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UMN parents hope to combat officer shortages, show support for police

Campus Safety Coalition put up billboards to thank UMPD and MPD, hoping to show community support for their work.
A billboard funded by the Campus Safety Coalition thanks UMPD and MPD. Photo courtesy of the Campus Safety Coalition.

Unsatisfied with the University of Minnesota’s efforts to address officer shortages, some parents of University students are campaigning to demonstrate support for local police this fall.

Parents formed a nonprofit, the Campus Safety Coalition, to work toward increasing the police presence at the University, tying officer recruitment challenges and short staffing over the past two years to increased crime near campus. The Coalition’s board is made up of four parents of University students, a recent alum and a University law professor.

The Coalition’s major project so far has been buying space on Minneapolis billboards to display a message thanking police for their work near the University, the Coalition’s director Brian Peck said.

The billboards read, “Thank you! UMPD and MPD for keeping our students and campus communities safe.”

The first billboard, on Interstate Highway 35W near the University Avenue exit, was up from Aug. 22 to Sept. 19., according to the Coalition’s Facebook page. The message was then transferred to a billboard on I-35W near the University by East 18th Street, which was taken down Monday.

The billboard was just one of the Coalition’s recent efforts to improve police morale and keep officers on the force, Peck said.

The Coalition also joined a safety walk organized by the University’s Department of Public Safety over homecoming weekend. Police, parents and students attended the safety walk, along with regents James Farnsworth and Darrin Rosha.

The safety walk’s goal was to walk around while wearing reflective vests and holding flashlights to make it safe while being seen and being a part of the community, UMPD Chief Matt Clark said in an interview with WCCO.

“We learned a lot about lighting, our off-campus infrastructure, mobile camera units and had enlightening conversations with many students along the way,” Farnsworth said in a Facebook post.

For the past year, parents of University students have been organizing to show support for UMPD, bringing them coffee and pastries on multiple occasions, said Campus Safety Coalition board member and University parent Erin Brumm. The nonprofit officially formed to organize and expand these efforts after the University held a forum to hear community members’ concerns about safety on and near campus in July.

Parents like Brumm and others were upset because of the lack of response from the University about their campus safety concerns. They felt that they were not being heard, and the Campus Safety Coalition allowed them to work toward the changes they wanted to see.

“I got mad,” Brumm said. “I was tired of not getting responses about things.”

UMPD employs about 48 officers, though they are funded for a staff of 66 for the year, according to University data from August.

“Every stakeholder that we talk to says one of the major reasons crime is up so much around the University is because there just aren’t enough boots on the ground,” Peck said. “There aren’t enough police officers.”

Both Brumm and Peck said their campaign has received positive feedback from UMPD officers, who told them they had never seen such a public demonstration of appreciation for their work.

“We’ve heard that it is helping to actually get more people involved or interested in coming to the University of Minnesota Police Department or the Minneapolis Police Department,” Peck said.

However, some students, like graduate student Cal Mergendahl, don’t see the campaign as representative of many students’ perspectives on campus public safety.

“My impression of the organization is that it is very fundamentally rooted in the concerns of a group of people who aren’t really in touch with the day-to-day situation,” Mergendahl said.

The Campus Safety Coalition wants to get more students involved in their future projects and provide a space for them to be heard, Brumm said.

“This is all about the students, it’s not about the parents,” Brumm said. “Never has been about the parents.”

But Mergendahl remains skeptical that the Coalition will work to connect with students who have different opinions from them on how best to address crime issues.

“I think they’re going to really really struggle to reach outside of this relatively small, relatively advantaged group that’s kind of already their base,” Mergendahl said.

What students want is more accountability from the police, Mergendahl said. Mergendahl said the University has failed to listen to students who agree, failing to implement the Civilian Police Accountability Council referendum that passed in April, which proposed forming a group of students and University employees to oversee UMPD.

“The University is not doing enough to listen to what many, if not most, students actually want with regards to public safety,” Mergendahl said.

The University formed the Strategic Safety Advisory Committee over the summer to develop ideas to address public safety challenges in neighborhoods near campus, according to Vice President of University Relations Matt Kramer. The committee includes students, University employees, representatives from the city, and UMPD and MPD officers.

The goal of this committee is to have broad representation and create a safe environment for everyone to express their ideas, Kramer said.

“Previous and ongoing public safety work clearly demonstrates that not all members of the University’s community perceive safety in the same way, and the composition of this group will reflect that, working toward safety solutions that benefit everyone,” a news release about the committee said.

Peck, who is also a member of the advisory committee, has brought ideas from the Campus Safety Coalition to the committee, but the groups remain unaffiliated, Kramer said.

The Coalition is “trying to change the rhetoric that all police are bad,” Peck said, while the Strategic Safety Advisory Committee is more broadly focused on developing actions that enhance safety and deter crime.

Both Peck and Brumm have said the Coalition plans to expand their efforts beyond boosting police morale to solving any issues that make students unsafe, including sexual harrasment and physical violence. They also hope to expand their safety program to other campuses across the nation if it succeeds at the University.

“Trying to just get things in place so that it’s more than just police,” Peck said. “It’s more than just boots on the ground.”

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