Who are the people leading the movement for racial equity within government? Over the past few months, we interviewed practitioners across the country who are working to advance more racially equitable governance in their own communities. What are their motivations and their challenges? What accomplishments are they proud of? This Racial Equity Leadership Profile series seeks to capture and share these stories from the frontlines of the movement for racial equity in government.
In this installment, GARE Program Assistant, Maria Martinez, interviews former Maplewood Police Cheif, Paul Schnell.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your path to becoming the Maplewood Police Chief.
I have been working in law enforcement for 25 years, and have served as the Maplewood police chief for the last 4 years. My previous roles included working as the police chief in Hastings, MN for 3 years, in the Saint Paul Police Department for 12 years, and serving as Carver County, MN Deputy Sheriff for 7 years.
Q: Tell me more about what inspired you to do racial equity work.
While I was employed with the Saint Paul Police Chief’s office, I was in charge of updating our police chief on what had happened the night before. One day, during our regular debrief, the police chief asked me if anyone had been arrested for obstructing the legal process. I was a bit caught off guard by the questions because we usually only discussed major happenings. I was caught even more off guard when he asked me the race of the people that were arrested and questioned why we never arrested white people for the same offense.
The simplicity of the question shocked me, and led me to ask myself, why are we seeing such profound disproportionalities in our arrests, and what can police departments do about it? Over time, in terms of policing, I realized that police departments have to be purposeful and explicit about finding solutions to racial inequities. The legitimacy of police work depends on it. In your opinion, what role does
Q: In your opinion, what role does government have in addressing racial inequities?
Finding solutions to racial inequities is the business of government. Because of its very nature, government is obligated to address these inequities. We should be taking on the painfully challenging and difficult steps to accomplish the work.
Q: How was the Maplewood Police Department Policy Prologue: Community Guidance to our Police Officers developed?
The prologue was developed in the aftermath of the shooting of Philando Castile in the neighboring city of Falcon Heights. The Maplewood City Council wanted to make sure that our police department took steps to minimize the probability of something like that happening in our city. This meant taking a look at our current policy and training materials and making sure that it was serving the community as a whole, as well as our police officers out in the field.
The City Council was adamant in making sure that the work group tasked with the review was reflective of the community. The workgroup consisted of 14 community members and city leaders, half of which were people of color. What came out of it was a clear collective vision for a safer Maplewood. While there were no significant changes of policy, what was clear was that our current tools and tactics had merit, but the community wanted to ensure the tactics were properly and equitably applied. The prologue has helped our officers understand the feelings, desires, and overall objective of the community we serve. They were clearly asking us to explore why disproportionalities in policing occur, and they are holding us responsible for addressing them.
Q: What were some challenges that you faced while developing and adopting the prologue?
While city leadership was supportive and wanted the group, officers were concerned that the group did not have a complete understanding of the problems that they faced out in the field. Some members of the police department felt that I had given over too much authority to the workgroup and did not engage enough active police officers. While this was difficult to navigate, I wanted to make sure that there was space for community members to have difficult conversations and air out their grievances without feeling constrained.
Q: What do you think is holding police departments back?
I have had the advantage of being in a police leadership position, and have seen responses to high-profile cases. There is an incredible and profound pain in communities of color, and increasingly in white communities. People are asking if shootings and instances of police violence really needed to happen. While I am glad that tough questions are being asked, I see that police officers are having a difficult time facing the scrutiny of these events, and are hunkering down to separate themselves from the communities which they serve.
The challenge moving forward is how do we create opportunities for police and community to talk about addressing inequities. Law enforcement has the responsibility to create space to have critical conversations about fairness and equity so that relationships can continue to develop. If we normalize the conversations, we can minimize the defensiveness that sometimes halts progress. To end on an inspiring and forward-looking note, what do you think we could accomplish in the next decade?
Q: To end on an inspiring and forward-looking note, what do you think we could accomplish in the next decade?
I believe that law enforcement has the ability to be an incredible leader in addressing racial inequities. We are the enforcement branch of government and should be the focus of public attention. If we were to lean in, over the next decade, I believe that police department across the country can make a huge difference on how government as a whole addresses systemic racial inequities.
For more information on the Maplewood Police Department Policy Prologue: Community Guidance to our Police Officers, click here.