Guest Column: When talking about reforming MPD, include the Minneapolis Park Police too

While I am not accusing all police of being corrupt, the current system set in place by the Minneapolis Park Board is one that can be readily abused by police officers that have bad intentions or implicit biases.

by Letter to the Editor

On May 21, I became a criminal, but I was the only victim. This is not an isolated event but a systematic issue. That night, I was out hammocking in a Minneapolis park, enjoying the night and not causing any harm — an event noted as having “innocent intentions” by most of those who I have talked to in this legal process. At one point, I noted the time to be 10:12 p.m., and the next thing I saw was bright lights coming down the hill. I was shocked, as I had not seen any signs for the time of park closure and no hours had been posted online by Google Maps. I figured it would be a friendly interaction in which the police would inform me of the hours of the park, and I would fully cooperate and leave with a new understanding of the park rules. This was not so.

The park police took my ID upon arrival without explanation, and I was issued a citation of “PB2-33: In park after hours” due to a no-tolerance policy. I had no idea the park closed at 10 p.m. I had no idea that my 12 minute offense was to be classified as a criminal misdemeanor, the same classification as a DUI or assault. Most importantly though, I had no idea that this event and those to follow would completely change my view of the justice system.

Upon review of the fine schedule for the Minneapolis Park Board, I was shocked at the amount and level of fines that were in place. According to the Minnesota Judicial Branch website, it is a criminal misdemeanor to move a bench (PB2-12) — which also requires a court visit, to pass someone on a walking path on the right instead of the left (PB7.5-6) or to follow someone “too closely” on a path (PB7.5-8). While it is evident that many of these laws are not regularly enforced, the fact that they even exist at the criminal misdemeanor level show the ability for this system to be abused based on discretionary policing.

While I am not accusing all police of being corrupt, the current system set in place by the Minneapolis Park Board is one that can be readily abused by police officers that have bad intentions or implicit biases. Why should we even give the opportunity for victimless actions, such as walking on the wrong side of the path or accidentally staying 10 to 20 minutes in a park too late to be enforced to the level of a criminal misdemeanor – something which may have disastrous consequences on a person’s life, in some cases? That night, I got my first taste of what excessive policing really feels like and the impacts that it has. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence for many.

Four days after my experience, Minneapolis and the world were horrified by the tragic and wrongful death of George Floyd. I had always cognitively understood that events like this have happened in the past, but I had never internalized it in the way that I have after the death of George Floyd. The combination of the eight minute video of a police officer killing a Black man and the visceral glimpse into the potential abuses that can take place with low-level criminality charges will forever inform my view of how our legal system affects both citizens and policing. This is not to say that what happened to me was at all comparable to what happened to George Floyd and many others; however, the potential for abuse in a system that encourages over-policing of low-level criminality was made real to me. Change must be made so that our legal system protects and serves the community rather than encourages the enforcement of arbitrary rules in the name of “peace.”

Specific data on misdemeanor charges in Minneapolis and especially the charges related to the Minneapolis Park Police is limited and not readily available to the public; the most recent studies were conducted in 2001 and 1991 and only addressed gross misdemeanors. According to a study conducted in 2001 and published several years later by the Council on Crime and Justice, there was a large racial disparity in the misdemeanors that were analyzed: “Black [individual]s were 15 times more likely to be arrested than white [individual]s,” but by the point of conviction, “Black [individual]s were only 7 times more likely than white [individual]s to be convicted.” While this study did not go into the exact reasons for this, a 2020 study published in the Boston College Law Review states that due to the large case volume — approximately 13 million misdemeanor cases filed every year — and the perceived informality of misdemeanor proceedings, “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement” are allowed, and the system becomes “particularly susceptible to certain kinds of distortion.” This is a bloated, harmful and often overlooked system that desperately needs reform to ensure protection for citizens as well as those enforcing this system.

While at the surface it seems that low-level offenses do not have much impact on an individual in spite of arbitrary and often discriminatory charges, in reality these low-level offenses can significantly impact an individual’s life, especially if they come from a lower socioeconomic status. The 2020 study noted that our system “disproportionately funnels the poor into misdemeanor court,” in which fines and fees only exacerbate the inequality in these communities. Furthermore, these citations can impact and limit job opportunities, educational funding, immigration status and lead to an opportunity for more serious offenses like contempt if they cannot afford court fines or if there are repeated low-level offenses. Additionally, because of the informal nature of these cases, these burdens, as stated by Alexandra Natapoff in the Vanderbilt Law Review, “can be imposed on offenders quickly, informally, and without counsel, so that the standard procedural safeguards against wrongful conviction and over-punishment are lessened, if not eliminated altogether.”

There is no justification for many of the Park Board’s current statutes, let alone for them to be enforced as criminal misdemeanors. Since many of the current statutes in the Park Board are victimless crimes, and thus are not peace-keeping or protective measures, the fact that these laws may just be a source of revenue must be considered, even though this is an awful way to look at our justice system. According to the Minneapolis Park Board budget for 2020, the park police were allocated nearly $6.4 million dollars for 30 officers and 20 part-time Park Patrol Agents. Yet, according to this same budget, the Park Police were only expected to have a revenue of $397,400.

For a department that admittedly “receive[s] similar training, share[s] support services, and work[s] closely with the Minneapolis Police Department,” it makes no sense to receive 16 times the amount of money the department generates for the enforcement of largely victimless crimes. Because of this, I am calling for a thorough review of the Minneapolis Park Police statutes to eliminate victimless crimes or, at the very least, to recategorize them as civil infractions rather than criminal misdemeanors. Additionally, I implore the Park Board to review and modify all “no-tolerance zones” that exacerbate over-policing. I am also calling for an honest review of resources within the Park Board for the Minneapolis Park Police. This money may be better allocated to youth development or recreation and simply allow the Minneapolis Police to enforce the remaining violent and victim-involved crimes. Finally, I am asking that data on misdemeanors issued by the Park Police and Minneapolis Police Department to be readily published, easily visible for the public and analyzed.

While my experience has been unfortunate due to punishment disproportionate to the “crime,” I am grateful for the empathy and understanding it has given me surrounding the nature of our justice system and how it can be changed to better protect and serve our community and our officers currently enforcing a system that leaves room for biased and discriminatory policing. I now understand, to a limited degree, what over-policing feels like, and my heart breaks for those who may experience this on a daily basis.

Between my own experience in the park and the death of George Floyd, it is now obvious to me that our system needs reform to protect our communities and the police force. The status quo of frivolous laws that can and have been enforced in an arbitrary and discriminatory way need to change, and the Minneapolis Park Board must be held accountable for making the changes necessary to fix this system. An honest review of how the statutes of the Minneapolis Park Board are enforced and how the resources are allocated show an incredible need for reform to ensure the protection of all and a further efficiency in this system. The people have spoken on this issue and it is the Board’s turn to make change.

This guest column was submitted by a current student in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota. 

This guest column has been lightly edited for style and clarity.