“Police Actions & People of Color”

America has a history of unfair justice based on the color of one’s skin.  Claims of unfair police practices occurred mostly in the South following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation that finally abolished slavery.  More than a century later however, African Americans do not seem to be treated equally.  Examples of inequality and discrimination based on race continue to occur throughout the U.S.  This is true regarding education, housing, employment opportunities, and especially in the administration of justice.



Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  In a speech not long before his untimely death, Dr. King spoke to a large crowd about his “dream”—that one day his people—people of color—would enjoy the same rights and freedoms that are enjoyed by all Americans.  That dream is still not real for many persons of color.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) is committed to a policy of protecting the civil rights of all persons and against racial profiling in law enforcement.

Despite police departments’ commitment to “justice for all” and policies that discourage racial profiling in law enforcement, police actions in many cities and states continue to disproportionately focus on racial and ethnic minorities.  A U.S. Department of Justice study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics  concluded that police stops are still marred by racial discrimination.  Based on 2015 survey data the study found that police stops and use of force are racially discriminatory and affect the public trust of the police.

Findings of the national study of police discrimination:

  • Black residents were more likely to be stopped by police than whites or Hispanics.
  • Black and Hispanic residents were more likely to have multiple contacts with police than white residents.
  • Police were twice as likely to threaten or use force against Black and Hispanic residents than white residents.
  • Fewer than half of Black and Hispanic residents stopped by police thought the stop was legitimate, while 2/3 of white residents did.
  • White residents have more trust in police than Black and Hispanic residents: are more willing to report a crime, a non-crime emergency, or to seek help from police.


The study concluded that the national findings have serious implications for public safety, crime prevention, and law enforcement in communities and neighborhoods populated largely by racial and ethnic minorities.  Effective crime prevention and law enforcement depends greatly on good police-community relations.  Police chiefs and city leaders have always known about the importance of positive relations between citizens and police.  It seems clear that efforts to improve police-community relations must be a priority for city leaders, police officials, and members of the community.


Police Policy on Racial Profiling

Police Stop and Frisk


Granite City & Gray Walls

To the thousands of cars and long-haul trucks that make their way east and west along Interstate 94, St. Cloud, Minnesota is an unremarkable spot on the map (or GPS).  The interstate passes two miles from the southern edge of the city and five miles from downtown, so most travelers are unaware of the city except for highway signs marking the four St. Cloud exits.

With a population of 68,000 it is the tenth largest city in the state.  St. Cloud grew from the 1850s as a center for fur trade and other commerce due to its location on the Mississippi River.  It is known as the “Granite City” because of the many quarries that for over a century have provided granite for buildings, countertops, and cemetery memorials.


Travelers driving on U.S. highway 10 on the east side of the city pass right by a large gray granite prison wall.  The Minnesota Reformatory, modeled after the original Elmira Reformatory in New York, was originally built for young male offenders (ages 16-30).  The prison was completed in 1889, built of granite from a quarry on the prison grounds, with the help of prisoners.  The prison is surrounded by a granite wall that is 22-feet high and 1.5 miles long (the second longest in the world built by prisoners, next to the Great Wall of China).

Referred to by residents as “the Reformatory,” in 1979 it was renamed the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud.  A level four, close-security prison with an average daily population of 1,000 inmates, it is now the Intake facility for all men sentenced to prison in Minnesota.

The prison is one of the largest employers in St. Cloud.  On regular class field trips to the prison I reminded students that a job in the prison was a great employment opportunity, with salary and benefits as a state employee that rivaled most other jobs in the area.  The only catch: you had to be willing to work behind bars for 8-9 hours a day (or overnight) with a thousand convicted felons!  But I also reminded them that working as a correctional officer or caseworker was not as dangerous as police work.  Not surprisingly, very few of the students touring the prison with me during my 21 years at the university jumped at the job suggestion.


Working as a Prison Fellowship Volunteer after retiring from my faculty position in Criminal Justice, I am now greeted by numerous former students working in the prison.  Yes, they were drawn by the salary and benefits as state employees; but they also find job satisfaction in having some small part in helping convicted offenders turn themselves around and make a better life for their children and families.

Prison and community corrections (probation and parole) workers are the “less visible” part of the justice system compared with police, attorneys, and judges. They work closely with thousands of criminal offenders.  They witness first-hand the “criminal-thinking” and illegal behaviors of the countless “two- and three-time losers.”  But they also see those offenders who are determined to change and leave behind the criminal lifestyle.

Criminology and corrections has been my life’s work for fifty years.  That explains why even in retirement I remain connected and committed to a small part of facilitating offender change and rehabilitation.  I am encouraged by the offenders who finally “make it” and by the commitment and dedication of the women and men working in corrections who help make offender change possible.





Does Our Past Define Us?

A central question in criminology and criminal justice is whether a person’s past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior.  Probation and parole investigations traditionally focused on that question as part of a judicial or parole board recommendation.  The general public tends to believe that persons convicted of crimes are very different from us and claim “once a crook, always a crook”!

Many convicted criminals do reoffend and violate probation and parole conditions.  When given opportunities to turn their lives around however, most offenders do not reoffend.  They are not significantly different from us.  Most of us engage in some irresponsible behavior during our youth, but our past does not always define who we are.

Events this past week in our nation’s capitol brought our attention to the question of incidents in the past and their relevance for the present.  In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford offered gripping, emotional, and heart-felt testimony that captivated millions of Americans.

Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford both spoke of past events in their lives.  She related a victimization experience that deeply affected her through high school, college, and up to the present.  He spoke of numerous incidents of drinking beer with friends at parties but denied drinking so much that he could not remember what he had done; and vehemently denied engaging in any sexually inappropriate or assaultive behavior.

Americans and the Senate Judiciary Committee are divided on who is telling the truth, largely along political party lines.  But an underlying question is whether an incident that might have occurred 35 years ago while the two were in high school should be a determining factor in approving a Supreme Court Justice.  Perhaps the FBI Investigation (being conducted as I write these words) will shed more light on the testimony of Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford.





“Does our past define us?”




The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is a “teaching-learning moment” that deserves our continued attention regardless of the outcome of the investigation and impending vote in the Senate.

The testimony of Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford illustrates that while our past does not define us, it does affect us.  Both of them moved on with their lives since the alleged incident in 1982, achieving educational goals at outstanding institutions.  Both attained prominent positions in their respective disciplines.  But their testimonies revealed stark differences in how well they “moved on.”  Dr. Ford told how the alleged assault affected her through college and even in a recent home renovation to add a second front door.

Judge Kavanaugh testified about the disastrous effects on him, his reputation and to his family— not due to the alleged incident but because of the false accusations leveled against him that supposedly occurred 35 years ago.  He acknowledged heavy drinking in his youth but emphasized his educational and judicial achievements that qualify him for his nomination.

Our past need not “define us” but our behavior in the past may well affect us and others years later.  Dr. Ford testified that shocking events are more indelibly imprinted in our memory than other events (confirmed by other psychologists).  This may explain the apparent inconsistencies in her memory for details of the alleged incident; and why Judge Kavanaugh may not remember the event (if it in fact occurred).

The testimonies we heard last week also reminds us that our past behavior may have effects on others in ways we are unaware and do not remember.  Gender differences are important to acknowledge.  The “#MeToo” movement has brought our attention to the immensity of the problem of sexual harassment.  More men are beginning to recognize the reality of “male power and privilege.”  More of us are beginning to acknowledge that it is not just a “women’s problem” but one that adversely affects our wives, our daughters, and all of us.  It affects all our lives, including the workplace, our governing institutions, and yes– our judicial system.

          “Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”

                –Mister Fred Rogers

Our past need not “define us”—but it does take strength and effort, support of friends and family, and personal resolve to restore ourselves and others who may have been affected by our past behavior.  Persons of faith believe that only through trust in God who cares for the welfare of all, can we find the strength and resolve to move on from hurtful events in our past.  We also believe it is important to acknowledge wrong-doing as expressed in the ecumenical version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  May Almighty God help us all to acknowledge our past as a necessary step in moving forward and not allowing it to define us today.