Some Greater Grand Forks law-enforcement agencies explore minor policy changes, new riot gear
In response to recent national protests, the East Grand Forks Police Department has updated its policy on choke holds and is considering purchasing more riot gear. The UND Police Department reviewed, but did not update, its use-of-force policy, and is anticipating more changes at the national level. And no changes are yet planned within the Grand Forks Police Department.
The East Grand Forks Police Department has formally updated its use-of-force policy in response to national anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests and as demonstrators call for broad structural change to the nation's police departments.
There have been no specific calls for sweeping changes to law enforcement in Greater Grand Forks, although police departments on both sides of the Red River are following the national dialogue. The UND Police Department has reviewed, but did not change, its own use-of-force policy, and anticipates a change to best-practice standards from the national level. The Grand Forks Police Department, pointing to an accreditation status that already requires it to comply with national best practices, has not made any changes.
The policy change at East Grand Forks change comes amid a slew of decisions from law-enforcement agencies and city councils in the U.S. to change police department budgets, training and policies. It comes in the wake of a cell phone video showing a Minneapolis police officer kneeling for more than eight minutes on the neck of 46-year-old George Floyd, who subsequently died. The incident sparked protests nationwide, including in Greater Grand Forks. The officer has been charged in the death.
East Grand Forks
East Grand Forks Police Chief Mike Hedlund said the EGFPD's use-of-force policy was formally updated Monday, June 8, to include two specifications.
First, if an officer is physically restraining somebody, then as soon as that person has been successfully restrained, the officer should ensure the person is sitting or standing in an upright, comfortable position. Second, a clause was added to the policy explicitly forbidding any restraining techniques that cover the nose or mouth or otherwise restrict breathing.
Hedlund said officers are already trained to do those things, but said it doesn't hurt to make it explicit in the policy, thus eliminating uncertainties.
He said the department also is in early discussions to obtain more riot suits. The department purchased its first riot suits following the DAPL and Line 3 protests in North Dakota and northern Minnesota, in case the EGFPD had to send officers to those protests as part of mutual aid agreements. Following more recent local protests, Hedlund said the department is considering whether it should purchase additional suits.
If the department does decide to go forward with such a purchase, it would not be until the 2021 budget year, Hedlund said, emphasizing that the department hasn't needed them yet. He called a recent vigil for George Floyd in East Grand Forks "the perfect protest," where attendees met peacefully, got their message across, then picked up their garbage and went home when the event ended.
He likened having riot suits to having an insurance policy.
"You buy it, and you really hope you don't ever have to use it," Hedlund said. "I like to think we won't ever have to use it. I truly think we have a wonderful community, and we fully support people's right to protest, but we also have to be able to maintain control if things were to go down to that level."
Hedlund said he has yet to encounter anyone locally who is arguing for significant changes to local police departments, although he said it's likely there are those in the community who believe those changes should happen.
But as voices in other areas of the country call to defund the police, Hedlund said that depending on the issue proponents are talking about, he doesn't necessarily disagree with them. For many, a call to defund police departments means calling to divert some funds from law enforcement to instead help fund mental health or other social agencies to respond to calls where a traditional police officer might not be necessary.
In theory, he said he believes it's not a bad idea, but he questions the practicality of it.
"Is that going to work in rural America? I don't know that it's going to, at least not very effectively," he said. "I don't think it's going to work anywhere perfectly, but for us, the funds just simply aren't there, and the call volume isn't there in an area like rural Minnesota. You can't have a mental health professional that's going to be able to respond 24 hours a day in the middle of a little small-town rural area. The call volume isn't there, and the taxpayers don't have the money for it. So in theory, it's a good idea, but as far as practicality, I'm not totally convinced."
Grand Forks Police Chief Mark Nelson chose not to respond to the Herald's requests for an interview. Instead, Nelson deferred to GFPD Lt. Derik Zimmel, the department's public information officer.
Zimmel said he is not aware of any changes being considered in policy or training at GFPD in response to Floyd's death and the ensuing protests. He emphasized that as an agency accredited by the Commission on Accrediting Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), the GFPD's policies already are considered national best practice.
"Many of the discussion points right now regarding other agencies are things that we're already doing in accordance with CALEA standards," Zimmel said. "So we could say we made that change five years ago, so I'm not sure what the need would be to change further."
GFPD received its CALEA accreditation in 2014, and is required to renew it every three years. CALEA officials also evaluate GFPD on an annual basis. Other CALEA-accredited agencies in North Dakota are the Bismarck Police Department and the North Dakota State Highway Patrol. There are no CALEA-accredited agencies in Minnesota.
Zimmel said that as part of the accrediting process, the department's directive manual was completely overhauled between 2011 and 2014 in accordance with CALEA standards, and is reviewed and updated continuously. Zimmel said no GFPD policy goes more than two years without being updated. The department's use-of-force directive explicitly bans the use of any choke holds, including the one used by Minneapolis officers on Floyd, unless the officer intends to use deadly force.
Zimmel said he sees very few similarities between the Grand Forks Police Department and the Minneapolis Police Department, due in large part to GFPD's CALEA accreditation and the fact that GFPD does not have a police union. He said he considers any comparisons drawn between the two agencies to be unfair.
"It's kind of apples and wheelbarrows," Zimmel said. "I'm not sure that the defunding argument is going to get really any traction here, so that's why it's a matter of, I'm not sure what there is to talk about, because I don't think we want to hypothesize what might happen to other agencies, and I'm not sure it's going to be that applicable to ours."
Grand Forks City Council President Dana Sande said he, too, is not aware of any changes being discussed at the city-level for the police department, although he said that could theoretically change after the new mayor is sworn in on June 23. Mayor-elect Brandon Bochenski did not respond to a request for comment.
The UND Police Department's use-of-force policy was reviewed on May 27, although no updates were made, said UNDPD Chief Eric Plummer.
UNDPD policy permits carotid holds, a type of choke hold that serves to cut blood flow to the brain, rending the subject temporarily unconscious. The policy states that carotid holds should only be used when the officer believes no other restraining method will be effective. The policy bans carotid holds on pregnant women, elderly people and obvious juveniles.
Although no larger policy changes are in the works at UNDPD in response to recent protests, Plummer, who is a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), said he wouldn't be surprised if broader changes are eventually made at the national level. He said those discussions already have begun at IACP.
"If you look at (the George Floyd video) and watch (the officer's) face – just the blank, callous stare that he had when he was doing what he did – that should sicken everybody," Plummer said. "Not just the community at large, (but also) it should sicken all law enforcement officers. And to have three additional officers standing there, being bystanders and not addressing the issue, that's something that concerns me as a law enforcement leader. We can't have officers who see an injustice happening, and failing to act."
Plummer said he believes the community-based policing model used by UNDPD and other law enforcement agencies in the greater Grand Forks area, which emphasize community partnerships in their policing, sets them apart from other agencies. He said it's not uncommon for people to come into the UND Police Department with a question or concern about how officers conducted themselves during a particular incident. He said he's happy to answer questions and review body camera footage with the individual.
Plummer said that he, like Hedlund, also hasn't heard any local calls for changes to UNDPD, but emphasizes that the department's door is always open to those people who do have concerns.
"I'm very passionate about my job, and I know all of our officers are passionate not only about their jobs but also the community in which we serve," Plummer said. "So I would just say that if people do have comments or concerns with any law enforcement actions or operations within our jurisdiction, that they would feel that they can reach out and talk with us."