Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas

Policing MSP: Student Researchers Uncover Truth in Name of Racial Justice

The Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas is examining the history of policing in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the legacy of injustices experienced by Black, Indigenous and Latino communities.

Behind the scenes, four St. Thomas students delved into newspaper archives and police and court records to outline the stories that come to life in the RJI documentary “Policing MSP: Overpoliced & Underprotected.”

Racial Justice Initiative researchers Kevyn Perkins, Izebella Riter, Brynn Kimel and Alex Curtin (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

“Reading through all the different incidents, some of them were hard to take. I had to take a few breaks,” said Kevyn Perkins ’22, who helped catalog the database.

The student researchers identified people for interviews, including former police officers, chiefs of police, community activists and victims of police brutality.

“A lot of people are deceased because we’re looking back like 50 years,” Izebella Riter ’23 said.

The story of Willie Mae Demmings, who passed away in August 2020, is told in the first episode of “Policing MSP.” In 1975, then a 43-year-old Minneapolis resident, the African American mother was beaten by police at her home during the investigation of a robbery. She was hospitalized for her injuries and convicted by an all-white jury of assaulting police officers and interfering with their duties. The next year, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the conviction and granted Demmings a new trial.

Such incidents of excessive force by police officers moved the Twin Cities’ Black, Indigenous and Latino communities in 1975 to push for greater oversight and reform of the police department, said Dr. Yohuru Williams, founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative. He developed the “Policing MSP” documentary with Dr. Michael Lansing, an Augsburg University history professor.

Student researchers Brynn Kimel and Kevyn Perkins pose with Dr. Yohuru Williams at a preview of the documentary “Policing MSP,” a film about the history of policing in the Twin Cities. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

The student researchers joined Williams and Lansing for the filming of that first episode.

“That was probably the highlight of that semester for me – seeing the way our research has become part of the documentary,” student Alexandria Curtin said.

“What I love is that we are looking to uncover the truth,” Brynn Kimel ’23, the first student hired for the project in fall 2020, said. “We are looking, objectively, at what happened, how do we understand it, and how do we fix it.”

Williams said, “The failure for any meaningful reform in the Minneapolis Police Department in the 1970s was an antecedent to the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin. This is why historical recovery is so important.”

Additional episodes of “Policing MSP” are in the works, with the goal of national distribution of the full documentary.

PHOTO CAPTION: The first student researchers for the documentary “Policing MSP: Overpoliced & Underprotected” are now alumni. Top, left to right: Izebella Riter will join the St. Thomas School of Law this fall. Brynn Kimel is applying to law schools. Kevyn Perkins is working as an engineer. Alexandria Curtin is teaching in Spain for the year, while exploring graduate degree options in either social science or law.