COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. -- Stearns County and several advocacy organizations signed a community policing agreement this week aimed at improving transparency, accountability and trust between law enforcement and communities of color.

The agreement is a collaborative effort between the Stearns County Sheriff's Office and groups representing people of color, immigrants, refugees and other marginalized communities in the central Minnesota county.

Over nearly two years of meetings, the collaborative hashed out a document spelling out practices and procedures county law enforcement will follow related to fair and impartial policing, hiring practices, jail administration and a formal complaint process.

The agreement applies to all non-incorporated areas of Stearns County and cities that do not have their own police force. It's modeled after a similar agreement in St. Cloud that’s been praised as helping improve relations between that city’s police and communities of color.

Stearns County Sheriff Steve Soyka began meeting with the groups shortly after he was elected in 2018. He said the agreement puts into writing some things his department was already doing, such as asking for consent before searching a vehicle.

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"Obviously, it's an agreement. It's not policy or procedure,” he said. “It's just an agreement that our agency is making with the community and vice versa — and opening some forms of communication."

Among the organizations pushing for the agreement was the Central Minnesota Faith and Justice Coalition, or Fe y Justicia, which advocates for Latino communities in central Minnesota.

Director Ma Elena Gutierrez said community members have experienced fear and distrust over how they’ve been treated in the past by the sheriff’s office, including being pulled over while driving without knowing or understanding the reason.

She called the agreement “a relief,” but said there’s more work to be done.

Ma Elena Gutierrez poses for a portrait Nov. 19, 2020, at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Waite Park, Minn. Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News
Ma Elena Gutierrez poses for a portrait Nov. 19, 2020, at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Waite Park, Minn. Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

“We would like to change the fear for the community,” Gutierrez said. “And we also want to educate the department of the sheriff because they need to learn about us. They need to know that we are not criminals.”

The agreement states that the sheriff’s office will recruit and hire officers who reflect the diversity of the county and hold biased officers accountable.

The sheriff's office also agreed that officers should avoid using traffic stops as a pretext for searching a vehicle unless they have a reasonable suspicion of a crime.

One change that resulted from the negotiations, Soyka said, was that the sheriff’s office reposted a list of rights for people who are under arrest in the jail’s booking area. It had been taken down during a recent remodel, but is now posted in English, Spanish and Somali, he said.

The agreement doesn’t change how the sheriff’s office will interact with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a relationship that has been under scrutiny in Stearns County and other counties and cities in Minnesota.

Soyka said his office cooperates with and responds to inquiries from other law enforcement agencies including ICE, but does not initiate contact with federal officials to report someone in the jail whose immigration status might be in question.