Duluth Mayor, Police Chief Talk ‘Defund the Police’ Movement

Mayor Emily Larson and Police Chief Mike Tusken believe the Duluth Police Department is a leader with its holistic approach to policing.

DULUTH, Minn. – As discussions about defunding and reforming police continue to evolve at the state and national level, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and Police Chief Mike Tusken are giving us their insight on the issue. And you might be surprised to hear, much of the change being asked of law enforcement across the country has already been in place for years within the Duluth Police Department, as FOX 21’s Dan Hanger reports.

The death of George Floyd and that knee to the neck by a Minneapolis police officer enraged the country and Tusken – a nearly 30-year veteran of the Duluth Police Department.

“You can’t watch that video and not be sickened, embarrassed for your profession, outraged for the officers lack of compassion for humanity,” Tusken said.

And now two months later, discussions to defund or reform police departments are underway.
But Tusken cautions not all departments are created equal.

“The things that we’re doing are best practices and I think that serves us well because we are a police department who polices with our community,” Tusken said.

Tusken believes Duluth police already do much of what is being suggested across the country for change.

Neck restraints have been banned for more than 20 years, among other use-of-force guidelines.

Officers are trained to use de-escalation, crisis intervention and verbal defense techniques before ever moving to physical or deadly force.

And the department is home to a mental health unit and opioid response program, which both have co-responder models that send trained plain-clothed professionals with officers to asses an individual’s crisis.

“There’s times they’ll be on these calls for four and five hours. Takes a lot of resources and a lot of time. The end product is exactly what the community wants to see – that somebody who is struggling has found their way to health and wellness,” Tusken said.

“I have really strong and full confidence in the strategies we are using as being the right ones for this community,” Larson said.

Mayor Emily Larson sees the Duluth Police Department as a progressive leader in policing with a holistic approach.

“When I hear some of the policies that are being changed around the country, it’s like I don’t recognize those police departments. Those are not the strategies that we have been using. We have not been using many of those strategies for decades,” Larson said.

But Larson is also fully behind discussing the topic of defunding police.

“For me, the conversation about defunding the police — it is not about abolishing, it is not about not having police,” Larson said.

And she says it’s not about simply slashing the department’s $26 million budget.

“I think it’s just a mistake to just arbitrarily say we’re going to seek to cut an x-amount. I’ve never built a budget like that,” Larson said.

But it is, Larson says, about continuing to advance community policing efforts.

“I’m interested in what can we do to either expand community service officers, or expand a partnership with St. Louis County. I’m interested in how can we help rebuild neighborhood watch groups and have people on the street literally having a better handle and sense of their neighbors and their neighborhood. There is a cost to some of those things.

“The people are the police, and the police are the people. And it is absolutely critical that you have community support to have success,” Tusken explained.

Chief Tusken takes pride in being a model for giving voice to the community by building policies together, like the year-long collaboration with the Citizens Review Board to decide when officers can use newly purchased riot gear, also known as protective gear.

“We’ve sat at a table. There was understanding. There were debates. There were discussions. And at the end of it, we came out better because we had a better work product that engaged our community. Everyone walked away saying, I understand now what you do what you do,” Tusken said.

Tusken says his officers engage with the community more than 2,000 times a year through youth programs, community clubs and other special events to help build crucial relationships and trust.

“It’s those relationships, it’s those community engagements, it’s that get to know us in case you need us that has paved the way to be in a much better position,” Tusken said.

But with all this said, it doesn’t mean the department can’t do better.

“Is the Duluth Police Department perfect,” Hanger asked Tusken.  “Absolutely not,” Tusken said. “Ya know, the human condition isn’t perfect. And the Duluth police department isn’t perfect. I think at the end of reforms that are coming out, I think policing across this nation will be better, and I think policing here at the Duluth Police Department will be better.

And that includes 157 Duluth police officers who have sworn to serve and protect their city of 86,00, along with 7 million visitors, 15,000 students and the 100,000 calls for service they generate every year.

“We have tremendously dedicated people who will give their very life and service of their community, and I think that can’t be forgotten as well,” Tusken said.

A recent third-party audit of the Duluth Police Department showed the city needs to hire an additional eight officers to keep up with the rising number of calls each year and to allow time and resources to focus on proactive community policing efforts.

Meanwhile, the Duluth Police Union is warning a reduction in the department’s budget would inevitably affect wages and the ability to recruit the best officers for the job during a time when recruitment efforts are already difficult, and when the union says wages for Duluth officers are 16 percent behind median wages.

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