Across the country, communities are calling for police reform, demanding a change to the way their police departments engage with the community, particularly among people of color.

But the attitude toward the Shakopee Police Department feels different.

The Shakopee Diversity Alliance has historically worked alongside the police department. A Picnic with the Police event in June, right after George Floyd’s killing, led to a widely diverse turnout in which positive conversations with officers took place. And local leaders who have called for police reform in Minneapolis have also noted they believe Shakopee’s police department is doing many things right.

And a prestigious award recently given to the Shakopee Police Department has craned necks toward the department, which has become a model for community policing across the nation.

‘You have to earn it’

The Shakopee Police Department was recently awarded the Leadership in Community Policing Award by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which lauds one department for its commitment to community engagement. It is the second time in the last five years the department has won the award — and it’s the only department in the nation that has done so.

“This award... you really do have to earn it,” Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate said. “They do their research on you to make sure you’re not just putting stuff on paper.”

The department won first place in the “mid-size” police department category, which chooses one department that has between 50 and 999 officers.

Shakopee’s department is the smallest — and evidently the mightiest — of that bunch, with 50 officers.

The award recognized Shakopee’s strong partnerships with the community in addressing crimes, including a recent gift card ordinance that has reduced fraud, its Sober Ride Home initiative and the Lock It Shakopee campaign to reduce thefts and burglaries.

But Tate is most proud of the award’s recognition of Shakopee’s community outreach initiatives, which have included diaper drives, winter coat drives, Loaves and Fishes meal services and several other events that have given residents opportunities to get to know the officers personally.

Tate said the police department’s healthy relationship with the community has everything to do with its commitment to engaging it.

“It’s certainly validation, that what we’re doing is recognized as best practice,” Tate said of the award. “How we interact with the community, in partnership with the community, is… we always strive to be above average. And as a result Shakopee is a better community.”

Strong collaboration

Community leaders such as Shakopee Diversity Alliance President Ana Vergara — who voiced support this summer for the protests in Minneapolis calling for changes to policing — have also said the Shakopee Police Department has historically worked hard to have a good relationship with the community.

Vergara made clear that the SDA is striving to include more voices from Shakopee’s African-American community, so she can’t speak for the Black community when it comes to its relationship with the Shakopee police. But she said historically, there has been strong collaboration between the SDA and the Shakopee Police Department, which has fostered trust, primarily between Latino residents, immigrants and refugees.

“We’ve always had a really good relationship,” Vergara said. “I really appreciate Chief Tate. I had a small incident over the summer, and he called me personally.”

Vergara added the Latino experience with the Shakopee police, specifically, has been “really positive.”

“We have people who are undocumented and have been pulled over, and the officers have been very gracious.”

Vergara added the police department is often in communication with the SDA, regularly shows up to events and often refers community members to the group.

At a vigil in June, organized by the SDA, which invited community leaders to mourn George Floyd’s killing by the Minneapolis Police, Tate said the Shakopee Police Department is the “exact opposite” of what is shown in the video of Floyd’s death, when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

“I’ve never been more appalled, disgusted, angry and embarrassed in my 22 years in law enforcement,” Tate said. “I do believe… that we do things the right way in Shakopee.”

The Shakopee Police Department designates an officer who works directly with the SDA to try to reach the communities who might be underrepresented in Shakopee. Contreras said in June that this method, in her opinion, has been working.

“I trust our law enforcement,” she said. “I do feel safe here.”

‘Doesn’t happen overnight’

Tate said the department hasn’t let COVID-19 get in the way of its involvement with the community. The police department, unlike most departments in the area, still held Nite to Unite (while social distancing), and a Picnic with Police event in June garnered a huge turnout.

“If there’s ever proof that our community outreach is working, it wasn’t any award. It was that picnic with the police,” Tate said. “We know whether it’s COVID-19 or post-George Floyd, now more than ever is when we need to be accessible and open to those conversations with the community.”

And it takes work outside of work to do so. Within the department, 85% of staff volunteered in the community last year, Tate said.

“It’s not something that happens overnight; this is something we’ve worked hard on for years and years, well before I was chief,” Tate said. “It takes time to get to a level where you have that social capital with the community. But we also recognize that that can go away real fast. One event a month isn’t going to do it.”

Tate said character-based hiring has been one effective way to make sure what happened in Minneapolis would never happen in Shakopee.

“We’ve passed on a lot of candidates who have had long careers in other departments because we’re very picky about who we hire,” Tate said. “When you have officers who want to engage the community like we do, community policing gets easy.”

Tate said the police department has had “overwhelming” support from the community following the killing of George Floyd.

“I think they recognize the culture in the Shakopee Police Department is different than with other police departments,” Tate said, referring again to the Picnic with Police. “The amount of love that went through that day… it was an extremely diverse event, and the amount of residents who had positive conversations with officers… that’s the proof in the pudding.”

The award is something Tate called “a big deal,” especially in light of the recent discussions around police reform happening across the nation.

“It’s OK to be proud of that,” Tate said.

Maddie DeBilzan graduated with a journalism degree from Bethel University. She’s interned at Salon Media and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Outside of work, she sifts through Goodwill clothing racks, listens to Ben Rector's music and goes on long runs.

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