Off and on for the past two decades, a community group headquartered in a church basement at a residential South Minneapolis intersection has been trying to reform Minneapolis police. The group, whose members call themselves the Unity Community Mediation Team (UCMT), got together because they believed Minneapolis police were horrible.
“The culture…was just so corrupt and had no concern with the sanctity of life, especially for the African American and Native communities,” said Pastor Ian Bethel, who is part of UCMT. He leads the New Beginnings Baptist Ministries at 43rd Street and 1st Avenue in South Minneapolis, where the group meets every Monday morning.
“They were just blatantly pulling us over. Beating us. Not following through with complaints. Putting us in squad cars with police dogs,” said Bethel.
Bethel and other people who serve the Black, Native American and Hispanic communities got together to negotiate a memorandum of agreement with the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), with help from the U.S. Department of Justice. Although their efforts are being recognized by organizations that are giving them money to expand their enforcement power, they operate in relative secrecy despite insisting their meetings are open to the public. Their agreement also has no apparent teeth, though UCMT members say that’s by design.
The early years
Frustration over renegade and unaccountable policing led to the creation of the UCMT in 2001. It was founded by late civil rights activists Clyde Bellecourt and Ron Edwards, who both sued the Minneapolis Police Department over their brutal practices that included shooting and killing a Black man and transporting Native men in the trunk of a squad car in the 1980s.
Edwards, who was once an MSR columnist, was so passionate about police reform that, according to MSR reporter Dwight Hobbes, he was barred from attending meetings to improve police relations with the community.
In 2003, the UCMT negotiated an agreement with the Minneapolis Police Department. The agreement outlined 107 reforms that Minneapolis police needed to address to gain community trust, in addition to establishing a Police-Community Relations Council. The council and the UCMT dissolved in 2008 over a disagreement, but was revived in 2020 days after George Floyd was murdered.
The agreement reached in 2003, between the UCMT and the Minneapolis Police Department, with help from the Department of Justice, requires officers to report use of force, to receive crisis-intervention training, as well as restricts certain use of force that officers can employ.
It also requires the department to work on developing a mentorship program, trains officers to speak and understand a second language, and offers tuition reimbursement so officers from diverse backgrounds can increase their chances of getting promoted.
The agreement also requires the MPD to develop a form that allows civilians to complain about police officers. It establishes a Police-Community Relations Council (PCRC), a 30-member group that oversees implementation of the agreement. The agreement also calls for 60 percent of those on the PCRC to be from the community.
Although they say the meetings are open to the public, the UCMT does not appear to publicize meeting information or associated agendas and minutes anywhere. “We invite people who are interested in the work we do,” said Mark Anderson, secretary of the UCMT.
Many points in the community agreement are similar to the court-enforceable agreement the Minneapolis Police Department reached with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR). Both agreements address use of force, although the court-enforceable agreement is much more detailed. Both agreements address what training officers need to have and cannot have.
But the MDHR agreement focuses on data collection and developing clear policies for its officers, while the UCMT agreement focuses more on recruiting and retaining diverse officers. Another difference that sets the UCMT agreement apart from the MDHR agreement is that the UCMT agreement is not enforceable through the courts.
Anderson says the agreement banks on the MPD’s desire to have a good relationship with the community. “They understand that they need the trust [from] the community. The [MPD] can’t provide public safety if the community won’t talk to them,” said Anderson.
“When the Minneapolis Police Department takes [the community] seriously, then you can somehow begin to make another start at community trust,” said Bethel.
The UCMT has tried to hold the MPD accountable on their own. But now they expect they will have more capacity to do so, thanks to funding that they are receiving for the first time in the organization’s history that allows them to open up satellite offices in communities that MPD has brutalized.
Attempt at revival
Since the UCMT was reestablished in 2020, members have been trying to increase their engagement and presence in communities of color about issues concerning the Minneapolis Police Department. One strategy they’re implementing is to help community members file complaints against Minneapolis police officers.
In July, they received a $50,000 grant from the Minneapolis Foundation to open six satellite offices throughout Minneapolis, to help community members file complaints against Minneapolis police officers to submit to the Office of Police Conduct Review. These complaints would become public record and show up in Communities United Against Police Brutality’s online police complaint database.
The satellite offices won’t be opening until they receive direction from the city on how to process those complaints. Meanwhile, community members who need help filing a complaint against an MPD officer can visit the Unity Community Mediation Team during their regular meeting hours at New Beginnings Baptist Ministries, 4301 1st Avenue South in Minneapolis, every Monday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Meanwhile, they are looking for more money to expand their efforts. “[Communities of color] ain’t going to no government building to do no complaints,” said Bethel.
The grant award is the first time they received money for the work they are doing, with the Minneapolis Foundation selecting them to support their advocacy and organizing in “advancing systems change.” And, to expand their efforts, they’re looking for more.
“[We’re open to] whoever funds organizations such as ours,” said Anita Urvina Davis, a Northside activist. They just won’t be seeking money from the city of Minneapolis because that would affect their ability to hold them accountable. One strategy they are considering is engaging youth through their Young People’s Task Force, which they established in August 2020.
They’re also looking for volunteers who have skills and expertise in any areas. They understand it may be hard for volunteers to be involved, because they meet every Monday, from 10 a.m. to noon. They decided on those meeting times because those are the hours that work for MPD representatives. They are also looking into meeting on from 4 to 6 p.m. on some days.
Al Flowers is one of those who took on the work to revive the UCMT. He is no stranger to all aspects of policing. His sister, Lisa Clemons, is a former Minneapolis police officer, and Flowers himself says he has been beaten by police many times during his life.
Flowers became involved with the UCMT because he believes Minneapolis residents need the police. “It would be easy for me to say that we don’t need police. But then I would be jeopardizing a lot of our community,” said Flowers, communications chair for the UCMT. “I know [my community] needs law enforcement, just because of the violence that happens in our community.”
In addition to Flowers, UCMT includes those who are a part of the American Indian Movement, as well as those who serve the Somali and Latino communities, including Urvina Davis. She first learned about the UCMT when she chaired the city’s civil rights commission and was invited to a police-community meeting where she saw a lot of people she knew.
“I’ve known [the individuals involved with UCMT] long enough to know what their passion is, and what their dedication is,” said Urvina Davis. “Reverend Bethel and I know each other so well that…we almost finish each other’s sentences.”
The Police-Community Relations Council meets monthly. Contact UCMT at (612) 801-0034, for details on upcoming meetings.