
“Elliott is somewhat of an outsider,” said Erwin Heisler, Dimock-Heisler’s grandfather. “He’s a young, Black man and you know this City Council and the Police Department are old white men.”
Heisler said he doesn’t think race was a factor in his grandson’s killing, but he questions the split-second decision by officers to switch from Tasers to guns.
“If I thought there was one chance in 1,000 that they would have shot him and killed him, I wouldn’t have called 911,” he said.
Amid the efforts at reform, the Brooklyn Center Police Department — which in 2020 accounted for 40% of the city’s budget — has faced misconduct investigations and paid out hefty settlements.
The department was investigated at least 88 times for alleged officer misconduct and department policy violations from 2016 through 2020 — more than most law enforcement agencies in the state over that time period. Of those cases, department employees were exonerated about a third of the time, while nearly 40% were deemed to lack conclusive evidence, according to data obtained from the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board.
The department had eight police misconduct payouts from 2007 to 2018, two of which were among the most expensive police payouts in the state during that time, according to a Star Tribune analysis including data from the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust.
Now, the department is facing heightened scrutiny, much as the Minneapolis Police Department did after Floyd’s death.
Eight days after Floyd’s death, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights filed a civil rights charge against the Minneapolis Police Department. It also launched an investigation into whether the agency had discriminated against people of color over the past decade. That investigation is ongoing.
On Friday, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) called for the state to take similar action against the Brooklyn Center Police Department.
In a statement, CAIR-MN Executive Director Jaylani Hussein called an investigation “a necessary step toward repairing broken systems and to rebuild the relationships between the community and those who serve them.”
Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751
Jeff Hargarten • 612-673-4642