Both Bloomington and Normal’s mayors agree: To address systemic racism in the Twin Cities, start by investing in young people of color.
Normal Mayor Chris Koos and Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner spoke Thursday night during a virtual meeting of the Bloomington-Normal branch of the NAACP.
Both mayors identified investing in at-risk youth as a way to address the root causes of disparities between whites and people of color, like mass incarceration.
“Unfortunately, the creation and building of privately-owned prisons has become a very lucrative business,” Koos said. “I think to break that chain, we have to start working with the youth.”
Koos said that may take the form of increased opportunities for education, employment, workforce training or food access—anything to give youth hope for the future. Without that, Koos said, “you’re gonna do some things that you probably shouldn’t do and you don’t want to do.”
Renner narrowed his approach to the issue, emphasizing the need for a summer jobs program for at-risk youth, saying he was in such a program growing up.
“My mother and I were on and off welfare from the time I was 8 until the time I was 15, so we always qualified for what was then called the Youth Corps summer job program,” he said. That meant from the ages of 14 to 19, “I always had a summer job.”
Renner said the chance to learn and work in a professional environment was critical.
He said Bloomington had been prepared to implement such a program this summer by reserving jobs in the city’s parks and recreation department. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the department’s facilities were forced to close.
Renner said the investment in those jobs would have been small compared to the “massive costs, not just in dollars but in social, human costs to our community when we have to incarcerate people.”
Speaking to WGLT after Thursday night’s meeting, Koos agreed Normal also should look into creating a youth jobs program.
“I know we probably do it informally, but a structured, at-risk youth jobs program, I don’t think we have, so we’ll be having that discussion,” he said.
Participants in Thursday's meeting also asked the mayors what police demilitarization means to them.
Renner said demilitarizing means providing additional de-escalation training for officers, “so that police officers don’t immediately move toward having to use violence or force to resolve a situation.”
That doesn’t believe that means police officers will stop carrying guns anytime soon, he said.
“We are probably always going to have police forces, at least in the modern era, that are paramilitary organizations,” he said.
Koos agreed. “You’re gonna see police officers in uniform, you’re going to see police officers in vehicles, but it’s how they act day in and day out, night in and night out while they’re doing that. And so I think an emphasis on community policing and outreach demilitarizes them as much as anything.”
Renner and Koos said they don’t believe their police departments accept any of the high-powered military equipment that’s been used in other U.S. communities, including Minneapolis, Minn.
“There might be some small arms that come through a surplus network,” Koos said.
“I will check on that to be sure, but it’s the same thing in Bloomington,” said Renner.
Another participant referred to a recent meeting of the Next Gen Initiative, asking how to address reports of Bloomington-Normal police targeting young black men “assuming they’re up to no good.”
“That’s got to be a change in the culture,” replied Renner, suggesting better education for police officers, as well as embedding social workers within police departments to help officers better understand the communities they serve. Renner also noted the city’s Public Safety And Community Relations Board already provides a check on police misconduct.
Koos agreed it’s a question that goes beyond the police, noting that when officers receive a call reporting so-called suspicious activity, they have to respond. “So we as a society have to address that as much as the police do,” he said.
Koos recalled that after the looting incident at Target in Normal on June 1, one of his employees at Vitesse Cycle Shop, a young African American man, asked a favor of Koos.
“He came to me and he said, ‘Would you mind writing me a letter, saying that you know me, that if I get stopped and in a bad situation, I can show someone that letter?” Koos said. “He was that fearful of moving through his community in a time when all this was going on. How do we address that? That’s the hardest part.”
Koos also said Normal has created a community engagement discussion board to communicate with the city’s police about civilian relations.
We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.