BEMIDJI, Minn. -- One after another, multiple Native American activists stepped forward Tuesday, Dec. 17, to air grievances about the deep distrust they have with law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system overall.

Held on the BSU campus, Tuesday's session was just one of several meetings held statewide by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, focusing on ways to reduce deadly force encounters between law enforcement and local residents.

Police-involved shootings have been a major source of debate in Minnesota and across the country in recent years. Contrary to the perception that it's an urban issue, Ellison said a large number of the deadly force encounters occur in greater Minnesota. One of those happened just over a year ago when a Bemidji Police officer and a Beltrami County Sheriff's deputy shot and killed 34-year-old Vernon May of Red Lake during a traffic stop, which created substantial backlash from the Native community.

Ellison said the goal is to improve safety for everyone, including both the officers on patrol and those who they encounter. He also clarified that the goal is to reduce deadly force encounters even if they would be deemed justifiable by law enforcement.

“The goal is to help people survive,” Ellison said. “We benefit from you stepping forward and offering your reflections.”

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In addition to the listening sessions, state officials have created a working group to make policy recommendations based on the input they receive from the various meetings.

“We are looking forward to bringing this to a point where we can actually start doing the work,” said John Harrington, commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, who also was at Tuesday's meeting. “The next step is to actually roll up our sleeves and get things done.”

Harrington said 50% of the working group is composed of people from the community and 50% from the criminal justice system. He also said they wanted the group to be diverse, so about half of those in the group are people of color and the other half are white.

Native voices

While Tuesday's meeting was broadly defined as a discussion of violent interactions between law enforcement and the public, it quickly became focused on tensions between law enforcement and the Native community.

“There's no trust to be regained; there's none to be restored. There wasn't in the beginning," said resident Renee Gurneau.

Her comments were not unique among those who came.

Audrey Thayer, an instructor at Leech Lake Tribal College in Cass Lake, said she would like to see a police oversight committee in place. She also said there is a need to address mental health issues for both law enforcement and those they interact with.

Earlier in the meeting, Harrington said mental health is something the working group has been hearing about as part of its research. He said about 50% of the cases of deadly force encounters include someone who has mental health issues.

In addition to speaking about deadly force encounters, Native activist Nicole Buckanaga referenced the deaths that have happened in the Beltrami County Jail the past few years. Currently, the local jail is facing two wrongful-death lawsuits.

She referenced several names and incidents, including the November 2018 traffic stop that resulted in the death of May. Buckanaga said she would have liked to have seen the city of Bemidji step in and dismiss the police officer who was involved in the shooting.

Beltrami County Attorney David Hanson declined to charge the officer, Bidal Duran, and the deputy, Brandon Newhouse, since his office deemed the shooting was justified.

Buckanaga also said there needs to be a third party reviewing body camera footage rather than the same agency that acquired the footage in the first place. Although it normally is the county attorney’s office that determines whether or not to press charges based on the body camera footage, those who spoke at the meeting reiterated their distrust for the court system as well as law enforcement agencies.

“Just because things happened 200 years ago does not mean they didn’t affect us two minutes ago,” Buckanaga said. “We’re here to discuss the brutal encounters that we have with police. But we cannot ignore the brutal encounters that we have with the system itself because those police get us to those judges. Well, those judges are throwing the books at us; they’re keeping us in jail. They’re putting barrier upon barrier in front of us.”

A number of law enforcement representatives were at Tuesday’s meeting, but none of them spoke publicly.

Beltrami County Commissioner Reed Olson diverted from the subject of deadly force encounters and spoke about issues with the criminal justice system more broadly. One of the issues he brought forward was the “school to prison pipeline” and how placing children in foster care can lead to their incarceration later in life.

Olson said the incarceration of primary caregivers is one of the things that results in children being placed in foster care. Because of that, he said he would like the state to look at alternatives to the incarceration of those primary caregivers. He also said there are things the community could do, such as offer transportation assistance, to help reduce the number of pretrial incarcerations.

"One of the No. 1 predictors of being incarcerated as an adult is either being in the juvenile system as a child or being in the foster care system,” Olson said. "You look at the foster care rates in our community and they're nothing short of immoral."