Forum on policing maintains emotional, but respectful tone
WORTHINGTON — Around 275 people showed up to St. Mary’s Church on a hot Sunday afternoon to a forum that focused on policing in Worthington, specifically in regard to racial profiling and excessive force.
A panel consisting of Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle, Worthington Police Chief Troy Appel, Sergeant Brett Wiltrout, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton listened to passionate testimonies from Worthington residents, and later responded with their own comments.
Rev. Jim Callahan opened the forum by saying participants would “challenge each other in a calm and respectful way as we explore the issues of policing in the city of Worthington.”
And that’s exactly what happened. The forum started with emotional but civil testimonies from residents about their experiences with Worthington police.
Comments about negative experiences were prefaced by assurances that WPD has done good for the community, and has many good officers. Still, many residents said racial profiling and excessive force were issues that needed to be addressed.
Elaine Martin-Watson said she was a victim of police brutality, as well as harassment.
“If I do a crime, I accept it, and If I go to jail, I go to jail,” Martin-Watson said. “But there was abuse in the jail, and I still have nightmares today of the beatings that I sustained at Nobles County Jail. I was choked, I was beat. I had to get a knee replacement because they beat me and they stomped me in that jail.”
Cecilia Bofah and Jessica Velasco both said they had run-ins with officers where they “fit the description” of a criminal, and had to explain what they were doing and where they were going.
“My husband and I were taking a walk and we were pulled over for being black in the neighborhood,” Bofah said. “We were stopped because someone reported a couple fighting and we fit the description.”
When Bofah told the officer she worked for Nobles County, the officer verified that she did, and later wrote her an apology.
“So I guess my status now changed because I work for the county, and I get an apology,” Bofah said. “But I wonder how many other people in the community that have faced similar things get an apology because they don't have that status.”
Around half-a-dozen commenters said they were scared for young minorities driving around the city after seeing the June dashcam video of an officer beating Laotian Worthington resident Anthony Promvongsa.
“I have a younger brother who just turned 17, and I shouldn’t feel afraid for him,” said an emotional Sarah Cham. “When he got his license, I got upset because I didn’t want him to drive. Because you saw what happened to Philando Castile … I don't want that to happen to him.”
Cham added she is confident the community can work with the police to solve their problems.
“We want to reach out to you, we need to do this together, and the only way we can do this is if we have conversations like this, where people come up and tell their stories,” she said. “We’ll work together, that’s why we’re all here.”
WPD Chief Troy Appel could not go into details of the incident, as it is part of an ongoing criminal investigation. However, he did confirm a formal investigation will be done to determine the appropriate course of action, and to see if additional training and/or new policies need to be implemented.
Appel said use of force training makes up the bulk of WPD training, with the focus being on de-escalation. He also said most traffic stops are a “very positive interaction.”
“[The dashcam video] gets a lot of attention compared to our thousands of routine traffic stops,” Appel said.
Appel encouraged concerned citizens to come to a public forum from 4 to 6 p.m. next Sunday at Chautauqua Park intended to help educate citizens on policing procedure, including how to behave during a traffic stop.
Walz applauded comments from community members, and encouraged Worthington residents to continue the open dialogue with an understanding that minority communities feeling afraid of police does not mean they don’t appreciate or respect the work that police do.
“If we’re truly toward that more perfect union, we’ve got to be welcome to bare our souls on this, not go for the easy fix, not look for a bumper sticker or sign we can hand around, but to look our neighbor in the eye, and say, ‘I feel your pain,’” Walz said.
Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, also focused on a positive message.
“All too often, we fear what we don’t take the time to understand, whether it’s the color or our skin, the languages we speak, the way we dress, the way we choose to worship,” Hamilton said. “If we simply take the time to get to know each other, we will find beauty all around us.”
After the meeting, the feeling from organizers was the event was not only a success, but the first of many to come, in a rejuvenated effort to improve communication between the police and the city’s many diverse communities.