A living ‘bridge’ between West Bank and local law enforcement

Crime Prevention Specialist Carla Nielson was recently recognized for the relationships she’s built in the neighborhood.

by Barry Lytton

From Carla Nielson’s desk in the West Bank Safety Center — where she sits almost every day of the week — venetian blinds are the only obstacle to a perfect view of a busy playground just outside.

And during Nielson’s breaks, she sometimes leaves the Riverside Plaza “F” Building to spend time pushing kids on the swings.

Nielson, a crime prevention specialist for the Minneapolis Police Department, was recognized last month for the close relationships she’s built with the Cedar-Riverside community — the area she serves.

She said she was surprised to be one of the 15 people awarded with the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office’s Community Leadership Award, and she believes her work has just begun.

Nielson described her position as a “bridge builder” between various West Bank community groups and law enforcement. She said she encounters four to seven languages on a daily basis and interacts with community members of all races, ages and backgrounds.

“Many don’t know quite what to call me, so I’m the ‘safety lady,’” she said. “‘Police lady’ is sometimes what the kids will call me.”

Though on the job Nielson wears floral scarves in lieu of a badge, she said she works closely with sworn officers, calling them in when necessary.

While many American citizens are familiar with the role of law enforcement, she said, some recent immigrants in Cedar-Riverside’s “global village” need reassurance.

“For individuals that are coming from war-torn countries where the police were easily bought off, it takes a while to learn that that’s not what law enforcement is in the United States,” she said.

So, Nielson said, her job often involves helping immigrants and community members learn how to handle a parking ticket or what to do when their car is towed.

Gail Baez, a senior attorney for Hennepin County, said she has known Nielson for nearly 13 years and that her colleague’s tenderheartedness sets her apart.

“She is a very compassionate person; she’s not somebody who is just doing her job,” Baez said. “She really does care.”

Nielson said she has taken two courses on Islam at the University of St. Thomas and has learned “hello” and “thank you” in almost every language she has come across during her two years as a crime prevention specialist in Cedar-Riverside.

“She takes it upon herself to learn, and it’s not just an academic learning, but it’s a desire to get to know what people are really like,” Baez said.

Metro Transit Captain Michael LaVine said Nielson is reputed for her dedication to serving the area.

“She is very knowledgeable about the people that she works with,” he said.

Through her time on the West Bank, Nielson said, she has grown to love the area’s international atmosphere.

“I’m meeting someone from Togo. I’m being given the opportunity to sign a birthday card for Nelson Mandela,” she said. “If you asked me as a young woman growing up in Omaha, Neb., ‘Did I ever think I would be immersed with co-workers from countries that I didn’t know how to spell or didn’t know existed?’ I would [have said], ‘What? Me?’”

Before being assigned to the West Bank, Nielson worked for the MPD for 16 years. She has lived in Minneapolis for 22 years.

While Nielson said her work has been rewarding, she said building meaningful community relationships has taken longer than she initially assumed.

“There really haven’t been many stumbling blocks,” she said. “[It’s about] being patient and respectful — that relationship building takes time.”