Police, community relations in Coon Rapids got an airing at a Transformative Circle meeting March 2 in the wake of an incident Feb. 5 in which an 81-year-old Hmong woman was bitten by a Coon Rapids Police dog as officers searched for what they believed was a burglary suspect.
Transformative Circle, a Coon Rapids group of “diverse people coming together to foster greater understanding and appreciation for our community, cultural differences and customs,” meets monthly at the Emma B. Howe Northtown YMCA, Coon Rapids.
It has had two previous meetings – one in the September 2016 and the other in December 2016 – to address police, community relations, but in general terms, “laying the groundwork for trust and expectations,” according to Lori Anderson, who spearheaded the creation of Transformative Circle.
However, the focus of the March 2 meeting was “talk about real issues,” specifically the Feb. 5 incident, Anderson said.
It was led by Bao Vue, a leader in the Twin Cities restorative justice community who started a Women Circle of Peace group to talk about issues Hmong face in the Twin Cities. It has now expanded to serve all women with many ongoing circle groups, and also leads circles at all school levels.
Among the 20-plus people at the meeting, split into three small circles, were Coon Rapids Police Chief Brad Wise and Mayor Jerry Koch.
Vue asked participants to share how the incident affected them personally in the smaller group setting and then, if they wished, when the meeting moved to the large circle.
“Everyone in the circle is equal, no matter their title,” Vue said.
Vue read about the dog bite incident in the newspapers, but said it had created a lot of tension and emotions in the Hmong community and she wanted to hear what other people had to say.
Wise addressed the meeting before it broke into the small circles. The police department is very sorry for the bad outcome from a reasonable response to what was thought to be a search for a burglary suspect as evidenced by the 911 call transcript, according to Wise.
“We take responsibility for the actions,” Wise said.
But the “social media firestorm” produced a lot of misinformation and human relationships can’t keep up with the “sea of social media” and never will, he said.
Comments from the small circle groups included learning from mistakes moving forward, this is just the start of the conversation, be “proactive, not reactive,” emphasize the positives of diversity and continue to grow that, concern that the incident will lead to more fear of police by people of color, “everyone is so afraid these days which does not make it easier” and police should look at if the incident could have been handled differently.
According to Koch, the incident was never about race because his first reaction was that the victim could have been his elderly mother.
“I have been trying to get a handle on why this happened and how, but I would love to move forward and not have this happen again … without changing pretty solid procedures,” Koch said.
While Vue did not necessarily think that race was involved in what occurred, she said from what she had heard in the Hmong community, they were not convinced the police department apology was sincere.
“We can’t change what happened, but we can look at what we can do moving forward,” Vue said after the meeting.
The Transformative Circle dialog was a step in the right direction, she said.
There is a need to get back to basics and for people to talk with each other, Vue said.
Fear grows when people don’t know each other and don’t get to know each other, she said.
According to Anderson, the reaction of those in her small circle was one of shock when the heard about the incident.
But they did not believe it was a racial incident despite what was posted on social media, “anything but,” Anderson said in an interview following the meeting.
Wise found the comments in his small circle “generally positive” and that people understood the circumstances in which the police officers took the actions they did.
What was disappointing was the misinformation in social media, for example, that two dogs were involved, not one, and that the dogs “mauled” the woman, stripping her of her clothing, Wise said in an interview following the meeting.
Law enforcement dogs are trained not to maul, but to grab hold of a limb to minimize injury, according to Wise. “That’s what the dog did in this case,” Wise said.
Since the incident, Wise has been trying to set up a meeting with the 18-member Hmong council, but scheduling difficulties have prevented it from taking place yet, he said.
But all the evidence – written statements and videos – from the police department investigation has been turned over to the attorney representing the woman’s family, Wise said.
“We welcome an independent investigation,” he said.
“The correct protocol was followed, but the outcome was bad. We are trying to learn from this and adapt accordingly.”
The apology the canine officer gave to the victim through a translator at the hospital was sincere, Wise said.
According to the police report, a call came in from resident on 121st Lane at 6:40 a.m. Feb. 5 reporting that an unknown person in a black coat was in her backyard, then she called back a few minutes later to say she heard a loud noise outside her home and did not know where it came from.
A police officer arriving at the scene reported seeing someone with a flashlight on duck into a shed in the neighboring backyard, Wise said.
An officer outside the shed started yelling a K-9 warning at 6:55 a.m. and as a perimeter was set up, 10 to 15 more K-9 warnings were given, but the suspect remained in the shed with the flashlight turned off, giving no signs of coming out and not reacting to officers’ commands, the police report states.
Ten minutes later, at 7:05 a.m., police called for an ambulance and the K-9 was sent into the shed, it states.
According to Wise, when the dog went into the shed – the door was partially open but it was dark inside – a female voice began yelling, the officer called off the dog immediately and officers went into the shed and took custody of the woman.
“Officers were shocked because they had no idea there was a woman in the shed who did not speak English,” Wise said. “All along they believed they were dealing with a male burglary suspect, possibly armed, who was lying in wait in the shed.”
That was indicated by the fact that the officers kept referring to the person in the shed as “he,” according to Wise.
The victim, Choua Xiong, who lives at the house next door, suffered bites to her arm and wrist and was treated at the hospital.
Members of the Hmong community and others, including representatives of Black Lives Matter, gathered outside the Coon Rapids Civic Center Feb. 8 at a press conference calling for apologies and an investigation.