Community policing is a complicated, often fraught subject. So when West St. Paul went about hiring its new chief, no one should have been surprised that residents had some thoughts about how to go about it.
At a city council meeting last week, emotions came to a head. Residents came to the podium during the comment portion to express frustration about the internal hiring of a new chief.
“I’m not going to say a lot, because I’m sure I’ll swear,” one resident said. “I don’t think it could have been any clearer from community input and staff input that this needed to go external right away. We want the best candidate, not just the next white guy in line.”
There’s little the city council can actually do to change that. City Manager Ryan Schroeder handles the bulk of the city’s hiring and firing, and he’s decided to post first internally and then look elsewhere if no candidates can be found. All the same, Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne wanted to assure residents they were being heard.
“I can’t tell Ryan what to do, but I want you all to know that you are listened to, and I do have faith he cares about your input,” she said.
When it was Council Member Dick Vitelli’s turn to speak, he handled things a little differently.
“I don’t know what to say,” he began. “I’m one of those old… racist white guys that you refer to. And I don’t appreciate that at all.”
He went on to say that West St. Paul was a charter city—that is, governed by its own bespoke charter instead of general law—and if the resident wanted to change how it was run, she could hit up the charter commission. “But,” he continued, “if you did an outside search for a police chief, and you hired a white racist old guy like me, do you think you’d be up in arms then, too?”
After some muffled back-and-forth with members of the audience, he said, “I’m kind of sick of being referred to as a white racist.”
“I never said that,” someone in the crowd called out.
“Go back and look at a couple of meetings ago, you called us that,” Vitelli said, his voice getting a louder. At this point, Mayor Dave Napier, sitting to his right, interrupted and asked him to “stay on task.”
“I am,” he replied. But his comments ended there. You can watch his whole response here.
When asked about when exactly he’d been called a “white racist,” Vitelli says that the resident who spoke up during the meeting had previously referred to him and other council members as “white males.”
No, he doesn’t take offense to being called a “white male.” Just at the implication that being a white male may influence his “prejudices or biases.”
“I didn’t appreciate it,” he says.
Vitelli would later apologize for “getting angry,” but added that “pre-judging anyone’s future performance in a job based on the color of their skin or their gender is wrong.”
That may be true, but to take that statement out of the broader context of what West St. Paul has been going through would be a little misleading. The city’s government has long been derided as a “good old boys’ network.” That’s a phrase Vitelli himself once used when then-Mayor Jenny Halverson was having trouble appointing her chosen representatives to the city’s planning board, stymied by members of her all-male city council.
Halverson was the city’s first female mayor, elected in 2016, and she did not run for reelection. To punctuate the awkward dynamics, an anonymous person left a package of menstrual pads on her doorstep. Other women who spoke out during meetings found screws embedded in their car tires.
Race has also been an ever-present—if sometimes unspoken—issue in the city. In June, council members voted to finally reinstall Haskell Park’s basketball hoops, which were taken away in 2005 due to worries about outsiders starting “gang fights,” “having sex behind the trees,” and making too much noise for the neighbors. Vanishing neighborhood basketball hoops were a regional phenomenon a few years ago, which some critic— such as Illinois NAACP President George Mitchell—called thinly veiled attempts to exorcize black teens from public parks.
“Outsiders. Noisemakers. Troublemakers. These are all code words for African-American people,” he said in a 2013 Chicago Tribune article.
City Manager Schroeder says they’re still waiting for the internal application window to close to see if a proper candidate can be found within the department. His impression of Vitelli’s outburst was that it was a “heat of the moment sort of thing,” and that his “frustration was more broadly based” than the issue of finding a police chief.