Police oversight promotes social justice

Police response to last year’s 4th Precinct protest demands attention from a federal office.

Jasper Johnson

The United States Department of Justice has announced it will investigate the Minneapolis Police Department’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests which took place outside the 4th Precinct police station last year. After about two-and-a-half weeks of  protests, police eventually pushed out the encampment, prompting widespread criticism.
 
 
This response warrants investigation, and it’s reassuring to see that Mayor Betsy Hodges and Police Chief Janee Harteau were the ones who pushed for DOJ oversight.
 
 
Since last year’s protest, Minneapolis has tried to combat the perceived militarization of its police. For example, after objections to the deployment of SWAT teams in camouflage jackets, Minneapolis eliminated the uniforms and ensured their replacements’ color pattern was more consistent with standard police garb. 
 
 
Steps like these could have a real effect on protest negotiations. Though they seem superficial, perceptions matter when dealing with tense situations. 
 
 
Officials use a variety of strategies and tactics to address protesting, but they all require cognizance of power displays. In Minneapolis’s case, the association of camouflage with the military and blue with the police is just one small factor that dictated the tone of interactions between police and protesters. 
 
 
Modern protesters’ nontraditional bargaining tactics also warrant changes in policing standards. Recent protests seem acutely aware of how they leverage influence on specific policies. For example, in the past, rallying massive displays of public solidarity through marches or boycotts could lead governmental figures to embrace protesters’ demands. Nowadays, however, it seems many organizers have spurned such demonstrations in favor of disrupting specific infrastructure or targeting particular government offices. 
 
 
Black Lives Matter protests, for example, have focused on deliberate events like camping at the police precinct, shutting down a freeway, impeding light rail and airport traffic, using decoy protests or  threatening to shut down public events. 
 
 
I thought the efficacy of these tactics was debatable until recently, when Black Lives Matter St. Paul — a chapter not officially affiliated with the national movement — cancelled its planned shutdown of the Red Bull Crashed Ice competition after the government accepted the group’s demands. 
 
 
Now, I don’t mean to take some moral high ground on protest tactics, and I wouldn’t say today’s protest strategies are somehow better or worse than traditional ones. Rather, I believe they’re merely the result of modern protesters’ highly specific demands. 
 
 
And although I don’t have any ironclad definition of an optimum policing policy, I’m glad to see Minneapolis has requested a DOJ inquiry. Police tactics need be proportional and non-escalatory when dealing with protesters, and federal oversight will hopefully allow for more transparency and feedback between communities and the police. 
 
 
Jasper Johnson elcomes comments at [email protected].